The Monastery Serve di Maria Addolorata has stood in the city centre of Arco, at the northern point of Lake Garda, Italy, for over four centuries. Recently, the architecture firm Noa* reinvented the building in order to transform it into a resort, while carefully maintaining its historic presence and cultural significance. Working closely with the Trento Office of Cultural Heritage, the firm even left half of the monastery — where nuns still live to this day — completely untouched.
Enclosed by a seven-metre-high stone fortification, the cloistered complex is now home to 40 guest rooms, as well as a lobby, dining area and spa. An atmosphere of “pleasant austerity” reigns inside — an ambiance that Noa* was intent on protecting. Rib-vault ceilings maintain a certain airiness while white plaster-finished walls and archways decorated with pomegranate etchings, the monastery’s emblem, adorn the entrance. The cotto floor tiling and guest room doors made of unfinished wood — which have not been replaced since the 17th century — contrast with the modern look of the ceramic sconces dotting the hallway.
The project’s only new-build component is the Salas per Aquam Wellness Centre, a series of seven spa rooms positioned along a stone spine. Their glass-and-metal architecture is inspired by the Lemon Houses of rural Lake Garda, structures built to house lemon trees and protect them from the elements in winter. The connecting spine comprises a series of limestone-clad pillars and a horizontal architrave in sand-blasted concrete — both of which look distinctly contemporary, while retaining the old-world-material characteristics of the monastery.
Despite their modern-day appeal, the spas (which consist of relaxation rooms, treatment rooms, saunas and a wellness course with steam bath) encourage meditation and exude a sense of peace and tranquility.
Towards the centre of the complex, a crystalline pool dubbed the “biolake” — adorned with dark grey tiles instead of the usual blue — provides a focal point for the landscaping. Sparse foliage allows visitors and patrons to enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding grassy hills and jagged mountain peaks, as well as the nearby Arco Castle.
“When designing this area, our aim was to create a dialogue more with the surrounding agricultural landscape than with the monastery,” explains Francesco Padovan, who was a lead architect on the project. Towards the hotel section, more abundant vegetation provides ample shade and privacy for outdoor strolling and lounging. Wrought iron and bleached oak are star materials here, making up lounge chairs and seating around the reception area, as well as the pool deck.
The hotel suites each take up two of the old monastery cells — measuring 22 to 30 square metres each. The lights and bathroom fixtures, beds and textiles are updated, but the structure of the building and its rich history are left entirely intact; guest rooms feature vaulted ceilings, loft areas complete with wooden trusses and even a private garden. The dominant shades are white, grey and black, recalling the ancient materials found in the convent.
Beyond the individual rooms and throughout the new complex, thoughtful details have been preserved to add to the old-world atmosphere. In the middle of the dining room, an ancient well was left intact, save for a coat of sparkling white paint — it now serves as a buffet table for guests. Benches resembling pews furnish the wellness spa’s sauna rooms and the reception area.
The goal was to “maintain the compositional, static and visual clarity that makes a monastery,” notes Padovan. Paying close attention to materiality and colour, the architects were able to conserve the monastery’s ascetic presence, while at the same time adapting it for generations to come.
Noa* transforms a 17th-century convent into a hospitality destination with a gleamingly modern addition.