alan balfour
ex tabacchificio centola ::

Ponte Cagnano
Alan Balfour

As the outsider on the jury I can best describe the significance of the competition and the strength of the results by placing it in context.

Away from the cultivated charm of tourist Italy there are many anonymous towns, from the 19th century onward as Italy slowly industrialized; that are unloved and unvisited. Their dullness is somehow exaggerated by the picturesque character of their neighbors. Ponte Cagnano, on the southern edge of Salerno, is just such a town and the promise of this competition is to transform it.

Medieval Salerno clusters around the Cathedral of San Matteo built by the Norman Robert Guiscard in the late 11th century, and marked by an arcaded atrium of great delicacy formed from ancient columns; the spolia of Paestum, (the ruins of the most majestic of the Greek cities in Italy dating from the 6th century before the Common Era.) The labyrinthine lanes that climb the steep hillside above the Cathedral enclose an area that was renowned for the study of medicine throughout the middle ages. The medieval town is small within this now vigorous port city, and traveling south along the coast road, all past centuries quickly give way to the walls of twentieth century apartment buildings. And further south the lower edges of the city fragments into random scruffy mix of commercial and tourist development, as the road becomes the road to Paestum. Just after leaving the city the signs point to the hills and to Ponte Cagnano.

Apart the same ubiquitous apartment buildings in the center, Ponte Cagnano, owes nothing to Salerno, it remains at heart a small farming town without character. Around its undistinguished mix of 19th and twentieth century streets, the farms and the fields of olives and tangerines are never far distant, fields which were once wholly dedicated to growing tobacco, the source of Ponte Cagnano's wealth and is raison d’etre. Four issues gave rise to the competition:

- The collapse of the tobacco industry in the last twenty years
- The abandonment of the great tobacco drying sheds, which as a an echo of the power of the tobacco farmers occupy what is essentially the center of the town
- The increasingly rapid growth of Salerno and the demand for affordable housing
- And lastly, directly related to managing this growth the decision to build a rapid rail link between Salerno and the center of Ponte Cagnano

The settings for the competition are three abandoned drying sheds recently purchased by the city. But such a statement gives no sense of the peculiar dignity and potential public grandeur both of the main two building and the scale and form of the space they enclose. Attributes particularly remarkable in town without a public square save for an uneasy forecourt to the strangest of modern churches. The two main sheds form long wings closed at one end by the city hall and at the other by the least interesting of the tobacco structures, behind this is a second plaza which within recent memory had been landscaped. All are now surfaced as parking lots. The facades of the main blocks have grand windows opening to the ground almost arcade like. And the interiors are filled with a forest of slender columns beneath complex slatted and pitched roofs - left open so the air flowing in would dry the weed. The plaza is a grand and strange place, with more than hint of de Chirico; it effortlessly suggests a setting for the theater of public life. Has it the power to be reformed onto an artificial destination tempting the imagination of Salerno and beyond. and in the process transforming the idea of Ponte Cagnano? Such was the project of the competition. Though the brief set out several requirements that had to be met in the development, a new council chamber for the city hall, accommodation for an arts organization, a housing block, it was left to the architects to create the play and set the stage.

The Entries: There were sixty or so submissions mainly from Italy but a fair number form across Europe, and their quality and character divided roughly into four types. A lower end were a number of banal and pragmatic proposals many appearing to be more the work of engineers than architects. A second category was those few entries whose sense of architecture seemed provincial and in a few cases amateur. However the majority of submissions were highly competent and professional and divided roughly between those that who would impose a new reality on the place and those seeking a balance between the historic and the new. There were some amusing displays of what could best be called architectural rhetoric - excessive formalism once popular now tires and empty. (It was observed that there were no great ideas present in any of the work, but apart from a few strong subjective imaginations such an observation could made about the state of architecture, not just in Italy but generally at this time).

As the discussions progressed the strengths of the space formed by the historic structures became increasingly the measure against which the projects were judged. Those submissions that respected this were favored. One related issue was the treatment of the roofs of the sheds. Though clearly decayed and in some areas collapsing the visual effect of the such a complex slatted structure added so much to distinct character of the place that much seemed to be lost with those projects which for good reason chose to remove it.

The group of projects selected for recognition represented the best of both the conservative and the strong architecture proposals. The three winning entries all achieved, in different ways a balance between the historic structures and the new, in sense between the past and the future. The two winning submissions opened this recovered plaza to the surrounding streets forming with ease a new center for the town.

Third Place; the strength of the third place proposal was in its utterly perverse occupation of whole volume of the plaza by a vast slatted structure screening the sum, accommodating the specific requirements of the brief and forming a smaller covered plaza in the center. All this to allow the great columned halls of historic structures to be restored without interference. The perspective views promised a marvelous seating for exhibition. However conceptually elegant this project would havedeprived the town of a much needed open and visible public center.

The second place entry offered a tempting vision of an urbane plaza with people enjoying the smart chops and the outdoor terraces of the cafés, and the charming landscapes that surround it. To achieve this, the interior of the shed would be wholly reconstructed to carry several floors of shops and offices on the edge surrounding an atrium that would be formed to evoke memories of the past life of the place. This handsome proposition was overly elaborate in place and allowing the new council chamber to dominate the plaza could be seen a giving politics to strong a symbolic role.

The winning project offered the most elegant and fresh balance between the historic and the new. It comprises three elements: the poetic restoration of the sheds; the formation of a public platform able to rise and fall in relation to the framing the public theater, and the new architecture given a single formal language - severely minimalist glass and steel blocks. This to house all the new needs, from the council chamber and the wall of housing on the north of the site to a suggested series of floating transparent enclosures that would house whatever activity occupies the shed. The public platform beginning on the street north of city hall and flows both to the entrance to the hall and into the plaza rising to partially screening the east, it then concludes in a sequence of terraced landscapes enclosing the east end of the site. The combination of the mass of the drying sheds, the new architecture elegant and transparent and placed to preserve the dominance of the historic structures, and the wandering platform that unites the ground surfaces, results in a satisfying and distinguished new place: a place strong enough to enhance and even transform the life of Ponte Cagnano, original enough to tempt the imagination of Salerno and even beyond.

The multitude of tourists who make the pilgrimage each year to Paestum must travel the roads and all roads run by Ponte Cagnano, the new plaza will the an artificial destination sufficient to tempt them into the hills.

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