At the tip of southern Italy, along an old highway that winds through the mountains, a series of huge concrete bridges will eventually be turned into vertically stacked neighborhoods—as long as the government can come up with the cash to build the project.
Four years ago, the local government decided to take a section of the highway out of use and build a new main road. They held a design competition to find a way to reuse the old infrastructure, especially the dramatic concrete viaducts that run between hills. The winning idea: A design that adds new housing, offices, and stores directly into each bridge.
"The government was asking for a sustainable way to preserve the bridges," says Manal Rachdi of Oxo Architecture, who worked on the design with Samuel Nageotte, Philippe Rizzotti, and Tanguy Vermet. "The bridges were so beautiful, and their position was so strategic, that we wanted to turn them into housing."
Each apartment or office will be set into a space between the existing bridge structure, so from a distance, the form of the bridge will look the same. On top, one part of the bridge will be turned into a pedestrian promenade, while another part will still be used for local traffic so residents can drive home.
"I call it an inverted high-rise," says Rachdi. "In a high rise you come from downstairs and go up. In this, you have your car waiting for you upstairs, and you go maybe 150 feet down to get to your apartment."
Because of the dramatic shape of the surrounding land, every part of the "vertical village" has an incredible view of the sea or nearby farms and forests. The architects envision it as a way to bring new residents to the area—likely retirees from Northern Europe who want to enjoy Calabria's balmy climate—and help build the local economy in a way that's as environmentally sustainable as possible.
All of the power will come from geothermal energy, thanks to the fact that a volcano is nearby. Since offices and perhaps even schools will be built into the bridge, most people should be able to walk to take care of basic needs. "The idea is to turn it into something like a city within the bridge," says Rachdi. None of the surrounding land will be impacted, since the structures will be wrapped into the existing bridges.
But the challenge is finding the money to build the project. Other construction projects on the same highway have been a huge source of controversy: The EU discovered that grants for repairs and new roads were spent fraudulently, and a couple of years ago, required the Italian government to repay hundreds of millions of dollars. The local economy is struggling as well. It's unclear when, or if, the vertical villages will actually be funded.
If they are, the architects are ready to go. "We’re waiting for Italy to get back on track so we can start again," says Rachdi.