Allegretti / Design Models for the Enhancement of Archaeological Fragile Sites

Design Models for the Enhancement of Archaeological Fragile Sites

Author: Greta Allegretti, Politecnico di Milano

Supervisor: Pier Federico Caliari, Politecnico di Torino; Politecnico di Milano

Research stage: Final doctoral stage

Category: Paper

The research Architecture and UNESCO Buffer Zone has its final objective in the development of Design Models for the enhancement of archaeological sites, moving from an approach based predominantly on protection and safeguard, to a more practical and operative one, founded on the use of the architectural project as a tool for valorization. The study stems from two main considerations related to the UNESCO scenery and to the archaeological heritage. The first one is that by now UNESCO tools for the protection and management 1 – mainly Buffer Zones and Management Plans– don’t comprehend active designs on heritage. The second one is that some sites – those that can be considered «fragile sites» – suffer more than others for this lack of design attitude. Fragility, in this thesis, is considered an extremely variable and critical condition but also a resource: understanding fragility means understanding the specificities of the territory and, possibly, of the hosted heritage.

Archaeology, in particular, is identified as a particularly vulnerable entity. Archaeology is subject, in fact, to a double fragility. The first, of the material, is mostly linked to the concept of risk 2 and to the possibility of archaeological remains to suffer damage and degradation due to external factors and events. The second can be defined by its identity or essence and is linked to the mechanisms of fruition of archeological sites, to its position and role in contemporary life. These mechanisms depend on the relationship that exists between the site and its context and on the use that is made of the ruin, from tourism to the hosting of events, from didactical activities to more contemplative approaches. The archaeological sites located in fragile territories are therefore the main target of the studies conducted through this research. With the aim of elaborating projects and defining design actions – but also being aware that fragility can take many different forms – the research carries out a profiling operation of the territory. In this way, the infinite variability of fragility conditions is categorized into three different profiles, characterized by different levels of density.

In this thesis, the concept of density is interpreted as the ratio between the unbuilt and built areas and as an indicator of whether or not, or how an area can be object of intervention; for these reasons, it is chosen as an optimal criterion for the definitions of the profiles of territorial contexts. In this direction, the First Profile is characterized by a low-density territorial context, the Second and Third Profile, respectively, by medium-density and high-density. For each profile, the research intends to work on both theoretical and operative levels. Firstly, the research investigates the three profiles of fragile sites with three case studies, selected among the International Call for Projects on archaeological areas organized by Accademia Adrianea di Architettura e Archeologia, leading to the definition of three Layouts of design actions, one for each profile. Secondly, within each profile, the Layout is applied onto a specific Sandbox (a ‘test’ site) in order to elaborate the related Design Model.

Each profile is then studied by a pair of archaeological sites, in which one is the case study – that provides the theoretical and knowledge framework – and the other one is the Sandbox – that corresponds to the application and actual use of the results. The first profile is studied through the analysis of the International Call for the Grand Villa Adriana (2018), used as Case Study, and the UNESCO site Archaeological Area of Agrigento as Sandbox. In this profile, fragility is mostly related to a condition of profound inactivity and stasis, determined by the fact that heritage seems to be disconnected from its territory, in a relationship of mutual indifference. The second profile chose the International Call for the Acropolis of Athens (2020, postponed due to Covid-19 restrictions) as Case Study, and the UNESCO site Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica as Sandbox. This profile is characterized by a strong local system, composed of archaeological, cultural, urban and landscape attractions, but also by a significant unexpressed potential; fragility, here, is related to the ‘missed opportunities’ and stems from the gap that exists between the current situation and the possible one. Finally, the third profile is analyzed via the International Call for Via dei Fori Imperiali as Case Study and to the much wider UNESCO site Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura as Sandbox. In this case, the fragility is related to the saturated condition of the site – in which relationships, objectives, stakeholders, visitors and citizens intersect and overlap – and to the confrontation between the life of an active contemporary city and that of its heritage.

In order to make more explicit the process that leads from the Case Study to the Sandbox and, finally, to the Design Model, the study of the First Profile is chosen to clarify the different phases and actions.

As previously mentioned, within the territorial context of the First Profile and specifically in that of Villa Adriana there is not an actual network of services or activities and, for this reason, the archaeological site is object of ‘fast tourism’. The interest of visitors, in fact, is directly focused on Villa Adriana and on Villa d’Este (the second UNESCO site in the Tivoli area); tourists are rarely aware of the history and identity of the surrounding landscape, which has attracted travelers and artists from all over the world for centuries. In their defense, today it is hard to see that beautiful panorama depicted in hundreds of watercolors and paintings, heavily assaulted by the construction of the modern and contemporary city. In this complex framework, the strongest point of the Call 3 is to give importance to the understanding of the territory and its dynamics, adopting a multiscale approach towards the context and the site, also creating a network of new polarities and activities to support them. The in-depth analysis of the competition notice led to the extrapolation of the Layout of design actions, which is structured in three sections. The first section is dedicated to the formulation of some questions about the territory, while the second section is addressed to the definition of a set of strategies resulting from the requests of the Call; the third one collects some design criteria that gathers the different suggestions and indications contained in the competition notice. This Layout, extrapolated from the Case Study of the First Profile, is to be confronted with the corresponding Sandbox: the Archaeological Area of Agrigento.

The conflictual relationship between the Valley of Temples in Agrigento and the surrounding urban and industrial fabric. Photography by Ilias Nissim.
The conflictual relationship between the Valley of Temples in Agrigento and the surrounding urban and industrial fabric. Photography by Ilias Nissim.

Figure 1: The conflictual relationship between the Valley of Temples in Agrigento and the surrounding urban and industrial fabric. Photography by Ilias Nissim.

The application and the Layout constitute the preliminary phase for the elaboration of the Design Model. Through the Layout resulting from Villa Adriana, in fact, it is possible to conduct a wide investigation on Agrigento, on its heritage and its territory, understanding its weaknesses and its potential. For example, the questions about territory (first section of the Layout) highlight the most critical ongoing dynamics, such as the invasive presence of the viaducts in the landscape and the sprawl of the modern city. But they also clarify which are the strong and primary relationships between heritage and nature, like the one with the sea or that with the mountain ridge. All this information creates a framework of knowledge about the site, that anticipates the setup of the strategies (second section) and the research of possible references for the design criteria (third section).

The most significant phase for the elaboration of the Design Model is its drafting, which is based on the meeting of three requirements, also named identity and operational principles because they explain both its objectives and peculiarities: the Design Model must be integrated, multiscale and architectural. It must be integrated into the regulations currently in place. About Agrigento, the reference is to the UNESCO tools, its Buffer Zone and its Management Plan, but also to the local development plans. It must be multiscale towards the territory and the site. Following the example of the Call for the Grand Villa Adriana, three scopes are outlined around and within the Archaeological Area Agrigento, each one characterized by different objectives and vocations, from the wider topics of infrastructure and landscape to more specific actions related to the monumental complex. Finally, the Design Model must be architectural. The architectural project, and the architectural approach, allows to handle any part of the area – from infrastructure to landscape, from new buildings to the precise monument – designing practical and real solutions. To answer this requirement, the research illustrates the solution in the format of the Call for Projects and their competition notice. In this way, in fact, it is possible to program a set of interventions and instructions that, altogether, compose a wide project for the site and its territory, but also leaving to the designer the possibility to interpret the various themes. The Call for Agrigento follows the three-scope structure, assigning each one its design topics, from those related to mobility and accessibility through the area, to some landscape design, leading to some interventions more directly related to the archaeological heritage.

According to this last consideration, and in order to show how the Design Model effectively handles, progressively, the territorial context, the UNESCO site itself and its specific monuments, the multiscale scopes and the corresponding design topics are reported below.

The first scope is represented by a wide area around the Core Zone of the UNESCO site, almost coinciding with the totality of the Buffer Zone, and it takes the name of ‘the system of natural infrastructures’. In fact, in front of an incoherent relationship between the archaeological and rural landscape with the streets and the traffic of the surroundings, the project wants to refer to the natural directions and traces of the landscape. Among these are the rivers (formerly called Akragas and Hypsas), the direction towards the sea, the rocky system on which the ancient fortifications rested. In this area, in which the relationship between archaeology and natural territory is central, the main objectives include the environmental redevelopment of the landscape (especially through the recognition of the natural elements of the area), the infrastructural reorganization of paths and accesses to the site and to its ‘attractions’. Consequently, the design topics of Scope 1 are fully dedicated to the realization of environmental and infrastructural reform. The road system is rethought through some key actions, including the decommissioning of a viaduct (that strongly impacted on the landscape) and its transformation into a ‘green way’, walkable on foot, by bicycle, or by electric shuttles. The system of shuttles and bike-sharing is set, in particular, on the provision of two interchange hubs at strategic points of entry to the park and the creation of a visitor center, strategically located between the historic center of Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples. The idea is to free the Park from the vehicular traffic and to set a network of attractions along the new paths, that valorizes not only the UNESCO site but also its territory.

The second scope, named ‘Archaeological Park of Agrigento’ has the vocation to create a park of a purely agricultural matrix that constitutes an element of medium between the territory and the real monumental complex of the Valley of the Temples. This park has its northern limit in the historic center of Agrigento, the south in the monumental complex of the Valley of the Temples, east and west in the two rivers. Given the approach to the archaeological area, the objectives of Scope 2 are mainly related to what are called themes of ‘micro-infrastructure’, through the development of different degrees of viability within the Archaeological Park of Agrigento, and of ‘micro-landscape’, drawing some natural and agricultural spaces within the area. The planned operations concern, therefore, the reduction of traffic in the area and the development of minor itineraries that lead to the discovery of the agricultural landscape and the archaeological heritage, also through the improvement of the entrances to the area.

Opposite linear traces in the Valley of Temples territorial context: the mountain ridges with the ancient fortification system and the modern viaducts. Photography by Ilias Nissim.
Opposite linear traces in the Valley of Temples territorial context: the mountain ridges with the ancient fortification system and the modern viaducts. Photography by Ilias Nissim.

Figure 2: Opposite linear traces in the Valley of Temples territorial context: the mountain ridges with the ancient fortification system and the modern viaducts. Photography by Ilias Nissim.

The Valley of Temples in Agrigento, Temple of Concordia, and its primal relationship with the sea. Photography by Ilias Nissim.

Figure 3: The Valley of Temples in Agrigento, Temple of Concordia, and its primal relationship with the sea. Photography by Ilias Nissim.

The third and last scope is dedicated to the ‘Sacred way and its indelible beauties’, that is to say the enfilade of temples on the mountain ridge, in an intermediate position between the city and the sea. In Scope 3, where the focus is directed to the archaeological heritage, the main objectives are those of its enhancement, both through the solution of some criticalities pointed out in the area, and through interventions that strengthen the visiting experience. To the first type, corresponds, for example, the ‘suturing’ action between the Garden of Kolymbethra (adjacent to the enfilade of temples) with the Tempio of Hephaestus, currently separated by a railroad track. To the second one, instead, corresponds the musealization of the area of the ancient Porta Aurea and the systematization of some surfaces along the Sacred Way, to be transformed into terraces that, from the archaeological site, open up onto the landscape, reaching the sea.

The Design Model, or rather, the entire process that leads to its formation, can be an important resource in methodological terms – as it provides an outline that allows to move from theoretical aspects to more projectual ones – but also in relation to the actual operations of use and enhancement of sites. Thanks to the combination of the three requirements – integrated, multiscale and architectural – and resulting from the application of a Layout based on the understanding of territory and heritage, the Design Model provides an effective approach to fragile sites, capable of including their difficulties and transform them in opportunities for valorization. The output of the research is therefore configured as a new tool that can be used in accordance with those already present and active on the sites, but defining a directly operational approach, thanks to the translation into specific themes, active at different scales. At the same time, starting from a base that is rooted in the mechanisms of fragility and in the characteristics of the territory, it defines the centrality of this framework of knowledge for the processes of valorization. The study of territorial contexts and site identity, together with a strong design approach, are the cornerstones of the Design Model. A deep understanding of the site and its context is fundamental for its real valorization, as well as the definition of concrete design actions, that must be directly linked to the heritage and its territory.

  1. UNESCO (1977–2021), Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of World Heritage Convention. Paris: World Heritage Centre, pp. 33–37.
  2. Ferroni, Angela Maria, Cacace, Carlo, (2004): Carta del rischio: la vulnerabilità archeologica,
  3. Basso Peressut, Luca, Caliari, Pier Federico edited by (2019): Piranesi Prix de Rome. Progetti per la Grande Villa Adriana, Roma: Accademia Adrianea Edizioni in Edibus.