Cusanus Academy

When Heritage meets Modern


The Cusanus Academy is comprised of three buildings (HaupthausPaul Norz Haus, and Mühlhaus) that together form a center of learning dedicated to the exchange of ideas at the intersection of the religious and secular worlds.  The competition called for the renovation and addition to the Academy, a seminar venue with guest accommodations, and outlined the need for the constituent buildings to form an organic whole more evidently accessible and open to the general public. One of the overriding constraints of the project was to leave the existing buildings intact without any visible additions which, given the host of technical and code related requirements, presented a challenging set of design problems.  The project traces a fine line between that which appears to belong to the original buildings (invisible) and that which emerges as new, more clearly stated interventions (visible).


Commissioned by the Cusanus Academy in the 1960s under the mandate of Bishop Joseph Gargitter (1917-1991), the Haupthaus, or Main Building, was designed by the locally renowned architect Othmar Barth (1927-2010) and is the first modern building listed under the protection of the historic preservation commission of the Province of Bolzano.  At the 1962 inauguration, the building trigged much debate: many considered the boldly modern building of exposed brick and concrete to be out of place, an eyesore to the adjacent 18th century Major Seminary, while others welcomed the contemporary addition within the medieval fabric of the historical city center.  Today the building stands as one of Bressanone’s landmark buildings and is considered to be Othmar Barth’s masterpiece.


The Academy takes its name after Nikolaus Cusanus, a 15th century, influential and enlightened individual dedicated to Renaissance humanism whose various religious and political appointments led him to Rome where he came into contact with Leon Battista Alberti.  The affinity between Cusanus’ and Alberti’s ideas of concinnitas provide the beautiful backdrop to Barth’s architectural elaboration of part to whole relationships in the name of unity and harmony.  In plan, the Main Building is made by 3 squares that open up towards the South to form an indelible trapezoidal footprint; the resulting interplay between an orthogonal order and a slight rotation governs the entire project be it in plan, elevation and detail.  Coupled with the 2,90m pass that presides over structure and surface, aperture and closure, down to the patterning of the floor materials that in turn mark the positioning of the furniture, the building is a poignant lesson in multa paucis—saying much with few words.

Indeed, the careful grammatical construction of the project brings together its abstract geometrical rules with the real dimensions of the concrete frame structure, the brick walls and flooring, and the travertine slabs into one unified whole.  Intervening in such a complete, and accomplished project proved to be a daunting task.


The double-height, concrete vaulted central space that serves as the main hall for the entire complex was the starting point for the careful restoration of the building.  Although the laconic and bare-bones construction of the Haupthaus dictated a clear design ethos, Barth’s copious documentation of the original project along with his many variations and projected additions thereof, afforded precious insight into the malleability of the project.  With a careful and tempered orchestration of a material, tectonic and technical palette of solutions, the new project’s innumerable interventions oscillate between mimetic, reciprocal and carefully contrasting vocabularies. What results is a shifting narrative between the old and the new that confounds the boundary between the two.


The two most significant design moves of the project occur at the ground level of the Haupthaus, and at the underground, semi-basement level between the three constituent buildings.  On the ground floor, a new axis is opened up connecting the main, North entry down to the dining hall facing South.  This axis embodies the ambitions of the project to foster a more welcoming environment without stepping outside of the constructive logic of the building. The new, generous hallway accommodates seating areas, affords views into the renovated seminar room at this level and works in tandem with the new coffee shop and entry area.  At the lower level, a number of new seminar rooms, service functions and circulation spaces make the connection between the three structures.  A u-shaped skylight registers the introduction of these new functions below ground and draws the newly configured entryways at the ground level around a central space for social exchange.


Bressanone (BZ), 2019



2022 – PREMIO ITALIANO DI ARCHITETTURA – LA TRIENNALE, Miglior edificio o intervento completato negli ultimi tre anni

2021 – FESTA DELL’ARCHITETTO, Opere di Restauro e recupero, Menzione d’Onore

2022 – EU Mies van der Rohe, nomination


Cusanus Akademie

Project Team

Sandy Attia, Matteo Scagnol, Giorgio Cappellato, Miriam Pozzoli, Lavinia Antichi, Laura Spezzoni, Anna Valandro