The northern Italian city of Brescia near the foothills of the Alps has recently acquired two new, very different, residential estates: one a private complex; the other a public housing estate with 72 social and moderate rental dwelling units. Different too is the way the two new quarters interact with the city. Located to the west of Brescia’s old city centre, the private complex – named “Life” – stands in a hinge zone of former industrial brownfield sites just outside the old city walls between Brescia’s densely compact city centre and a more recent, still sparsely urbanized outlying area. The area enjoys all the advantages of being part of a long-standing urban fabric but at the same time is close to the parks and green areas in the immediate periphery. The public housing estate lies to the southeast of the city in a landscape characterised by major highway infrastructure, pockets of unoccupied land and a large mid-20th century popular residential neighbourhood nearby of high-rise tower blocks and low-rise row houses. As everywhere in Brescia, Mount Maddalena stands as a backdrop to this new public housing project.
What the two housing neighbourhoods do have in common, albeit using different means, is a manifest determination to create an ensemble of buildings held together by a well-defined architectural programme. Much thought has gone into how to relate the single units and the new complex as a whole to the existing built fabric and surrounding landscape yet at the same time create a recognizable architectural ensemble that can stand as another component of the urban fabric. The two quarters are a demonstration of how architecture can be harnessed to create quality urban systems at the individual, neighbourhood and community scale.
The “Life” complex sets out to make a strong architectural statement. Blocks of 4-storey buildings are arranged to form an open web of streets and houses around a large, carefully landscaped central green “square”. Although a series of distinctive detached volumes set in parallel, they clearly form a single high-end residential complex. The architectural programme and skilful mix of materials on the outer walls put it squarely in the top-end bracket. Carefully positioned voids break up vertical volumes while differently angled cantilevers create interesting horizontal patterns allowing views over the picturesque landscape. The architectural programme harks back to the old city’s structure of continuous street frontages broken here and there by stand-alone buildings. The combination of solids and voids and different outer cladding underlines the individual features of each individual housing block. Porcelain stoneware on ventilated surfaces and other outer walls afford shimmering surfaces that change with the light. Coloured fibrocement panels give way to plain plastered walls while extensive outer wall surfaces are relieved by timber slats, echoing the juxtaposition of solids and voids. The complex is certified Energy Class A thanks to avant-garde plant and technology throughout.
The social housing complex is no less meticulously designed. The conventional 3-tier structure of base (here occupied by ground floor cellars), elevation and roof has been modernized. As well as allowing glimpses of the foothills in the distance, the staggered heights and irregular roof profiles of the four, 4-storey apartment blocks are a unifying feature. As in the other private housing scheme, each building is unique in the way the wine-coloured plaster sections have been combined with timber panel cladding. Yet here too, the individual buildings are clearly part of a coherent whole, conducive to creating a strong sense of belonging. The new quarter has also achieved excellent energy-efficiency certification.