- La costruzione delle Alpi: Il Novecento e il modernismo alpino (1917–2017) [Building the Alps: The Twentieth Century and International Style Architecture] by Antonio De Rossi
By Antonio De Rossi. Rome: Donzelli, 2016. Pp. xvi+658. €42.
In 1986, at the bicentenary of the first recorded ascent of the mountain, the French historian Philippe Joutard wrote L’Invention du Mont Blanc. Joutard claimed that the successful 1786 ascent marked the start of modern mountaineering and the development of a complete new understanding of the Alps by the European elite. Antonio De Rossi, in his book, goes further and offers an overview of construction of the 20th Century Alps, focusing on the technologies and architectural style utilized to “conquer” the European Mountains. While the traditional stream of understanding mountains has been the “discovery” of the Alps, and thus their subjugation via climbing and conquering the peaks, De Rossi analyses the Italian, French, and German “building” of the Alps, including the use of sophisticated technologies, transport networks, and the re-invention of whole landscapes via “gardening” the entire mountain chain.
In his 658-page book, De Rossi focuses on the twentieth century, describing this technological colonization of the European mountains, and investigating the cultural and political background of the implementation. Dams, bridges, railways, roads, condos, and mass tourism (in the past years we have witnessed approximately 20,000 tourists annually climbing Mont Blanc) are at the core of this process. It is well known by economic historians that the Alps’ valleys were the cradle of continental Europe’s first industrialization, offering necessary hydropower in coal-poor areas. This was further developed in the building of (often colossal) dams, which altered [End Page 173] the perception and the physicality of the alpine landscape. Similar radical changes have been produced by the leisure industry, and De Rossi is excellent in presenting a chronology of the touristic colonization of the Alps. Here we are at the core of the book’s thesis: the technologicalization of the mountains was an answer to mass tourism, which was triggered by a romanticized idea of the Alps as a natural and uncontaminated place, juxtaposed against the industrialized and corrupted city. This model lasted for the entire twentieth century, backed by a representation of the mountains’ economy and lifestyle as backward and antiquated. With a touch of nostalgia for the past, De Rossi describes the mega-project for winter resorts along the Alps, accompanied by massive infrastructural intervention (including the hugely water-intensive artificial snow systems), which destroyed communities, lifestyles, and the alpine economy. With an eye to the present, the author reasons that those areas less involved in this process are today in a better position to develop future sustainable programs.
The first three chapters devoted to Alpine mobility are particularly interesting. While the conquest of the mountains was made possible by its accessibility via cars, trains, and cable cars, this opened up a new perception of the landscape. De Rossi focuses on speed as a key element for understanding the tourist aesthetic: while for the nineteenth century elite the pleasure was a slow climb to the peak, a metaphor of conquest, the twentieth century path was the fast and reckless sky descent. Such a transition transformed the industry, which became a winter-based business, and asked for a great remodeling of the landscape. The economic boom of the post-World War II period made a truly democratized tourism possible, and prompted a shift from hotel accommodations to holiday houses.
Finally, De Rossi does not forget how such a process of technologicalization happens in extreme conditions, which requires extreme efforts to counter. The author’s analysis of dams and mountain huts, especially those higher than 3,000 meters above sea level, is not just aesthetic, showing how fragile technology can be at those altitudes.
The author’s background in architecture is evident, but it does not limit his narrative or his research: quite the opposite, it offers interesting angles to cultural history and, naturally, to technology history. While the book demands a...