A Complete Turnaround

Reconnecting Airolo with Nature

Martina Conti and Matteo Bianchi walking in the Swiss mountains.

From the train station, we walk uphill, towards the mountain, along the narrow lanes of the alpine village of Airolo, a Swiss community of about 1,576 people in the Leventina district of Canton Ticino, at the foot of the Gotthard Massif.

The little houses, a church, the hotel, a few shops, chickens, flowers, nature, everything you expect when you visit a beautiful little mountain village. At least until you get to the top, where you can see from one end to the other, and the alpine village seems to transform into a city. A network of highway and railway infrastructure cuts the valley in two, separating the inhabitants from their Ticino River and the Airolo-Pesciüm ski resort, a pleasant place to go skiing in the winter. But the ski resort seems a rather distant destination, and it’s not only because of the season.

The history of Airolo is marked by the traffic that traverses the pass and the Gotthard Tunnel, the longest tunnel in the world when it opened in 1980. It helped develop the town’s economy, but it also trapped it in a cage of infrastructure. Today there are fully twenty-two roads that lead to the Gotthard Pass, making Airolo an important traffic junction.

Martina Conti, director at LAND, and Matteo Bianchi, a LAND architect, along with many other persons, will change the course of history for Airolo. Without rejecting the importance of transport, they’re reconciling Airolo with the principles of Nature, to reconnect inhabitants and visitors to the town, thus inviting them to spend time there and not just drive through. “It’s a truly revolutionary development,” says Martina.

Redevelopment of the Airolo valley floor included covering over one kilometer of the highway. This green cover makes it possible to stitch the two sides of the valley back together again: 220,000 m2 of landscape regained to put together a single valley floor. Everything began with a civic initiative promoted by Franco Pedrini, long-time mayor of Airolo, that has now become part of Switzerland’s larger landscape project.

“In 2040 I’ll probably bring my children here, above the highways, where an enormous park will be created with new spaces and structures. In the summer you’ll be able to ride bikes, in the winter go cross-country skiing.” It’s an image Martina carries with her. “Imagination is fundamental in our work. We design with time.”

We continue our walk, facing the difficulties that a resident or tourist encounters when they try to get from the village to the river. The river was channeled during the 1930s, constructing a basin for energy storage based on purely functional considerations. At the time, no one considered whether the river banks could remain natural while ensuring that inhabitants had access to the river.

“The Airolo project also includes the renaturalization of the Ticino,” says Martina with satisfaction. “It’s not only a question of it not being accessible to people, but it’s also important to create welcoming spaces for animals. Recreating their natural habitat, with native vegetation. As the river is renaturalized, they’ll come back, and so will other types of animals.”

Our job at LAND is to give the project a direction, keeping a watchful eye to guarantee that the overall vision is gradually achieved.

Martina Conti, Director at LAND

Before leaving the village behind, Martina shows us a dune that’s almost invisible at first sight. “These dunes protect the town from avalanches.” A great example of artificial infrastructure that’s not made of reinforced concrete, created to become an integral part of the landscape. “This is our job. In Airolo we’re doing it on a truly unique scale. This is how we bring the focus back to Nature.” It’s impossible to disagree that people need direct contact with Nature, even if it’s just to walk the dog along the river without having to get in the car and go around the entire town.

Descending towards the valley with the view of the highways and the entrance to the Gotthard Tunnel, Martina says: “When it became clear that the Gotthard Tunnel was going to be doubled in size, we took the opportunity to do something for Airolo as well. This resulted in the civic initiative, taking advantage of one project to embark on another one. In fact, the material for the second tunnel (about 2.5 million tons of aggregates) will be used to cover the highway.”

While Martina speaks, we walk below these hulking highways and come to the artificial, very artificial basin.

“It’s completely artificial,” says Martina while Matteo takes a photo of a fisherman seated under the highways, while he looks to the other side of the valley from the cement bank. What kind of connection to Nature should he feel?

We walk along the artificial river, accompanied by the highways overhead. “Our job at LAND is to give the project a direction, keeping a watchful eye to guarantee that the overall vision is gradually achieved.”

We come to a “turning point” on our walk. We stop at a bridge where we can see the tunnel entrance and the artificial river that descends, eventually transforming and returning to its natural course. “Through our project, Airolo will break free of its infrastructural cage and will improve its landscape through green fields, new wooded areas, athletic fields and accessible, restored river banks. It will be marvelous for inhabitants to return to Nature and for tourists to stay here and experience the potential of this area.” From the river, we look for a way to get back up to the village. It’s difficult, but we find an abandoned path that leads us to the station. We say goodbye in front of the panel that explains the revolutionary Airolo project to residents and tourists. Go see it yourself.

Text: Andrea Küpfer

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