The project “Monastero” involved the restoration and extension of a former monastery on the shores of Lake Garda, which dates back to the 17th century. The nuns’ cells were converted into hotel rooms – one of a kind challenge for our studio. We asked ourselves: how does architecture transform when it no longer serves the purpose for which it was created? At the same time, while changing the use of the spaces, we wanted to maintain their rigour and the aura of peace and meditation.
Architizer chatted with Christian Rottensteiner, partner at noa* network of architecture, to learn more about this project.
Architizer: What inspired the initial concept for your design?
Christian Rottensteiner: When dealing with such powerful and evocative spaces as the old refectory or the majestic corridor on the first floor, one cannot but be inspired by the power of this architecture. Our approach to the project was to respect and enhance the existing structure.
What do you believe is the most unique or ‘standout’ component of the project?
Difficult question. We are always used to looking at the built environment as the product of our work, but it is the serene atmosphere in the garden, surrounded on all sides by 7-meter high ancient walls, that gives us the mark of the project’s success. When guests arrive, they instinctively lower their voices.
What was the greatest design challenge you faced during the project, and how did you navigate it?
The biggest challenge was the conversion of the monastic cells. I want to point out that the monastery was for cloistered nuns, which means that once they passed through the front door, they devoted themselves to a life of prayer separate from society. The cells represented the most intimate and private space in the entire convent in this context. To ensure adequate standards of comfort, but also as a symbolic gesture, we opened a breach in the wall and joined the cells two by two. Today they are beautiful and comfortable spaces that still reveal their past.
How did the context of your project — environmental, social or cultural — influence your design?
The historical and cultural context strongly influenced our design for the monastery’s renovation. There are many references to the prior monastic life in our design choices, for example, in the breakfast room, where the long table recalls the historical refectory. On the other hand, in the newly built wellness area, we aimed to create a dialogue more with the surrounding agricultural landscape than with the monastery, which is a little too ‘powerful’ in architectural terms.
What drove the selection of materials used in the project?
The choice of materials, influenced by the role of the Office of Cultural Heritage, was guided by the relationship with the context. The dominant shades are white, grey and black, the historic colours of the monastery. The design was adapted to the austere monastic spaces with tailored solutions, without compromising on comfort, functionality and contemporary aesthetics. The materials found in the monastery are ceramic, stone, and oak. In the wellness area, the choice of materials and decor seeks to enhance the warmth and calming atmosphere of the rooms, distinctive for the warm tones of bleached oak, linen-effect textiles and cotton.
What is your favorite detail in the project and why?
Our favourite details are those where we have integrated pre-existing elements, which we found on-site, into the new design. One example is the doors to the rooms on the first floor: a combination of elegant black metal doors with the original wooden shutters. Or even the historic roof trusses, reused in the second-floor elevation.
How important was sustainability as a design criteria as you worked on this project?
Studio noa* always pays close attention to sustainability issues. Working in the world of architecture, we are aware of how much the construction industry is responsible for CO2 emissions. The Monastero project had our immediate support, also because it is a regeneration project. When you reuse an abandoned building, you don’t have to consume new land, and you also reactivate the urban fabric by adding new functions.
Were any parts of the project dramatically altered from conception to construction, and if so, why?
Actually, no. As with all our projects, we explored different options in the early stages, but once we decided which direction we wanted to go, the construction was consistent with the design drawings.
How have your clients responded to the finished project?
Our clients are fundamental in the design of the project, they are the starting and finishing point when we “build our stories”. The owners of Monastero immediately fell in love with the space and turned their lives around to move to Arco, so it was even more important for us that the project would convince them. Fortunately, they were thrilled with the final result!
What key lesson did you learn in the process of conceiving the project?
We have learned that when working on a project of this type, with this historical stratigraphy, every part of the project has to be analysed and studied in depth. It takes time and precision, but it is worth the effort.
How do you believe this project represents you or your firm as a whole?
In our projects, we try to find tailor-made solutions that best represent the genius loci and the atmosphere of that particular place. They change from time to time and give light to a vibrant diversity. We believe this project reflects our approach because it is a building in which the soul of the place emerges strongly and tells and spots the light on an incredible story.
Credits / Team Members
Architecture: Lukas Rungger, Christian Rottensteiner, Andrea Dal Negro, Francesco Padovan. Interior design: Niccolò Panzani
For more on Monastero: Inside the walls Gallery, please visit the in-depth project page on Architizer.