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Global Architecture Platform

Armando Ruinelli: Architecture in the Bregaglia Valley

Soglio, Bregaglia © Hubertus Hamm
Part I


Ruinelli Architetti is based in Soglio, Bregaglia, an Italian speaking valley in the Swiss canton of Grisons. Their work has very deep bonds with this area, where time seems to pass more slowly, and traces of the past are visible and alive. (1)

You grew up in Bregaglia. At the age of 16, you left Soglio to do an apprenticeship as a construction engineer (Hochbauzeichnerlehre) in Zurich, and afterwards you decided not to continue with architectural studies. How did this decision come about?

It wasn’t really a decision. When I finished the apprenticeship, some of my colleagues went to the Higher Technical Institute (HTL Höhere Technische Lehranstalt) in Zurich. I was not interested in following an engineering training and I went back to Soglio to think about my next steps. In Graubünden, as in many other cantons in Switzerland, there is no architecture association as such, so you’re allowed to work as an architect without having an academic qualification. Initially, I was commissioned to do construction drawings. My activity as an architect only developed afterwards, little by little.


What form did your early activity as an architect take?

My first commissions were small, simple projects, such as drawings for a cemetery wall. Then came a somewhat different job for the church: a hut measuring 2.5×2.5m, to keep a few shovels and brooms in. I told the church that I would do it for nothing, provided I could do what I wanted. It was the first house—or, rather hut—that I built. It has since been destroyed, unfortunately. Then I won a small invited tender for a two-family house in the valley, and later on, I designed my studio in Soglio, and that’s the first project I acknowledge as my own. That’s how my architecture praxis slowly evolved. So I’m a self-taught architect; it hasn’t always been easy, and it’s definitely not a path I would recommend.


Innocenti, Anna, “Ruinelli Associati SA Architetti SIA”, in TIME SPACE EXISTENCE Venice 2016 (Global Art Affairs, 2016)

Part II


How do the strong topographic conditions of Bregaglia influence the valley’s architecture and, more specifically, your own?

Bregaglia is a dark, deep and very narrow valley, and that has an immediate impact; it affects the psyche of the people in general, and certainly also influences the architecture. I think a lot of the influences of the place where you live are subconscious. A valley like Bregaglia is something you carry within; it conveys very strong sensations of light, of loneliness, of chiaroscuro. I don’t think about these things every time I design a project, but they do influence the way I work.

Topography, and light, are decisive elements in architecture. Light defines proportions and spatiality, and it comes into its own in the interplay with shadow. For example, the light in Bergaglia’s high mountains is bright and crystal-clear. At the moment we are building a small house with an artist in Northern Germany. On the lake plateau above Berlin, the light is quite different; the very flat topography produces a diffuse light, and that influences the design differently.


How does the materiality of Bregaglia’s mountains influence your work?

I’m interested in the structure and the surface of the mountains, but not specifically in stone as a construction material. We use materials with the utmost sincerity, with craftsmanship and experimentation, untreated whenever possible. They are chosen not only for aesthetic reasons or the way they behave in the present, but also with an eye to how they will change, which has to do with time. We understand time primarily as an awareness of the cultural system in which our projects operate and their capacity to exist as innovative elements within tradition. But we also see it in terms of duration, of architecture’s ability to narrate the passage of time through patina. That is why the choice of materials is so important to us.

Architectural form per sè depends more on the immediate built environment. We usually intervene in a built context and the elements in the immediate environment become part of our projects. In this sense, our architecture is based on the idea of continuità; it is sober and modest; it doesn’t want to be too intrusive, but to become a normal part of a specific place, a sign for what might be built afterwards.

Part III


Recent work

Magazzino for an artist

Stampa, 2016

The building, a compact monolith with a 12x30m layout and standing 7m high, on the site of an old mill at the entrance to the village, is a storehouse for raw materials and artworks, as well as a working space for the artist. The objective is to bring together two ideas: a craftsman’s working space and an architectural imprint. The “poor” concrete brings together these two aspirations: the building is industrial, but the formwork with rough planks gives a glimpse of imprecision that lends expressivity. The language is radical: white concrete and a huge iron door and window frames, all on one level, create the impression that everything is embedded in the formwork. To complete this rigorous discourse there are “plastic” elements: the downspouts and the pedestrian ramp, which experiment with concrete’s potential for expressive moulding, somewhere between architecture and art.

Which tools have proved to be more relevant during the design and construction process?

On the one hand, drawings have been a very useful communication tool between client and architect during the design process. Some of the drawings were done in advance, but others emerged from our discussions. Like in a notebook. That’s how we moved closer and closer to the project. As the artist said, a quick sketch of an idea made the design process move much faster. Neither of us knew that this would be our way of working together or that it would work out so well.

On the other hand, we used models as a design tool at different scales. At my studio, 1:1 modelling is a common practice, and during the construction process we built 1:1 models of the rough concrete until we got the exact colour and texture we wanted. In any project that’s a bit rough or massive, it’s even more important for everything to be defined precisely.

Part IV


Works I

House & Atelier

Soglio, 2003

The project is situated on the outskirts of the village, alongside grand historic buildings and small economic dwellings. Accordingly, proportionality was a major issue at the planning stage. The delicate position of the building site and the extensive brief determined the concept. We chose a solution with two houses, connected only in the basement. The position of the constructions and the reduced number of materials used obey the village typology. The completed interior picks up the sophisticated simplicity of the exterior.


Project: Ruinelli Associati SA Architetti SIA – Armando Ruinelli, Architekt BSA

Collaborators: Fernando Giovanoli, Partner; Jane Bihr de Salis, Landscape architect

Works II

Conversion of a stable

Soglio, 2009

The starting point for this project was the conversion of an unused stable in the village centre into a residential building. The project addresses the question of continuity in its choice of materials rather than its formal perspective. The materials used are modern, but not prefabricated or industrially manufactured: tamped concrete, untreated solid oak timber and welded steel. The gutted interior is given a tamped-concrete lining that plays the same loadbearing role as the traditional brickwork. The old and the new merge, as though tamped concrete were the logical, contemporary continuation of the old stone walls.


Project: Ruinelli Associati SA Architetti SIA – Armando Ruinelli, Architect BSA

Collaborators: Fernando Giovanoli, Partner; Fabio Rabbiosi

Work III

Single family house

Castasegna, 2013

The project introduces the idea of building on a slope, creating a large number of paths between inside and outdoors. The force of the building comes from its surfaces, vibrant with light, created by a single layer of lime mortar, cement and fine gravel applied by hand. The stairs and the passage form a cavity that allows us to comprehend the building in all its length and height. The house was built on a low budget, using coarse materials. The limited resources in no way compromise the quality of the architecture, the compositional research, the detailed design or the careful crafting.


Project: Ruinelli Associati SA Architetti SIA – Armando Ruinelli, Architect BSA

Collaborators: Anna Innocenti

23.Dec.2016 8129 views
Armando Ruinelli

Armando Ruinelli (Soglio, 1954) is an autodidactic architect. He started his own architectural practice in Soglio in 1982. In 2000, he founded Ruinelli Associati Architetti SIA with Fernando Giovanoli, and in 2008, he was admitted in the Federation of Swiss Architects (BSA). He has been visiting professor at Biberach an der Riss and at the Kaiserslautern Polytechnic in Germany.

Portrait by J. Hildebrand

Edited by Transfer

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