Fiat, the phantom of order (1964)
Arts in Society
April 18, 1985
Last year’s grand international consultation (don’t ever call it a competition) on the future and re-use of the old Fiat car factory at Lingotto in the inner suburbs of Turin, was demonstrably a gilt-edged occasion, since the exhibition of the proposals, mounted in the abandoned building itself, the sumptuous accompanying literature and all the associated manifestations clearly cost a pretty lira or two, and the architects consulted included our own James Stirling and Sir Denys Lasdun, as well as other heavy-duty talents from both sides of the Atlantic.
Like the equally grand consultations to find an architect for the second Getty Museum in Los Angeles, it may prove to be one of the major architectural events — or possibly non-events — of the past year or so. But why all the bother? Locally, the issue seems to be simply that Fiat is Turin, and Turin is Fiat. The company embodies and symbolizes the industrial power of the city, and the factory commemorates all that labour history and union politics that have marked the long years of the love-hate relationship between Fiat and its workforce. Indeed, one reading of local history would insist that the plant was built in its very straightforward concrete-and-glass form in “deliberate and concrete response to the factory occupations, the demand for syndicalist control, the workers’ councils.”
More than that, however, the Lingotto plant is just the biggest thing in town. A single building four storeys high and half a kilometer long, with a press shop and other ancillaries at either end that bring it up to almost the full kilometer, it outbulks even the most grandiose of Turin’s baroque monuments. Its disappearance would not only remove a big piece of local history, a memorial, a symbol; it would also leave a huge hole in the skyline along the via Nizza.
It would also remove a building whose unique position in the history of modem architecture cannot be equalled anywhere in the world. Hence the international interest of which Fiat is so acutely aware. Yet it was the work of no great or famous architect, and the name of Its designer — Giacomo Matte Trucco — seems to attach to no other building that is known at all. Nevertheless, its status has been that of a masterpiece ever since it began to be known in 1920-21. It got into all the forward-striving books by people like Le Corbusier immediately, and into English language texts by the likes of Lewis Mumford within a decade. For this rapid acceptance there are two reasons, I think: one is that it fulfilled a modernist myth; the other is that it had a terrific gimmick. Continue reading