The Druso Barracks Of Silandro: From Fascist Barracks To Community Space

The Druso Barracks in Silandro teach us that historical wounds cannot be erased but the spaces that remember them can be regenerated.

Druso Barracks
Photo: Former Druso Barracks. Credits: Samuel Holzner.

In a land of borders and clashing identity, there are many sites, symbols, and written traces of fascist heritage that are still perceived as controversial and divisive in South Tyrol, the autonomous alpine region that sits between Italy and Austria. One is the Italian name itself, Alto Adige. But these traces also include the barracks that recall the conspicuous, threatening arrival of soldiers sent to Italianize the province, and they include monuments that claimed the legitimacy of the Italian border.

The best known, on a national level, is certainly the Monument of Victory of Bolzano. It’s a monument that, exaggerated in size and in evident contrast to the surrounding architecture, was built to declare the Italian victory both of the First World War and of Fascism — and was aimed at Italianizing the landscape of a province painfully torn away from its historical Austro-Hungarian identity.

But among these symbols we can consider the Druso Barracks of Silandro. This site in the Venosta Valley, originally a military space, has been reappropriated as a place of aggregation, culture, and experimentation for the community. It serves as an excellent example of how the symbol of a deep historical wound can be regenerated and rethought in a positive light and in function of the needs of the community.

What makes this place so controversial?

From 1919 until the end of Fascism and the Second World War, the German (and Ladin) linguistic groups, that is, the vast majority of the inhabitants of South Tyrol, were the victim of a terrible and blind policy of nationalization. That was the strategy that sought to eliminate the German character of the area, conducted by the Fascist regime and managed by a certain Ettore Tolomei.

Following the principles of national penetration and assimilation of the South Tyrolean land, Tolomei launched a wide-ranging program that affected all areas of South Tyrolean life and that strongly pursued the goal of the Italianization of this province, through the effective cancellation of the German identity.

In point 18 of the so-called ‘Provvedimenti per l’Alto Adige’ (Measures for South Tyrol), Tolomei envisioned an increase in the stationing of Italian troops in the province. To this end, and united with the aim of defending the borders, about forty barracks were built in the South Tyrolean province, along with numerous — almost 300 — bunkers and anti-tank barriers.

Druso Barracks: Italianization to abandonment

These include the Druso Barracks in Silandro, an architectural artifact in the rationalist military style typical of the twenty-year Fascist period. It’s coldly aggressive and massive style that bursts into a mountainous and deeply rural landscape. As they say, it’s an eyesore. But at an altitude of 721 meters, it has come to accommodate up to 2,000 people in a village, Silandro, that does not count more than 6,200 people.

Toward the end of the nineties, as was the case for most of the bunkers and barracks in the area, Silandro was abandoned and subject to vandalism. The community, in fact, never looked favorably on this imposing construction, a hostile symbol of occupation and of a tragic and divisive past.

For a long time, in fact, the discussion about the barracks was centered on the idea of its demolition, in order to build a space more suitable to the needs of the current community and with the possible intent of eliminating the historical wounds. In fact, making places of this symbolic importance intelligently usable is not at all easy, even less so in an area like the Venosta Valley, where feelings of resentment still run deep. In the last provincial elections, this area showed a very large success of the German-speaking secessionist parties (Süd-Tiroler Freiheit, Die Freiheitlichen and Bürgerunion für Südtirol) compared to the provincial average.

Despite the difficulty of the challenge, with a perspective of ‘symbolic regeneration’, some highly motivated people have taken up the challenge of avoiding the waste of demolition by creating a space for culture and community. Thanks to a large project financed in part by the European Regional Development Funds (ERDF), they have started the BASIS project.

Photo: BASIS Venosta. Credits: Samuel Holzner.

The Druso Barracks of Silandro today

Today, the reality that you can breathe in the former Barracks is totally changed. From the ashes of a contested and conflicted history, BASIS has managed to create a hub of social activation, a center of culture and social innovation, and space for experimentation. In a certain sense, the operation induced an identity crisis in a space, so that it could be reborn on completely different assumptions.

In concrete terms, today, the former Druso Barracks is a co-working space, a place where cultural events linked to music or other arts are held — where, in the old military dormitories, ateliers and workshops for artisans and artists have been created. BASIS is also involved in training and providing outreach services through innovative welfare practices.

Like all ambitious and radical projects, there are many difficulties encountered on a daily basis. The biggest challenge seems to be that of involving the local community from an intergenerational perspective. If young people see in this place a space of freedom and innovation in a strongly rural context, a part of the population still feels a strong reluctance toward the place and finds it hard to understand why it never was demolished.

In fact, BASIS has found it easier to find synergies at the European level, such as the Trans Europe Halles network, which they recently joined, connecting BASIS-like urban regeneration centers across Europe.

The story of BASIS represents a best practice in the redevelopment and regeneration of controversial symbols based on positive principles such as aggregation, sustainability, and innovation. What emerges is the idea that history should not be forgotten and eliminated, but rather that what once divided and generated conflict may now be a formative factor in unification and prosperity.

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