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hopelessly deteriorated medieval village in the hinterland of Ventimiglia, Liguria, Northern Italy. A local couple felt magnetically attracted to this amaz- ing legacy of the past and after long, complex negotiations, bought the first few rooms and started networking to set up a cultural association. A group of enthusiasts, including myself, soon came together to accept this life-changing challenge. We moved away from cities to settle here, passionate to start a sustainable and communal livelihood together. After years of struggle and hard work, the settlement has become a GEN ecovillage and hosts a resident Italian and German community of 15.
Built completely in local stone and lime over the last 700 years, Torri Superiore (which means ‘upper towers’) presents a unique urban layout with several five- story buildings and an exceptionally intricate and compact structure. This has preserved the hamlet and helped it survive the injuries of time. Narrow
passageways and staircases create a magical labyrinth, a web of rooms and corridors intricately interwoven which spread with unusual connections and fas- cinating, original architectural solutions. Its 162 rooms, half of which belong to the Cultural Association and half to individual members, are placed on eight levels and have been redesigned to create a cultural centre with an attached guest- house, and 20 small private apartments.
The renovation of the village posed enormous challenges right from the beginning. The complexity of the build- ing 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.
Early in the project, the decision was made to renew the buildings, following ecological principles and materials wher- ever possible, and to respect at the same time the original character of the village. This was a major innovation in the valley, since the local mentality associates stone houses with a past of harshness and misery, something to be ashamed of that must be hidden at all costs. Local stone on external and internal walls, non- tropical wood for windows and doors, natural lime plaster and washes, insul- ating cork and wood panels, and locally made terracotta floors, were introduced as non-negotiable options with the local
a complex of
a labyrinth of
stone masons who helped us get started in the early years. Banning cement plaster, styro-foam panels, aluminium windows and synthetic paints made us look like foolish eco-idealists, but it paid off in the end.
Our local stone came mainly from nearby natural quarries, and to a lesser extent from the local Bevera river. Stones can tell us the age of buildings, as the more river stones contained in the block, the older the building is. The most common type of quarry- stone here is a fairly brittle schistose marlstone of no particular quality, a far cry from the beautiful sandstone used in Tuscany, but having the advantage of there being a large quantity available on site. Its best mate is natural lime. This was once extracted from river lime- stone through a process of cooking in underground ovens that were commonly built by the whole village once a year and allowed to cure for months before use. Natural lime takes close to a year to solidify completely and the carbonation continues until the process is practically reversed and the lime becomes stone again. It can last thousands of years, as we can see from the many Roman aqueducts and monuments still standing today.
Old stone and lime walls are, by nature, full of moisture which needs to move freely according to indoor and outdoor temperatures. With our breath and daily activities (cooking, showering etc.) we emit large quantities of water, which need to travel through the walls and leave the room. Lime plaster can breathe well, allowing this movement, so that walls and ceilings remain dry
One of the 700 year old alleyways
which link a web of narrow passages
and stairways, connecting around
200 rooms across eight levels.
These pipes will be plastered over to
create a low level heating panel in
Working on the extremely narrow
and steep terraces which form much
of the community’s productive land.
even in Torri’s central kitchen where we normally cook for 30 people. The use of cement plaster would trap the humidity, allowing mildew and mould to form on the ceilings, and in the corners.
We don’t cook our own lime but purchase pallets of natural lime at a reasonable price from a firm that we found in central Italy. The plastered walls are normally painted with lime- wash, to which we add some milk or egg white to prevent the lime from pulverising at the touch. One can also add clay and other natural dyes to get nice, warm colours.
Our choices in terms of appropriate energy were dictated by a number of limiting factors. The windmill option is not viable in this valley, given the scarcity of persistent winds. Photovoltaic panels were also researched and discarded, given the limited roof-surface available compared to the total volume of the village. We do have some low-tech solar panels for hot water production, coupled with a central heating system that runs on a combination of solar energy and fire- wood, with a small back-up gas heater.
Torri is surrounded by an ancient agri- cultural environment, covered with abandoned, man-made stone terraces that reach almost to the top of the mountains. On the countless narrow, steep, fragile terraces we have found real treasure, the local gold: hundreds and hundreds of old, overgrown olive trees, planted all along the valley. In an effort to make the best use of local resources and to close the circle, we have
focused our attention on what nature has to offer, and have created ‘the olive tree cycle’.
Once the basis of the local economy, olive trees fell into disuse when the price of olive oil drastically dropped as a consequence of the globalised market. In this part of the world, all farming work is done by hand, and people’s shoulders are the only means of transport. It is non- sensical to try to compete with large farmers in southern Italy and other Med- iterranean countries that run enormous, flat and tractor accessible groves.
So, the olive tree has become the cent- ral element of this cycle in which all its many riches, and not just the olive oil alone, are put to use. Initially, a radical pruning of the half-dry tree from 15m
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