​Transforming a medieval Italian fortress into a contemporary art museum

A competition is inviting young architects to reimagine an ancient abandoned fortress and former prison on an island in southern Italy as an open-air contemporary art space.

Santa Caterina Castle. Photo: Young Architects Competitions

The “Art Prison” project is organized by Young Architects Competitions (YAC), an association committed to offering emerging talent the opportunity to present innovative ideas.

Offering a €20,000 cash prize which will be distributed among multiple winners, the organizers are challenging architects to transform the fortress of Santa Caterina on Favignana – a small isle off the coast of Sicily – into a major center of contemporary art in the Mediterranean.

The first structure at the site was built in the 9th century by Arabs who used Favignana as a platform for conquering Sicily. The fortress underwent several modifications, including ones by the Normans, who recaptured the island in the 11th century. In the 18th century, it was adapted by the Bourbons and briefly served as a prison.

“Creating a project in Favignana means working in an area characterized by a unique historical value. Designers will have to think of places aimed at telling the history and the tradition of the isle,” the organizers said in the competition brief.

In order to respect the historical value of the landmark, there is a list of conditions that needs to be taken into consideration during the redesign. Those include refraining from compromising or damaging existing facilities, creating a design that is in harmony with the architecture and its surroundings, and using compatible materials.

Santa Caterina Castle. Photo: Young Architects Competitions
Santa Caterina Castle. Photo: Young Architects Competitions
Santa Caterina Castle. Photo: Young Architects Competitions
Santa Caterina Castle. Photo: Young Architects Competitions

Surrounded by sea, rocks, and vegetation, the fortress has been a “jewel of solitude” for years now. Meanwhile, the island of Favignana has been undergoing transformations to become one of the most desirable holiday destinations in the Mediterranean. The idea of the project is to return the fortress back to the community.

The aim is to reimagine the site as a “sacred” shelter for artists, creative talents, and curious people who wish to use it as a way to regain their mental and spiritual forces. The organizers see the space divided into several areas which will include an open air gallery, two types of living spaces, art ateliers for research and production, and a restaurant area.

The YAC, which has partnered with the Municipality of Favignana and the Italian government, officially launched the competition on January 15. The project submission deadline is April 11.

The winning team's project will be announced by jurors, among whom are internationally-renowned architects Daniel Libeskind (Studio Libeskind), Manuel Aires Mateus (Aires Mateus), Felix Perasso (Snøhetta), João Luís Carrilho da Graça (Carrilho da Graça Arquitectos). Italian government officials will also be part of the panel.

Text: Ekaterina Motyakina