When seen from the distance, great architectural wonders can serve as welcoming, iconic symbols for cities and regions. After all, who hasn’t felt compelled to grab their phone and snap photos of famous landmarks as soon as they come into view from the aeroplane window?
Rafael Viñoly Architects, the globally renowned studio responsible for acclaimed contemporary architectural marvels like London’s 20 Fenchurch Street, NEMA Chicago, and Kuala Lumpur’s Setia Federal Hill, understands this phenomenon well.
The firm’s latest project encompasses the development of a new terminal at Florence’s Amerigo Vespucci airport, slated to become a pivotal landmark for the city, and an architectural icon for Italy as a whole.
Its groundbreaking design involves a 7.7ha rooftop vineyard gently sloping upward to complement the airport terminal that, upon completion of most of its features in 2026, will accommodate nearly six million international passengers annually.
Weighting the challenges of a rooftop vineyard
Rooftop greenery isn’t a novel concept. Rafael Viñoly Architects’ Buenos Aires University project, for instance, itself boasts a roof almost entirely covered in greenery. Unlike conventional green roofs however, designing a building with spacious and ample interiors while accommodating productive fruit plants on their top presents a unique set of challenges.
‘The main difficulty associated with a rooftop vineyard has to do with how you handle weight,’ said Rafael Viñoly Architects director, Román Viñoly. ‘You need a certain amount of soil to grow plants, and that soil needs to be wet. These things have a mass not easy to deal with when underneath it you are trying to build a light and airy place and wide spans, which is what people expect from a modern airport experience.’
To partly address this issue, Viñoly’s project incorporates linear structures made of precast concrete to encase the soil and irrigation systems necessary to sustain the vineyard. These structures are supported by a network of branching columns, allowing for flexibility in the layout of the terminal’s internal components.
While this resolves problems of weight, the development of the vineyard presents additional challenges.
‘You cannot have greenery and foreign objects falling down and getting sucked into engines,’ said Viñoly. ‘We also need to defend against the possibility that pollutants could adversely affect the quality of the harvest. Additionally, the vast roof area presents logistical hurdles when it comes to tending to the vines.’
After consulting with enologists and agricultural engineers to analyse the balance needed between the vineyard’s necessities and the essential characteristics of light and air within the interior space, the firm concluded that the 2.4ha productive portion of the vineyard should be situated away from the proximity of aeroplanes. Instead, it should be confined to the lower end of the roof, positioned at the opposite end of the runways, and filled with solid ground underneath rather than walkable space. This design not only reduces the risk of accidents due to the proximity of the vines to the aircrafts, but provides ample space for the roots to grow, too.
‘From that point onward to the end of the roof, the setup will resemble a vineyard, but the plants won’t actually be producing fruit. Initially, we were concerned about whether this would result in too little wine. But once we learned about the productive capacity of this section, I was amazed,’ Viñoly said.
Not only will the vineyard yield grapes suitable for wine production, but the vinification and maturation of the wine will also take place within the airport premises. A winery will be situated behind the departure hall, where the ground begins to slope up to form the terminal’s roof.
‘The intention is for it to be an amenity that travellers can go and visit, to see how the wine is being made, bottled and aged, all within the airport’s premises,’ Viñoly added.
The maintenance and operation of the vineyard and winery will likely be entrusted to one of Tuscany’s leading vintners, yet the name for this role is yet to be decided. ‘In all likelihood,’ said Viñoly, ‘it won’t be decided for a little while and we will have nothing to do with that decision, but my personal hope is that it will be one of the prominent Tuscan wine families.’ The exact grape varieties to be planted are also still under consideration, but it is expected that they will reflect the rich heritage of Tuscan wine-growing.
A 21st-century Medici
Groundwork for the new terminal is planned to commence this year. When the majority of the project – including the green roof – is completed in 2026, Florence will boast the world’s first airport vineyard.
Vineyards and airports may seem like an improbable pairing, but Viñoly’s project is not simply a coincidence. The ownership of Florence Airport is held by Corporación América, a conglomerate with global ownership of numerous airports and operations spanning various industries such as agribusiness, energy and infrastructure. Eduardo Eurnekian, the Armenian-Argentine president of Corporación América, also owns two wineries, which are currently managed by his niece, Juliana Del Aguila Eurnekian. One of these, Bodega del Fin del Mundo, is located in Patagonia and spans over 800ha. The other, Karas winery, is Armenia’s leading wine business.
Viñoly contends that Eurnekian fully grasps the profound responsibility involved in the development of an airport for Florence. Last year, his connection to Florence was acknowledged when Mayor Dario Nardella handed him the keys to the city.
‘I believe he recognises the importance of imbuing the location with quintessential Tuscan qualities, an approach that can elevate the airport to a profile and stature suitable for a destination of its calibre,’ said Viñoly. ‘He saw an opportunity to be a 21st-century Medici, to undertake something truly grand and provide the city with an appropriate gateway for visitors from around the world. Without someone with that vision and aspiration to contribute to such an important world heritage site, this project might not have come to fruition.’
Anticipated completion of the work is 2026 for phase 1 and 2035 for phase 2.