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Modern architecture and the car: A visit to Turin’s Fiat and Mirafiori car factories

November 14, 2016

Spiral ramp in the Fiat Factory, Turin (all photographs copyright the author)

I’ve long wanted to visit Turin’s Fiat Factory, famous for its rooftop test track. But when I finally arrived there the track was closed for maintenance. No randomly tried lift or stairs would get me to the roof, only to Italian office receptionists bewildered by an Englishman asking about the roof (Renzo Piano has converted the factory into offices and a shopping mall). For now, I’ll have to settle for the magnificent views of the track seen in the Italian Job. But at least I managed to walk part way up the spiral ramp leading to the roof, which is a particularly fine early example of reinforced concrete technology.


Giacomo Matte-Trucco’s Fiat Factory, Turin

Critic Reyner Banham declared the Fiat factory “the most nearly futurist building ever built”, referring to the Italian art movement that emphasised speed, technology and cars. Built from 1916-23 in Turin’s Lingotto district, the factory was designed by engineer Giacomo Matte-Trucco. Visits by Fiat officials to Ford’s Highland Park car factory influenced the concrete framed building’s design. But there is one major difference between the two factories. Ford’s car production process moved from the top floor to the ground; at Lingotto it went from the ground floor to top, and then, in spectacular Futurist fashion, completed cars would drive around the test track and exit down the ramp.


Arco Olimpico, Turin

From the factory, I walked across the Arco Olimpico footbridge, which spans many railway tracks, to see the former Olympic Village. The bridge became the symbol for the Turin Winter Olympics, 2006. Designed by architects HDA, the bridge’s 150m long deck is suspended from cables held up by a 70m high red steel arch. The inspiration for the bridge came from the parabolic arches of Umberto Cuzzi’s nearby former fruit and vegetable market. Described as the “only real rationalist project in Turin”, the market includes seven pairs of 100m long parabolic arches, which were incorporated into the athletes’ shopping area. Although Cuzzi’s arches look startlingly modern today, the area now lies forlorn and empty, which one critic blamed on a “lack of far sighted reconversion policies”.


Olympic Village, Turin: Umberto Cuzzi’s  parabolic arches

From here, I took the bus to the edge of the city to see Fiat’s Mirafiori factory. Even as the Lingotto factory was finished it was outdated, so in 1936 Fiat management discussed creating a new plant. They visited Ford’s massive River Rouge plant, the successor to Highland Park. River Rouge replaced multi-storey car factories with single storey buildings that consolidated the manufacturing process on one floor. This reduced unnecessary transport of materials and saved workers’ energy, refining rigid Fordist management practices. Designed in-house by Servizio Costruzioni Fiat, the Mirafiori factory was visited by Mussolini in 1939. According to John Foot, in Modern Italy, he was received by an unresponsive workforce, who were still mostly but secretly communist. The factory is on a huge 376 hectare site. At one point, this employed 50,000 workers, had 10,000 telephones, 37 entry gates and a canteen designed to accommodate 10,000 workers. It includes assembly lines, workshops, forges, a power plant, a network of underground tunnels, a surface test track and railways. The factory has had a chequered industrial relations history, with many strikes.


Mirafiori Factory 

It took forever to walk around its perimeter walls looking for photo opportunities and there seemed no way into the site through the security checkpoints. Then I discovered the Design Centre of the Polytechnic of Turin campus, which has taken over part of the site (the automobile industry crisis through the 1980s-90s has led to diminished production needs). I walked into the campus and found I could enter an adjacent abandoned factory building. Huge in size, with windows smothered outside by the rampant foliage of untamed Trees of Heaven, a melancholy feeling hangs over the place. Stripped of machinery, reminders of the workers remain – an old cat food tin (perhaps there was a factory cat?), a phone extension list to lines that no longer exist and safety signs to remind the long-gone workers to wear goggles.


Mirafiori Factory


Mirafiori Factory


Mirafiori Factory


Mirafiori Factory


Mirafiori Factory


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