The Hidden Interior

Issue 4

Jun 2019


Cover image: Livia Wang

Unveiling. Identity and interiors.

#negated STUDIO

Marta Averna

Marta Averna, PhD, is Adjunct Professor in Interior Architecture at Politecnico of Milano


Some buildings are considered without interiors, their majestic and monumental facades concealing their interior spaces and their history inhibiting their adaptation. This paper addresses the Colonie – a legacy of Italy’s Fascist past - which through a process of survey, the consultation of historical documents, and their reconstruction through drawings and maquettes, highlights unexpected ways of remodelling the Colonie’s interiors as inhabitable spaces. The student projects described here testify to the double nature of these places and allow them to be reinvented, overwriting the deeply problematic memories that they transmit, through the identification of new narratives of use and inhabitation.

Totalitarian regimes of the beginning of the last century, tried to control every aspect of human life, using architecture as a tool to communicate new ideas about education, health and family life. In Italy the Fascist Regime developed a special programme focused on children - educated as New Italians devoted to the Nation, they were meant to become masculine soldiers or prolific mothers. During the long summer break from school, a special institution took care of their health and growth. The Colonie [1] were Summer Camps built throughout Italy, along the seaside, on the slopes of the Alps and the Apennines, and, for daily use, around city centres. These buildings were designed carefully to organise the daily routine of the children that, in groups, never left alone, moved together through the spaces and the different activities.

Figure 1: Ground floor plan of the Colonia of Renesso, @Archive Camillo Nardi Greco, Genova

Abandoned after WWII, the Colonie were forgotten – their difficult historical legacy has prevented them from being re-used. The research I carried out sheds light on how these interiors were designed and unveils their double nature - they emerge from the landscape as icons of political power but their interiors are very sensible, designed carefully around the everyday rhythms of human life.

Figure 2: Historical view of the tower of Montemaggio, @Archive Camillo Nardi Greco, Genova
The double nature of the Colonie has been investigated in order to identify opportunities for renovation and new use, with the help of the students in my Interior Design Studios.[2] We studied and redesigned two Fascist Summer Camps located in the Ligurian Apennines, in the municipality of Savignone; the first is Renesso for 8/14 years old girls (the so called Piccole Italiane), which is next to the village, in the hamlet of Renesso, and the other is Montemaggio for 8/14 years old boys (the Balilla), which is in the woods of the hamlet of Montemaggio, higher up the valley and visible from far away. They were constructed in 1933 and 1937 by the engineer Camillo Nardi Greco, helped in Renesso by Alfredo Fineschi.

Knowledge/identity: reading the existing

The two buildings are high up in the Scrivia Valley. Montemaggio in particular is perfectly visible for dozens of kilometres - its unique identity written in its white façade, with the asymmetric tower originally bearing inscriptions that proclaim Fascist ideas. The interiors at Montemaggio are the object of systematic vandalism. People have entered the building - unprotected and unprotectable because of its position - and systematically destroyed it: doors, windows, partitions and false ceilings. This is a relentless process that nobody is able to control. The interior, the “soft” part of the building, translating fascist ideas about taking care of children, is hidden and largely forgotten.

From our historical and archival research we understood that the now semi-abandoned volumes were coloured and designed in detail, with bespoke furniture. In the dining hall ‘all tables are blue: they are made in the upper part of a material composed by slate and nitrocellulose, washable and unbreakable; they are edged with steel, to protect corners from dents and cuts. Dishes are all yellow: every soup plate is embossed with the initials of the Fascist Federation of Genoa in golden letters. Cutlery: spoons, knifes and forks are of a brand new type, exhibited this year for the first time in the Triennale of Milan.’[3]

The process of documenting and interpreting the identity of the Colonie, initially uses traditional methods, such as direct survey and the consultation of historical sources. Their reconstruction, through drawings and three-dimensional maquettes, highlight unexpected opportunities to re-use their inhabitable spaces. The circulation of the building is one of the main features and is designed to direct children from the outer garden, to the entrance hall and stairwell.

Figure 3: Historical view of the dormitories of Montemaggio, @Archive Camillo Nardi Greco, Genova

Entering Renesso (and to some extent Montemaggio) means crossing a set of interconnected spaces, perfectly controlled in their design and construction. From the outer open space, children had to reach the raised ground floor, climbing up eight steps that were built and finished using bricks. Upon reaching the landing they had to cross a double, full height door in chestnut, framed by decorations in a local green marble; an inner landing with the inscription A.XI [4] framed by white tiles on a field of grey tiles; and a second glazed door, before arriving at the entrance hall. The floor finish is continuous throughout, and leads to the main staircase. Concrete transverse beams and a large geometrical lamp, articulate the ceiling. The three flights of stairs are made of three different materials and different colours: red for the metal banister, black for the treads, the skirting, and the top of the opaque part of the parapet, and white for the plaster of the walls and risers. The full space is perfectly lighted by two big rectangular windows.

The identity of these buildings is written in their material form. As in all arts, the signifier (the material form and appearance of the work) and the signified (the cognitive, intellectual and emotional content), are embodied and convey their meaning. The reconstructed plans and sections highlight the unexpected and precise control of all the elements of architecture, from the layout to detailing and materiality.

Figure 4: The relentless process of demolition as seen during the first survey to the Colonie, @Stefania Ubiglia

Old/new: design strategies

Figure 5: The superimposed voids, and the transparent slide crossing them, Coppola, Alice, Federica Ponzio, and Marta (supervisor) Averna. Hands on! Architecture. Layering the existing to slide into an exhibition. Master Degree Thesis, Milano: Politecnico di Milano, 2016/2017.
The focus of the studio was not only to investigate the history of these buildings but also to envision ways of giving them a new life: the discovery of their interiors and the need to make their identity understandable, has prompted ideas on how to re-use them. Designers, in order to interpret and translate hidden spaces, need to undertake a process of reading and comprehending. Students were asked to identify and preserve irreplaceable qualities and to write a new chapter in the history of the building: the building itself  setting opportunities and constraints.

Following this approach, the projects developed for the Studio, and deepened in a Master's degree thesis, have continued to imagine the Colonie as a place to take care of young people. One approach was to maintain and reinforce a selected feature: the tension in height of Montemaggio, expressed by the higher right tower, can be seen in the project for a Science Museum for Children. The whole height of the tower becomes visible thanks to superimposed voids on different levels, crossed by a transparent slide bringing young guests back from the higher level of the exhibition to the entrance floor.[5]

Figure 6: Survey and improper uses of the canteen of the Colonia of Montemaggio, @Stefania Ubiglia

Another strategy was to recognize and evolve a feature, in this instance the strict functionalism of the Colonie and the organization of the circulation of large groups of children - translated into long, straight corridors along the rear façade of Montemaggio. The feature is highlighted and transformed by modifying the corridors in order to disrupt and diversify the rhythm of the circulation.[6]

A last approach was to recognize and exceed a feature: the strict symmetry of the dormitory of Montemaggio is completely overtaken by the new distribution of space, moving the entrance of the art and performance area to the side of the building.[7]

Figure 7: Diagrams showing the broadening and narrowing in the old corridor. Saligari, Riccardo, Tavazzi, Matteo, and Averna, Marta (supervisor). Upgrading Montemaggio. Inside architecture: unconventional spaces for private and public dwelling, fostering a new way of learning by doing. Master Degree Thesis, Milano: Politecnico di Milano, 2016/2017.

Hidden/unveiled: a possible conclusion

Every design opportunity comes from the comprehension of the identity of the building. In the specific case of the Colonie, it means to unveil what is hidden, invisible or concealed, yet existing. This process allows us to dissect different layers of meaning in order to bring to light its basic, fundamental identity.

Interiors are a part of this identity, but not the main, nor the unique one: they are one of the actors in a play. The presence of opposite attitudes in this specific typology of building, monumental and intimate, makes their recognition difficult. Every interpretation, for preservation or for re-use, has to accept the nature of the building, working not only on commonly recognized features, but also on the ones usually undervalued or neglected, expressed by the complex material forms of architecture.

Figure 8: The new distribution of spaces overtaking the strict, functionalist symmetry of the original layout, Merlo, Martina, and Rufin, Gonçalo. Upgrading Renesso. project for the Interior Design and Preservation Studio 2, 2016/2017: Politecnico di Milano

Notes & Citations

  1. Colonie Estive are Summer Camps, built during the Fascist Era and dedicated to the recovery of the health of children and to the construction of the new Italian citizen, the perfect Fascist, a good soldier obedient to the Regime rules. They were built at the seaside, on the slopes of the Alps and the Apennines, and around main urban centres, to be used daily. To give an idea of their diffusion, from 1931 to 1938 4.262.015 children stayed from 20 to 40 days in a Fascist Colonie, and the number can be doubled when considering also the summer camps managed by industry and religious institutions. They were originally published by Istat and collected by GIL, Gioventù Italiana del Littorio (Jocteau 1990)

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  2. I refer my experiences to the following Design Studios I supervised in the Architecture, Built Environment, Interiors Master Degree of AUIC School of Politecnico of Milano, and to the 6 thesis derived from them: Interior Design and Preservation Studio, with prof. Nora Lombardini for the Preservation module, A.Y. 2015/16 and 2016/17; Architecture of Interiors Design Studio, with prof. Luana Filogamo for the Building Physics module, A.Y. 2017/18.

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  3. The description was originally published in a local newspaper. Silvia Barisone, Architetture in Liguria dagli anni venti agli anni cinquanta (Milano: Abitare Segesta, 2004).

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  4. A.XI, anno undicesimo (October 29th 1932/ October 28th 1933), stays for Eleventh Year of the Fascist Era, the one of the inauguration of the building .The Fascist Year began the 29th of October, the day of the March on Rome, an organized mass demonstration after which the King appointed Mussolini as Prime Minister, transferring political power to the fascists without armed conflict.

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  5. Alice Coppola, Federica Ponzio, and Marta Averna (supervisor), “Hands on! Architecture. Layering the existing to slide into an exhibition” (Master Degree Thesis, Politecnico di Milano, 2016/2017).

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  6. Riccardo Saligari, Matteo Tavazzi, and Marta Averna (supervisor), “Upgrading Montemaggio. Inside architecture: unconventional spaces for private and public dwelling, fostering a new way of learning by doing” (Master Degree Thesis, Politecnico di Milano, 2016/2017).

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  7. Martina Merlo, Gonçalo Rufin, “Upgrading Renesso. project for the Interior Design and Preservation Studio 2” (course work, Politecnico di Milano, 2016/20170.

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  1. Jocteau, Gian Carlo. Ai monti e al mare. Cento anni di colonie per l’infanzia. Milano: Fabbri editori, 1990.

  2. Ottolini, Gianni. Forma e significato in architettura. Roma Bari: Laterza, 1997.

  3. Barisone, Silvia. Architetture in Liguria dagli anni venti agli anni cinquanta. Milano: Abitare Segesta, 2004.

  4. Coppola, Alice, Ponzio, Federica, Averna, Marta (supervisor). “Hands on! Architecture. Layering the existing to slide into an exhibition”. Master Degree Thesis, Politecnico di Milano, 2016/2017.

  5. Saligari, Riccardo, Tavazzi, Matteo, Averna, Marta (supervisor). “Upgrading Montemaggio. Inside architecture: unconventional spaces for private and public dwelling, fostering a new way of learning by doing”. Master Degree Thesis, Politecnico di Milano, 2016/2017.