Learning from the void - Architecture - Domus
Learning from the void
 

Learning from the void

The new Bivacco Gervasutti designed by Luca Gentilcore and Stefano Testa, is a replicable prototype anchored to the side of Mont Blanc.

 

Architecture / Michele Calzavara

Pending good reviews, to which this article may perhaps contribute, a neologism like "bureaucratic success" could probably account for a project like LEAP (Living Ecological Alpine Pod). The new Giusto Gervasutti alpine hut replaces the one originally dedicated to the "mighty" Turinese mountaineer on the East Face of the Grandes Jorasses, in the Mont Blanc Massif. Built in 1948, at that time it was a fairly advanced example of a prefabricated wooden construction, when that narrow ledge was a more extreme site than it is today. At an altitude of 2,835 metres, it was in the middle of a glacier (the Fréboudze) which in those days was larger, broken and wrinkled by blocks of ice and crevasses. Since 1961 the various alterations made to the shelter had lost the original technical quality.

Now LEAP has recaptured that quality with an unashamedly antimimetic design which, however, overcomes the long list of permits and restraints involved in such a sensitive context. This feat was accomplished not by re-examining the forms, but rather the reasons for an unattended high-altitude shelter, by responding to a cultivated brief specified by the SUCAI (the Italian Alpine Club University Subsection) in Turin that commissioned it. In addition, the opportunity was seized to set up a design workshop which not only reinvents a type of construction in itself elementary (typically little more than a metal-clad wooden hut), but also updates the theme of mountain prefabrication as well as a certain approach to industrialised building, the history of which has accustomed us to think of it in terms of monocultures (of concrete, wood and so on). A mixture, on the other hand, which sets out the problem of their combined integration in a small but complex product, is a departure from that tendency.

The project is substantially horizontal, providing enough room to accommodate 12 persons and not too difficult to transport. This size limit entailed a maximum floor surface of 8 by 2.4 metres, laid out on a strictly ergonomic basis.

The hut’s overhanging “eyelid” offers a breathtaking view over the massif and also helps to prevent accumulations of snow

The hut’s overhanging “eyelid” offers a breathtaking view over the massif and also helps to prevent accumulations of snow


Initially, the possibility (which proved unfeasible) of adapting part of an aeroplane fuselage was considered, as a sort of readymade whose section would have provided the necessary frame. Instead, a structural shell in composite material was favoured, which would be resistant in form and meet all the mechanical, insulation and weight specifications in a single solution. Achieved by merging the expertise of boatbuilding and of Brianza's wooden furniture industry, the refuge's tubular section sets the balance between resistance and habitability in a functional compromise. A more pronounced apex would have worked better structurally, but it would also have sacrificed space in the lateral passages. In view of the necessity to minimise operations in situ, the project was conceived in terms of modules right from the start. These would be manufactured in the valley, transported by "standard" helicopter (the weight of each module is 600 kilos, including its interior fittings ), and then clamped to a trapezoidal rail-beam, likewise in composite, attached to the rock at six points distributed along half its length.

One phase of the on-site
assembly. The four modules,
already complete with
interiors, are transported by
helicopter from the Val Ferret
base (Courmayeur) and
then fitted to the trapezoidal
runner beam which is
clamped to the rockface
by six “paws”.
These operations took two
days to complete.

One phase of the on-site assembly. The four modules, already complete with interiors, are transported by helicopter from the Val Ferret base (Courmayeur) and then fitted to the trapezoidal runner beam which is clamped to the rockface by six “paws”. These operations took two days to complete.

The rest is an overhang, an inconvenient and truly extreme position, due not only to the pleasure of sublime heights, but also to detailed snowfall analyses, so as to resist the merciless force of avalanches and landslides as well as minimise the surface area offered to the accumulation of snow drifts on the photovoltaic panels built into the roof. The layout moreover is particularly complex, since it must operate perfectly without maintenance. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of leap is that from the outset it was envisaged as a model to be repeated beyond this specific occasion. Consequently, its modularity was tackled in a duly combinatory way: the basic module, two metres long, is a bare structural ring; sub-modules of one metre house accessories (portholes, side doors); while the end units, the glazed "eyelid" projecting into empty space, and the closure "stopper" against the rocky wall are interchangeable. In actual fact, though, every component is optional. This flexibility promises a prototype that is potentially adaptable to any nature-sensitive context. The ecological approach to such contexts (also) lies in a notable reversibility, and not by any means as an imitation of nature. On the contrary, as the heir to a certain technological utopia, LEAP overtly breaks into nature, albeit on tiptoe—like a Walking City (in this case flying) that is simultaneously "discreet" and impermanent.
Michele Calzavara, Architect

 
In view of the necessity to minimise operations in situ, the project was conceived in terms of modules right from the start. These would be manufactured in the valley, transported by "standard" helicopter.
 
The red jacquard motif
makes the hut clearly
distinguishable from
a distance, while echoing
a traditional mountain
iconography.
The outer cladding consists
of a structural sandwich
in vacuum-infusion
moulded high-density pvc
and fibreglass

The red jacquard motif makes the hut clearly distinguishable from a distance, while echoing a traditional mountain iconography. The outer cladding consists of a structural sandwich in vacuum-infusion moulded high-density pvc and fibreglass


Design Architects: Luca Gentilcore (Gandolfi Gentilcore architetti), Stefano Testa (Cliostraat)
Design team: Marilena Cambuli, Edoardo Boero
Brand identity l.e.a.p.: UN Design, Massimo Teghille
Structural Engineering: Luca Olivari / Olivari Composite Engineering (strutture in compositi), Andrea Bruzzone (strutture generali)
Electrical Engineering: Carlo Sasso, EDF ENR spa, Giampaolo Pittatore, Enrico Pons
Geology: Alberto Morino (nivologia e valanghe), Federico Valfrè di Bonzo
Client: CAI sezione di Torino, sottosezione SUCAI, scuola di scialpinismo
Total floor area: 29 m2
Cost: 200,000 €
Design phase: 09/2009—12/2010
Construction phase: 05/2011—10/2011
Manufacturers: Poligamma, GVM Arreda, Plat Andrea
Sponsors: Regione Autonoma Valle d'Aosta, Fondo Rifugi Club Alpino Italiano, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Torino, Gore-Tex, EDF ENR Solare

The interiors are finished
with composite panels made
of insulating sandwiches,
with a balsa core and
multilayered birch cladding

The interiors are finished with composite panels made of insulating sandwiches, with a balsa core and multilayered birch cladding


Equipped with external
sensors and an Internet
connection, the hut can
record and transmit data on
meteorological conditions

Equipped with external sensors and an Internet connection, the hut can record and transmit data on meteorological conditions


One phase of the on-site assembly. Photovoltaic panels
are built into the upper
external part of the bodyshell
to generate the
hut’s electricity, which is
collected in accumulators
housed under the floor. The
internal heat developed by
the photovoltaic cells will
prevent the formation of
ice and snow drifts. The
cells’ accumulating battery,
supplied by Fiam, exploits
a principle of sea-salt
electrolysis and is fully
ecological

One phase of the on-site assembly. Photovoltaic panels are built into the upper external part of the bodyshell to generate the hut’s electricity, which is collected in accumulators housed under the floor. The internal heat developed by the photovoltaic cells will prevent the formation of ice and snow drifts. The cells’ accumulating battery, supplied by Fiam, exploits a principle of sea-salt electrolysis and is fully ecological