Castasegna is a picturesque border village in Bregaglia, a mountain valley between Maloja pass and Chiavenna. Just a stone’s throw from the Italian border, high above the main road, an amorphous concrete tower imparts an unexpected air of southern urbanity. It grows out from the orchard walls of Villa Garbald, a stately 19th century country home designed by Gottfried Semper. Taking inspiration from the Lombardian bird hunting towers known as “Roccoli”, architectural-duo Quintus Miller and Paola Maranta designed the tower as an addition and contemporary counterpoint to their 2004 refurbishing of the Garbald estate. Miller & Maranta’s take on local-based architecture brought the duo from Basel international attention and recognition.
With its washed-out river bed colouring, nuanced surface texture and shifting geometry, the five-storey guest house blends in perfectly well with both the villa and the village of Castasagna with its dense houses, winding alleyways, large chestnut forests and towering mountains. What’s the take-away lesson for considered alpine tower architecture? Despite its decidedly contemporary looks, uneven windows and a rooftop that, seen from above, lend the structure the appearance of a stranded submarine, the Roccolo is essentially a new take on local tradition and an ode to nature. Its concrete slabs were sprayed with high-pressure water jets shortly after the formwork was removed, exposing the gravel of the river Mera. The uneven, mottled surface provides a perfect habitat for the local moss population. While the walls of the tower already take on the characteristic hues of their surroundings, the larch wood window frames and shutters will eventually turn as grey as the local slate roofs.
In 1862 Agostino Garbald, the region’s young customs director, and his wife, the poet Silvia Andrea commissioned Gottfried Semper to design a villa. Built in the style of a Lombardy country house, it is the only object the 19th century «starchitect» completed south of the Alps (although Semper famously never set foot in Castasegna). By the late 1990’s the villa was fast fading from view. An urgent rejuvenation jab was called for. In 2002, Basel-based architectural firm Miller & Maranta won the competition for the renovation and expansion of the estate. Maintained by the Fondazione Garbald, the much-written about villa and the Roccolo tower serve today as a seminar space and retreat for the ETH and the University of Zurich, as well as for other groups and events in the fields of science, culture and business.