In Bressanone (South Tyrol, Italy), MoDusArchitects adopts a subtle design strategy
for the renovation of, and addition to the Cusanus Academy, a center of learning
dedicated to the exchange of ideas at the intersection of the religious and secular
worlds. For the purpose of better engaging the Academy with the city, the project
tackles the heterogeneous ensemble of seminar venues and guest
accommodations with a spectrum of interventions—mimetic to overtly new—that
form a more organically connected complex that invites the community in.
Project Name: Cusanus Academy
Studio Name: MoDusArchitects
Location: Bolzano, Italy
Photography: Gustav Willeit
Completion Date: September 2020
Located along the Isarco river in the eastern part of the city, the Cusanus Academy
comprises three buildings: Paul Norz Haus, Mühlhaus, and Haupthaus, or Main
Building, originally designed by the locally renowned architect Othmar Barth
(1927-2010) — the first modern building listed under the protection of the historic
preservation commission of the Province of Bolzano. At the 1962 inauguration, the
building triggered much debate: many considered the boldly modern building of
exposed brick and concrete to be out of place, an eyesore to the adjacent 18th century Major Seminary building, while others welcomed the contemporary addition
within the medieval fabric of the historical city center. Today the building stands as
one of Bressanone’s landmark buildings and is considered to be Othmar Barth’s
The Academy takes its name after Nikolaus Cusanus, a 15th century, influential and enlightened cardinal and philosopher dedicated to Renaissance humanism whose various religious and political appointments led him to Rome where he came into contact with Leon Battista Alberti. The affinity between Cusanus’ and Alberti’s ideas of concinnitas (congruity of the various parts of a building) provide the beautiful backdrop to Barth’s architectural elaboration of part to whole relationships in the name of unity and harmony.
The architects were called upon to design a careful and balanced renovation that
could absorb a host of technical and code related requirements without
compromising the integrity of the Academy. More specifically, the need for greater
accessibility prompted the architects to rethink the vertical and horizontal
circulation as a network of social, more public spaces. The project traces a fine line
between that which appears to belong to the original buildings (invisible) and that
which emerges as new, more clearly stated interventions (visible). The two most
significant and visible design moves occur at the ground level of the Haupthaus
whereby a newly formed axis opens up the building, and at the lower level whereby
a large conference hall becomes a new fulcrum.
A geometrical analysis of the Haupthaus reveals a plan made by three squares that
open up towards the South to form an indelible trapezoidal footprint; the resulting interplay between an orthogonal order and a slight rotation governs the entire
project be it in plan, elevation and detail. Coupled with the 2,90m pass that
presides over structure and surface, aperture and closure, down to the patterning
of the floor materials that in turn mark the positioning of the seating, the building is
a poignant lesson in multa paucis—saying much with few words.
Indeed, the careful grammatical construction of the project converges in an
abstract order with the real dimensions of the concrete structural frame, the
exposed brick walls and pavers, and the travertine slabs into a unified whole.
Intervening in such a complete, and accomplished project proved to be a daunting
task for MoDusArchitects.
“This building has been our master, a treasure trove of sage architectural
solutions, of refined details and measured geometric patterns; a muse in the
skillful orchestration of natural light and in the use of few materials; a guide to
concision, simplicity and propriety: exemplary of true beauty, or rather
“concinnitas” in Latin”.
– affirms Matteo Scagnol, co-founder with Sandy Attia of MoDusArchitects
The double height, concrete vaulted space of the Haupthaus located on the first
floor is the architectural centerpiece of the entire complex and, not surprisingly,
serves as the touchstone for the tone and overall approach of the renovation.
Although the laconic and bare-bones construction of the Haupthaus dictated a
clear design ethos, MoDusArchitects gained precious insight into the malleability of
the original project through archival research that uncovered Barth’s copious
documentation of the project along with his many variations and projected
On the ground floor, the new North-South axis eliminates the dead-end corridor
and connects the main entryway down through to the dining hall to form an
articulated throughway punctuated by the newly introduced coffee shop and
courtside entry area, pockets of informal seating, and views into the only seminar
room located on this level. The generous hallway embodies the ambition of the
project to foster a more welcoming environment without stepping outside of the
constructive logic of the building.
Below ground, at the semi-basement level, the former clubhouse area is recast as a
series of seminar rooms that in turn become contiguous with the (excavated)
addition of the large conference hall. Top lit by a U-shaped skylight, the new
conference room circumscribes the footprint of the courtyard above ground,
transforming what was once an ill-defined, residual space as a public place of social exchange. Nestled within the structural logic of the Haupthaus, a new vertical
circulation core represents the functional link between Barth’s project, the historic
ancillary buildings, and the buried, lower level introduced by MoDusArchitects.
The sleeping rooms hosting up to 96 guests are located on the upper floors of the
Paul Norz Haus, the Mühlhaus and the Haupthaus’ flanking, long sides. The 55
rooms of different sizes and capacities are distinguished by blue hues in the Paul
Norz Haus, pistachio green in the Mühlhaus, whereas the Haupthaus rooms
highlight Othmar Barth’s original furnishings or variations thereof. In the main
building, the balconied corridors accessing the guest rooms look onto the main
central hall and are bookended by the Chapel to the North and another large
conference hall facing South whose split level position can be opened up via a
movable partition wall to the central vaulted space.
The original Finn Juhl armchairs that Barth had chosen for the various common spaces throughout the building have been refurbished and re-introduced in the nooks and crannies of the building. The spiritual quality of light given by the vaulted skylights can also be found in the chapel, a solemn space modified only by the artist Lois Anvidalferei’s solid stone Ambon positioned in front of the existing altar.
With a careful and tempered orchestration of a material, tectonic and technical
palette of solutions, MoDusArchitects’ innumerable interventions oscillate between
mimetic, reciprocal and carefully contrasting vocabularies. What results is a shifting
narrative between the old and the new that confounds the boundary between the
two, offering the Cusanus Academy a contemporary and timeless architecture.