Describing their recently completed wine-making establishment “L’Ammiraglia” in Magliano, Tuscany, Piero Sartogo and Nathalie Grenon talk of “raising a layer of earth and sliding a long thin construction into the side of a natural incline”. The factory is literally fitted into the hill. The 3,000 sq m plus production facility, comprising a great deal of stainless steel and galvanized iron, is out of sight; only the most interesting and aesthetically pleasing parts are on view. This is especially important in a place like Tuscany whose priceless landscape makes any new-build endeavour a very risky business, as demonstrated by other wine-making plant in the area. Among them, is a facility by Renzo Piano that although dialoguing with its surrounds, raises some doubts as whether it really fits into the landscape. Other buildings, like for example, Studio Archea’s predominantly underground programme in the Chianti region resonate more successfully with the surrounding countryside. Of course, for architecture to be noteworthy, it has to be visible. Which means, in this case, that the “buried” element must be more apparent than real, and that the programme must be based on varying planes and contrasting shadows rather than on mass, volume and lights. Moreover, while fitting discretely into its physical context, Sartogo and Grenon’s structure displays a series of features that paradoxically overturn the rules of discretion and cause the architecture to stand out from its context. The first of these exceptions is the large projecting garden roof with its Rheinzink-clad pointed end. The use of a stridently artificial material creates a clear line of demarcation between construction and natural context - further giving the impression that a layer of earth has been raised in order to slide in a building. Viewed from the bottom of the hill, the eaves on the left hand side of the building jut out beyond the contour line to create a spike whose upward movement recalls expressionist architecture. Although a style used by Sartogo in the past, it is here mediated by a more pressing environment awareness that gives it a more organic character. The upward tip here serves a purpose: to signal the visitors’ entrance on the left hand side of the facility. Since the building is approached from the side, not the front, as well as signalling the entrance, the jutting element also serves as a canopy. Fitting the building into the hill made specific distribution choices obligatory. The construction is 130 m long with just one south-facing façade, appropriately shielded from the sun by a jutting roof. Production facilities are therefore laid out in lengthwise succession, with the public reception and wine-tasting area located next to the (side) entrance. The employee entrance and access to production is on the opposite side. In this way, sales and production do not interfere with one another but at the same time are placed in such a way as to facilitate guided tours of the factory. Office and guest quarters are difficult to place in such a linear layout. Sartogo and Grenon have solved the problem by placing the administrative environments behind the reception and wine-tasting areas, providing them with natural light via a circular inner court. Characterised by a huge solitary tree, this inward looking court nonetheless dialogues with the rolling hills outside through the large glazed front facades. The chiaroscuro effect is highly successful, enhancing the sense of space. The guest quarters have been placed on the upper floor, and so enjoy the best view over the roof garden and beyond. These volumes are on a level with a hillside operations yard where the grapes are delivered. In fact the production process is gravity-driven. The grapes are loaded from the top, falling downwards into the system and the various stages of wine-making. Another characteristic of the factory - with knock-on effects for the architecture - is the open-air production system. With the exception of the barrique storage cellars that have been placed in the hill underground, all other phases of production are out in the open, protected only by the huge hanging garden roof, which in turn has a unifying effect on the whole structure. The different room heights required to accommodate some of the wine-making equipment have been provided for by lowering the production floor by a couple of metres vis-à-vis the showroom and sales area. There are no walls and the shiny steel vats can be glimpsed standing in rhythmic succession in the deep shadow cast by the roof overhang. This gives the building a contemporary, industrial appearance within a framework, however, that softens the impact of an artificial structure on the landscape. All important to this counterpoint between natural and artificial is the choice of building structure: a mix of huge glulam beams resting on epoxy-painted steel pillars. The beams create a transverse coffered ceiling in contrast to the longitudinal flow of the building. This lends a material consistence and further outlines the overall geometry. Slender, tapered steel pillars lighten the low-lying building. The hanging garden section of the roof also tapers to the Rheinzink-clad tip. Despite standing more than one and a half metres high, the roof with its compacted earth covering creates a microclimate favourable to vinification, an essential feature in a wine-making plant with no underground environments. Says Sartogo: “our idea was to create a gigantic machine producing fresh air and humidity”. The project demonstrates that contemporary architecture can not only fit effortlessly into a highly sensitive natural context but can also improve the technical performance of buildings and generate an aesthetic plus.
Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi