GEN's Torri Superiore
The anatomy of the village today reveals an architecture structured originally for defense, with heavy stone walls, small openings, and a unified clustered layout. A maze of small tunnel-like alleys penetrate the mass at the lower level — a defensive design that is easily blockaded and disorienting to anyone unfamiliar with the place.
The spatial experience of the village is extraordinary. Circulation paths wind through the structure passing under vaulted ceilings and occasionally opening to narrow vertical spaces criss-crossed with flying bridges of arched stone. Narrow stairways lead to beautifully cross-vaulted rooms.
The complexity of this organization, when compared to the double-loaded corridors of contemporary apartment buildings, adds a surprising amount of privacy to the densely populated building.
In many ways the complex lends itself well to adaptive reuse as an ecovillage. The density of the layout, like a modern apartment block, affords many common walls, floors, and ceilings — efficient for heating and cooling. In this hot arid climate, the thick stone mass stores the "coolth" from the lower night temperature and releases it during the day. These elements were among the factors that lead a group of Italians and Germans to consider the site for rebuilding.
Nevertheless, as founding member Lucilla Borio wrote in Permaculture magazine: "The renovation of the village posed enormous challenges right from the beginning."
She recalls: "The complexity of the building and the absence of any detailed map forced us to spend the first three years in observation, study, and map-drawing to understand what exactly we were buying from the multitude of different owners. Most of the buildings had big cracks in the walls, some vaults were damaged or fallen, heaps of debris and rubbish were blocking the access to half of the rooms, and the general picture was rather discouraging."
The project began in 1989 when the upper hamlet, set off from the lower village of Torri, had been practically deserted. Since then, the nonprofit Global Ecovillage Network has bought up almost all the 160 rooms in the cluster. Private dwellings occupy about 60 percent for 14 members, and the rest is given over to community spaces and a guest house run by the association.
"We could have built a new building," says member Massimo Candela. "A contemporary, well insulated building would have been more energy efficient but using the tremendous energy and heritage embodied in this place was important to us." It was also important for the group to integrate as much as possible with the larger community, and living in a traditional structure has helped them be accepted by the local townsfolk.
Although reusing and rebuilding the existing fabric has taken precedent over advanced green technologies, the community has integrated several energy-saving strategies. Solar hot water supplements a hydronic heating system that is primarily fueled by wood stoves that burn pruned branches from the olive trees.
Because the rooms have limited headroom and stone floors, the radiant tubes are inset into the walls and plastered over. The group has also experimented with vermiculite as an additive to the plaster to increase insulating value of the wall.
The members also insisted on using locally produced materials, says Borio. "[We wanted] local stone on external and internal walls, nontropical wood for windows and doors, natural lime plaster and washes, and insulating cork and wood panels; locally made terracotta floors were introduced as nonnegotiable [items] with the stone masons who helped us get started in the early years. Banning cement plaster, Styrofoam panels, aluminum windows, and synthetic paints made us look like foolish eco-idealists, but it paid off in the end."
One common pitfall in the restoration of historic masonry structures is substituting cheaper portland cement for the original lime cement in mortar and plaster mixes. Candela says: "Some people in the lower village have sealed their houses with portland cement and now they have to run [dehumidifying] machines constantly to keep them dry... these buildings are meant to breathe."
Moisture wicked up from the ground and from internal sources needs to escape through the walls, and portland cement is relatively impervious — a desirable quality in many applications but a disaster in ancient masonry buildings.
Reviving a Cultural Landscape
A walk through the countryside around Torri reveals a cultural landscape in decline. The vast tracks of land terraced with stone retaining walls line the valley down to the Bevera River, but most are overgrown like long forgotten Mayan ruins. The original agricultural system failed when it outgrew its local base and became dependent on larger markets. By keeping production local, the ecovillage reintroduces a sustainable system that had lasted for many centuries.
A large part of the intention of the ecovillagers is to purchase and reinvigorate agricultural plots with organic and permaculture gardening. Much of the fabric remains, but olive trees and lemon trees require pruning, retaining walls need shoring up, and, because 80 percent of the limited rainfall occurs within a few- week period, water channels and cisterns have to be repaired before the goal of self sufficiency can be reached.
The Global Ecovillage Network has settlements in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, each exploring aspects of living sustainably in real communities. At Torri Superiore, the emphasis on learning from the wisdom of the past while adding appropriate technologies shows that another way of using the earth's resources is possible.
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Michael Cockram is an adjunct assistant professor of architecture at the University of Oregon. He is the director of the Italy Field School Program.