The Design of the Monumental Grounds Moved by the AlpTransit Construction Activities in the Swiss Landscapes
Research stage: Intermediate/final doctoral stage
A direct, empiric observation of the construction phase of landscape architecture interventions, from private gardens to public parks planned and realized in the south part of Switzerland between 2009 and 2018, becomes an opportunity to think about ground movements linked with the construction phases of landscape and architectural projects.
This observation led to the re-consideration of some basic actions that are often totally implicit in the landscape and architectural practice _ like dredging, digging, mass grading, sloping, contour bounding, embanking and, most of all, landfilling. Indeed, if we take into account the construction or the demolition phases of a building, a street, even a park looking at the secondary effects of the construction activities, what we might notice is a significant number of neglected earth (soil, stones or debris) movements that structurally act inside the landscape and that both provisionally and permanently deeply affect it [ 1 ]. In spite of their material impact 1 and of the powerful suggestion of their forms and sizes, great tumuli coming from complex building sites are treated, as per standard practice, like outcomes to be handled as secondary concerns.
Figure 1: Sigirino artificial mountain, view from the north side (from Mezzovico), 2020. The earthwork rapidly grows and changes inside the ever-changing landscape. Moreover, it questions the real mountain “original” identity: the artificial mound seems to directly ecto-parasite the “natural” one and to gather its strength from it, adding a new outgrowth that, watching from afar, imitates and reproduces the forms of a real hill.
The major questions that gave rise to this research thus are: how these kinds of earthworks could enter straight into the (landscape) design thinking and process?
How is it possible to knowingly assemble and design a landscape out of landfilled construction ruins? And how these earthworks could change the present architectural (visual, technical, cultural) language?
As we advance in the investigation on earthworks inside landscape, we are faced by the challenges posed by the fact that there is an increasing number of partially unexplored earth-structures _ as landfills, embankments, ground-levelling and ground-fillings _ coming from a multiplicity of complex building operations that affect a large number of territories and that are silently designing our landscapes. At the same time, these non-standardized, un-recognized objects powerfully merge the contemporary expanding field of landscape architecture 2, with outstanding, pioneer engineering activities, with a revolutionary artistic practice tradition 3, with pressing ecological questions 4 and with the memory of ancient _ Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Inkan... _ “cyclopean” architectural forms [ 2 ] and techniques 5. New malleable, changeable, non-deterministic and situational architectural languages emerge right before our eyes.
Considering this first observation phase as a thought-provoking starting point for proposing a new design-based point of view, I’ve addressed the investigation on the moving ground actions and their current role inside landscape architecture discipline chiefly reflecting on contemporary complex construction sites and on the design solutions based on huge amounts of wasted earth deriving from the realizations of monumental infrastructural interventions.
While indeed it is difficult to find a proper and significant system of earthworks starting from small up to medium ordinary construction activities _ that fragmentarily works on relatively small excavations, fills and depots _ the study of infrastructural interventions allows the observation of great earth movements inside challenging construction processes, leading to sizeable issues 6, meaningful (public) debates, ambitious policies and, sometimes 7, to ground-breaking solutions.
Most of all, the present study is addressed to what is considered the “final” stage of earth movements inside an infrastructural construction process, namely with the spoil disposals inside landscape.
Figure 2: Rheinelbe Spiral Hill and Skystairs in Mechtenberg, Herman Prigann 1999. Photo by the author.
It is precisely in that moment, in which the exchange between the flux of unshaped matter, the human or mechanical design and the landscape that contains it takes place, that seems particularly interesting.
The landfilled deposit indeed comes to life, as a kind of living organism confronted with the (engineers) design decisions, with the earthmoving machinery actions, with the open possibilities arising from the landscape becoming and from the earthwork’s own behavior.
The selected main area of investigation is the Alpine region, where a number of major high-speed rails are today under construction to cross national borders, to facilitate mobility of goods and people, to preserve fragile and natural environments [ 3 ]. The contemporary landscape of the Alps, with its measureless delicacy and mystery, has been the object, among others, of a seven years research led by Armin Linke 8. In contrast with a nostalgic, glossy image often used to represent the Alps, Linke describes them as a key European autonomous satellite, that is connected to major global, modern transformations and to their powerful illusions.
Looking at this specific framework of “contemporary avant-garde” and experimental landscape scenarios, the present investigation in particular focuses on the Swiss territory, where already one-third of the settlement and urban surface areas is taken up by the transportation system, namely by roadways, railway installations, airports and airfields 9, considering its evolution after the end of the twentieth century, when the rail and route construction activities became more intense and impactful.
In this context, the recent realization of the three NRLA base tunnels (the Lötschberg, the Gotthard, the Ceneri) helps to better connect Southern Germany to Northern Italy and avoids further land consumption, while at the same time preserving several aboveground environments. The analysis of the key case study thus concerns the New Rail Route through the Alps (NRLA) and especially dwells on the landscapes related to the Gotthard Base Tunnel (57 km long, 1999-2016) and to the Ceneri Tunnel (15 km long, 2006-2020) with their portals, intermediate access points, disposal areas and main construction sites.
Figure 3: The Gotthard tunnel access point in Bodio and a map of the Alpine region with the high-speed railway projects that should cross the mountains through tunnels. Photo and drawing by the author.
Indeed, as the NRLA tunneling work progresses, the complex relation that occurs between the challenging construction process and the monumental ground movements it produces has become increasingly relevant. If the entire excavation of the Ceneri two single-track tunnels gave rise to a total of about 10 million tons of inert waste, the entire construction of the Gotthard axis originated more than 24 million tons of material, of which only a portion has been reused for producing concrete and shotcrete aggregates, while a considerable surplus has been destined for “recultivation requirements” or “environmental restorations” 10.
A constellation made of huge ground movements has followed the progression of the AlpTransit construction activities.
The inspiring, strong relationship between Swiss mountainous regions and streets or railways has already been the object of various investigations, that have highlighted the existing critical connection between the imaginary, mythical alpine landscape and its implications on the collective identity, as in the case of the Gotthard massif 11 or the connection between rough topographies and great technological-engineering challenges 12 or between infrastructure, territory and strong formal architectural interventions 13. Even AlpTransit Ltd, since the beginning of the construction project in 1993, consulted a trans-disciplinary group, the “Beratungsgruppe für Gestaltung” 14, that mainly gave rise to the specific and recognizable architectural language used for portals, viaducts, ventilation funnels, retaining walls. This research aims to look at the topical relation between the highspeed infrastructures, design and landscape rather from a different perspective, in which the so called “Infrastructural Monuments” 15, are inextricably linked with their produced monumental ground movements. The focus thus shifts from the “super-structures” to the inert leftovers just dumped out from their construction process, identifying and studying the broad excavated earth’s volumes spread as spoils inside the NRLA nearest territories.
At the core part of the research, currently in progress, drawings and photographs graphically frame the physical state of the five NRLA main earthworks and illustrate the amount of earth moved and ultimately relocated inside a river delta, two wooded valleys, an alpine village and an urban periphery thanks to different disposal strategies, that urgently trigger, among others, ecological, topological and formal design questions 16.
The selected sites are the Reuss Delta, Sedrun, Cavienca, Biasca and Sigirino, [ 4 ] that are the greater and most impactful inert deposit solutions arising from the tunneling construction activities.
Figure 4: Maps of four of the five considered sites: in dark the disposal places of the AlpTransit inert waste. From the top left: the Delta Reuss disposal site, the Sedrun access point and disposal sites, the Biasca disposal site, the Sigirino access point and disposal site.
The proposed inventory 17 (currently work-in-progress) evidences how tons of material _ arisen from the Gotthard base tunnel and transported by train and ship to the Delta Reuss (more than 3.3 million tons) _ have been used to fill the lake and to redesign the previously eroded river mouth, or have been spread in different areas near the Sedrun NRLA access point (more than 4 million tons), or have been transported by a conveyor belt through a spoil tunnel and dumped in the Biasca disposal site (about 6,9 million tons) to recreate a talus cone. More recently, about 7 million tons of material originated from the Ceneri base tunnel excavation process have been dumped in Sigirino and assembled near the existing mountain to form a new, artificial mountain, thanks to reinforced soil walls and a series of 2:3 slopes.
Presented temporal maps, topological drawings, short descriptions and photographs interrogate the sympoietic transformation of these sites _ where ground movements could be perceived as challenging opportunities inside an endlessly changeable nature.
Moreover, the inventory might become itself a possible reservoir for future projects.
In this respect the thesis blends real earthworks states with imaginary future solutions, continuing and, somehow, extremizing the existing ground mounds shapes [ 5 ]. This process allows to envision how could they evolve as:
- two monumental artificial mountains (Biasca and Sigirino),
- a monumental wall (Cavienca),
- a monumental re-shaped topography (Sedrun),
- a monumental re-naturalized river delta (Reuss Delta).
Figure 5: Sigirino: a monumental mountain, 2005- 2015- 2030- 2050. Images are combining the past and present real situations (2005-2015) with a work of fiction that envisions the artificial mountain becoming up to 2050. Drawings are made by the author on the basis of the Swiss National Cartography maps, the official AlpTransit AG technical drawings and a series of interviews with the BGG (Beratungsgruppe für Gestaltung/ AlpTransit AG) in 2018-2019.
The final step of the research (still in progress) would be the definition of the meaning of Monumental Ground and the framing of a landscape manifesto: the need to reuse earth, to revise C&D inert waste, to reduce soil consumption and to valorize, in general, new ecologies linked to the construction activities that affect human and natural environments lead to an urge to better understand the role of design and opens up to a definition of new formal structures inside landscape.
The analysis (consisting of the observation phase, the mapping of a theoretical framework, the research on the main case study) together with the investigation trough drawings lead to possible interpretations of emerging earth-based landscapes in terms of figurative inventions and topological relationships, blurring their figuration within the dialogue among ecology, technique, and form.
The possible design approach to the moving ground infrastructural sites indeed appears to be placed between:
challenging topological site transformations, made by traces of construction activities, efficient earth management systems (linked to the excavation system, the transportation system, the water management system, etc.) and high technological solutions linked to the infrastructures.
New constructed ecologies that, in a completely artificial environment, imply the creation of dynamic spaces which could extend the boundaries of infrastructural interventions to the multitude of nonhuman beings and generate the specific morphology, heterogeneity and performativity of natural environments.
New forms _ emerging from deep cultural strata made by strong symbolic presences and historical meanings, altered relations between underground and overground landscapes, between human present time and geological past, human scale and natural scale _ that are staging the irretrievably unpredictable, fragile and monumental aspect of earthworks.
- Only in Switzerland, in 2019 they have been produced about 15,5 million tons of waste from construction activities and there were more than 400 depots spread in the national territory (BAFU 2019).
- Meyer, Elizabeth K. (1997): »The Expanded Field of Landscape Architecture«, in George F. Thompson and Frederick R. Steiner (Eds.), Ecological Design and Planning, New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 45–79.
- Krauss, Rosalind (1979): »Sculpture in the Expanded Field«, in October Vol 8 Spring, pp. 30-44.
- Tibbett, Mark (2017): Mining in Ecologically Sensitive Landscapes, Clayton: CSIRO Pulishing.
- Clifford, Brandon (2017): The Cannibal’s Cookbook. Mining Myths of Cyclopean Constructions, San Francisco: ORO Editions.
- More than 800 million tons of material will be excavated during ongoing and planned large underground projects (tunnels, undergrounds and power plants) by 2030 in Europe.
Although the reuse of inert materials in a more organized and systematic way started around the 50s, up until now the major innovative researches on this topic have been primarily addressed to findings linked to technological advancements, or to the need to reuse inert waste for high-quality concrete production and shotcrete aggregates. Among others, a recent EU-funded project has developed an automated system to analyze and sort excavated material as it is removed from the tunnel face by boring machines, providing information such as size, shape and mineral and water content in real time. An easier and quicker recycle of materials might substantially reduce the demand for primary mineral resources, and contribute to reduce environmental impacts.
- Linke, Armin (2011): Alpi, based on a research project of Piero Zanini, Renato Rinaldi and Armin Linke.
- Schubarth, Christian and Felix Weibel (2013): Land Use in Switzerland. Results of the Swiss land use statistics, Neuchâtel: Federal Statistical Office, pp. 8-9.
- Lanfranchi, Paolo, Emanuele Catelli and Thomas Bühler (2019): »Environmental reclamation for the Gotthard Base Tunnel, effects of spoil management on landscape«, in Daniele Peila, Giulia Viggiani and Tarcisio Celestino (Eds.), Tunnels and Underground Cities: Engineering and Innovation meet Archaeology, Architecture and Art, London: Taylor & Francis Group, pp. 404-414.
- Burkhalter, Marianne and Christian Sumi (2016): Der Gotthard. Landscape, Myths, Technology, Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess.
- Conzett, Jürg (2010): Landschaft und Kunstbauten, Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess.
- Frampton, Kenneth and Riccardo Bergossi (2008): Rino Tami: opera completa, Mendrisio: Mendrisio Academy Press.
- The BGG is composed by: Uli Huber, president (from 1993), Pierre Feddersen (from 1993), Rainer Klostermann (from 1993), Flora Ruchat-Roncati (from 1993 to 2012), Pascal Sigrist (from 1997), the AlpTransit AG representatives: Thomas Bhüler, Alex Regli, Walter Schneebeli, Peter Zbinden.
- MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism (2016): Infrastructural Monument, New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.
- Girot, Christophe, Annette Freytag, Albert Kirchengast and Dunja Richter (2013): Landscript 3 Topology, Topical Thoughts on the Contemporary Landscape, Berlin: Jovis.
- The drawings form a first “inventory” of the AlpTransit infrastructural/monumental main earthworks since these landscapes made by spoils have never been represented in their entirety, as a system of ground movements linked to the new infrastructure.