What does an architecturally prestigious hotel in Turin have in common with Paris’s Pompidou Centre and fans of 1960’s English film The Italian Job?
In 1899, at the very dawn of an Industrial Revolution which arrived late to Italy, a new company – FIAT - opened the doors of its first factory in Turin, initiating an intimate relationship with the town – and with its celebrated company-owned football team, Juventus - which endures to this day. This glorified workshop was on Corso Dante and home then to the grand total of 150 day-shift employees. By 1904, an iconic logo had been created, an oval containing the company name over a blue background. (This colour and type-face were resuscitated in the 21st century after experimentation in the 1990s with a less successful abstract diagonal-line design.)
As the Italian auto industry boomed, larger premises were soon needed. And so began, in 1916, construction of the celebrated Lingotto fabricca, named after the Torinese suburb of its address. From the off, Lingotto had grand designs to be the largest factory in Europe, What’s more, its unique, avant-garde design would channel the Fordist processes of mass production vertically (rather than horizontally), upwards through five storeys, culminating in a magnificent Futurist test-track on the factory roof! Raw materials would enter via the ground floor as in a Venetian canal-side palazzo; from here the production-line would wind its way towards the fifth floor, from which finished vehicles would emerge into the sky against a backdrop of rolling Torinese fog and majestic Alps (Only one other rooftop test-track has ever existed – in the most unlikely setting of Trooz, Belgium, where the now defunct Imperia car manufacturer ran a 1 km roof-track from 1928-58.)
The Lingotto factory was completed in 1922, the year of Mussolini’s March on Rome. The fame of its architect Matté Trucco, previously a naval architect and engineer, rests alone on this unique edifice. Built in reinforced concrete and covering an area of 400,000 square metres, Lingotto was a forerunner of the aesthetic of later celebrated Italian architect, Pier Luigi Nervi. The incredibly long building had two outrageous helicoidal ramps which led up to the track. Its audacity made a tremendous impression on foreign visitors and Le Corbusier immediately used an illustration of the factory to demonstrate his own principles in Vers une Architecture, published in the same year: ‘One of the most impressive sites in industry’, the master waxed lyrical, ‘a guideline for town planning.’ Lingotto figured prominently in the first Exhibition of Rational Architecture held in Roma in 1928 and Gruppo 7 later declared it the only fundamentally industrial building in the whole of Italy with any architectural value.
Over the next 50 years, over 80 different FIAT models emerged onto the famous track for testing, including the illustrious Topolino of 1936 and the even more iconic and celebrated Cinquecento; the tiny, affordable car which revolutionised Italian social life during the Dolce Vita years of the 1950s and 60s boom. It was during these years, too, that tens of thousands of migrants from the Italian South moved North to Turin to become Fiat employees, Juventus supporters and Cinquecento owners, many of them taking up employment at Lingotto, or in the newer and even larger Mirafiori plant on the outskirts of town (a historical process beautifully captured in the 1960 Luchino Visconti film Rocco and His Brothers.)
Sadly, by 1978 the Lingotto parent plant was considered, by a now globalised FIAT, to have become old-fashioned after the introduction to its other factories of Robogate, a flexible robotic system for assembling bodywork, later celebrated in the Spirto di Punto TV ads of the 1990s. Lingotto’s closure in 1982 led to frenzied polemic about the site’s future, part of a wider international debate surrounding industrial decline and the perceived move across the Western world from modernist production to post-modernist consumption. Genoa born Renzo Piano, flushed with success after the completion of Paris’s Pompidou Centre, and latterly responsible for the regeneration of his home-town’s waterfront area in time for Genoa’s turn as European City of Culture in 2005, won the open competition to revamp the site. He envisioned a modern public space for the city containing concert halls, a theatre, a convention centre, shopping malls, a hotel and new buildings for Turin Polytechnic. This opened in 1989.
Fancy a look? The Lingotto building is featured extensively in the Alberto Lattuada film Mafioso (1962) and, of course, during the getaway sequence of The Italian Job (1969). Or if you’re feeling flush, next time you weekend in Turin head for Via Nizza on the brand-new Torino Metro (station Lingotto M1, opened March 2011) and stay in Piano’s hotel, from which you can access the roof-top track and admire the cantilevered design, the 16,000 piece translucent roof and other utilitarian factory wonders. A gallery contains a series of poignant photos, prints and plans relating to the economic boom decades and the hotel’s guest rooms are unusually large and loft-like, reflecting the building’s heritage. And – wouldn’t you just know it - there’s shed-loads of parking!
Meanwhile, down the road at Mirafiori, FIAT continues to employ 15,000, (down from 27,000 in its heyday), many of them the grand-children of those first 50’s economic migrants. In a strange act of historical circularity, the company recently replaced the bicycle sheds it had gutted in the 1970s (when an earlier generation of workers had abandoned their bicicletti in pursuit of the automotive dream) due to increased demand from its contemporary bike-riding employees.
© Stephen Hale
This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST