Saidja Heynickx on Castelgrande by Aurelio Galfetti

Image: Entrance to Castelgrande by Aurelio Galfetti. Photographer: Marco Pozzo. Source: Flickr. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed.
Image: Interior of the underground entrance, a concrete bunker inserted into the rock of the mountainside. Photographer: Justin van Dyke. Source: Flickr. Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed.
Image: View of Castelgrande, Bellinzona, as seen from Castello di Montebello. Photographer: Luca Pedroni. Source: Flickr. Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

Galfetti has been one of my architectural heroes ever since I visited the Castelgrande as a student. This castle is the largest of three fortifications perched on basalt rocks above Galfetti’s hometown of Bellinzona, the capital of the Swiss canton of Ticino. The oldest existing constructions on the site date back to the 13th century but the castle complex has been enlarged and restored several times since then. Galfetti was responsible for the latest restoration of the Castelgrande, carried out between the early 1980s and early 1990s.

Galfetti’s project involved not only the restoration and reactivation of several parts of the building, but also engagement on a territorial scale with the mountain landscape itself. The access has been carefully worked out and upon reaching the summit, what strikes one first is the sense of wide openness. Paved (cobbles and concrete) and soft surfaces (grass) are very delicately arranged and spontaneously connected. It is a project where boundaries and edges are very carefully detailed, especially with regard to the new interventions of stairs and openings. This attention to detail helps to increase legibility and forge a link between the existing and the new that architect and writer Luca Gazzaniga describes as “insoluble”[1].

In his own words, Galfetti outlines how it is possible to “really face this straight comparison between past and present without subordinating the latter alleging the higher values of the past.”[2] He insists that it is this repeatedly-made relationship between old and new, past and present, ancient and contemporary that gives “the whole building that particular beauty that comes from layering different ages. I did not want to stop this process during my task, but give it continuation in the contemporary world.”[3]

It is therefore not surprising that “Preserve = Transform” was the personal motto that guided Galfetti in his decade-long task. As Francesca Privitera explains, “The premises for Galfetti’s restoration project are to be found in the conviction that restoring does not only mean to rehabilitate and to preserve, but also to adapt and to transform and that the essence of the architectural project lies in the design of space.”[4]

“The creative restoration, in contrast to that of conservation, is also spatial,” affirms Gazzaniga. “A creative restoration works on historical substance, without looking upon it as untouchable and sacred. After all, what does authenticity of the ancient mean? What is ancient? Where is the limit?”[5]

[1] Luca Gazzaniga, “Restoring a rocky hill: the Castelgrande in Bellinzona, by Aurelio Galfetti,” Domus no. 750, 1993,

[2] Werner Frank, Aurelio Galfetti, and Stefania Beretta, Aurelio Galfetti : Castelgrande Bellinzona (Berlin: Ernst & Sohn, 1992)

[3] Ibid

[4] Francesca Privitera, trans. Luis Gatt, “Aurelio Galfetti: Castelgrande in Bellinzona: re-establishing the meaning of places,” Firenze Architettura, no. 2 (2017): 68

[5] Gazzaniga, “Restoring a rocky hill”

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