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.
The gimmick is the most obvious attribute of the building. How else could it be a gimmick if not obvious, even if it is a travesty of the designer’s intentions to call it one? The building has a high-speed test·track on its roof! Two 500 yard straights are linked by high, embanked curves at either end. The track is reached by spiral ramps of extraordinary ingenuity — and beauty — that thread their way up through floor after floor. The undersides of the ramps are reinforced by concrete beams that radiate from the columns around the central well like the ribs on the underside of water-lily leaves. They were in all those Anglo-Saxon books in the thirties, but in the twenties all the real m0dernists had already been up the ramps and had then had themselves photographed standing on the roof. The photographs of D’Annunzio, Marinetti, Le Corbusier I have seen recently; those of Gropius and Owen Williams (the engineer who gave you the Empire Pool at Wembley, the Daily Express building, and those appalling bridges on the first section of the M1 motorway) I have not seen for some time, but I bet they are all in Fiat’s comprehensive archives, together with those of everybody else who ever was anybody in modernism.
Including, recently, myself. It was a weird experience — like finally arriving in the Sistine Chapel, Niagara Falls, or somewhere else that you’ve heard about since ever. But it was radically different in that this is the one you must arrive at by car, and experience from a car. To do it any other way would be almost a blasphemy, like arriving at a pilgrimage church in the Middle Ages with anything but bare feet. The Fiat company car came up the ramp, slowly enough for me to enjoy the structural ingenuity going on all around, and finally emerged through a narrow slot round the back of one of the bankings and there was that famous view of 500 yards of rooftop straight, stretching ahead to where the banking curved up to the left at the other end.
It was exactly like all those commemorative photographs, and I almost expected to see the ghost of Corbu standing there with his white pants, black jacket, glasses and briar pipe (though I now know it is quite a different ghost who has the best claim to walk the circuit of that roof).
Round that famous circuit we went — and after one single lap you knew why Fiat gave up using it for serious testing. A high-speed track it emphatically is not. Even a modern Fiat, with all that clever suspension geometry underneath and good Pirelli rubber wrapped round its wheels, is in tyre-squealing, body lurching trouble on those banked curves even at a modest 60kph. The curves are desperately tight, and have to be or the track wouldn’t fit on top of the building. But something seems to be unsettlingly askew with their geometry, too, as you come on and off the banking. What all this must have been like in the early twenties, when Fiats stood tall on their high-pressure “knife edge” tires and artillery·style springing but could, every one of them, do better than 70k…well, exciting, that’s for sure!
Which is what the whole design is about anyhow — the excitements of the automotive age. Giovanni Agnelli, the boss of Fiat when Lingotto was conceived in 1914, wanted an American-style factory like Ford’s famous (and even longer) plant at Highland Park in Detroit. But what separates Lingotto from American plants of the same period that I have been studying recently, is sheer rhetoric. The American plants are useful and fairly cheap facilities for manufacturing things in. Fiat, which is uncannily like an American concrete-framed building in all its details, is also a public statement about modem manufacture, about modernity itself. Marinetti hailed it (of course) as “the first invention of Futurist construction.”
He got it wrong. Had he known what he was talking about, he would have had to damn it with the foulest epithet in his inflamed vocabulary: passeiste. By the time Lingotto and its ramps were finished in 1926, it was already becoming passé by American standards, for Henry Ford was getting out of multi-storey Highland Park, and moving more and more of his operation into huge single-storey tin sheds at the River Rouge. Lingotto was really a monument — a memorial to a myth of modernity, and of America as the home of modernity. The racetrack on the roof was the final and necessary symbolic flourish, like the stone laurel wreath on the head of a statue.
That last simile I have borrowed more or less directly from Edouardo Persico, the most intelligent, eloquent, and tormented of the younger Italian architects who perished under the Mussolini regime. Disappointment was probably the core of his torment. As the youngest member of Musso’s pioneering embassy to the Soviet Union in 1923, he must have hoped that the fascists would keep open the links between their radicalism and that of the left, but he was barely back from Russia before he had the first of his political troubles and found himself in jail. From then until his death in 1936, he had the sort of existence that can be immensely productive in both design-work and writing, yet remains somehow marginal to real life. For part of that time, he actually worked at lingotto. Out of that experience he produced, in 1927, his first architectural writing.
Mussolini inaugura la Fiat (1936)
It is an extraordinary piece of work, dominated by the sheer bulk of the building, and its intimations of a secret order beyond the human:
Atop the building, the test track is like a king’s crown, and just as a crown symbolizes some essential and dominating idea, so here the car and its speed are celebrated in a form that presides over the work of the factory below, not only in terms of the rationality of utility, but also according to some secret standard that regulates the ends of things. A mysterious logic of harmony — which the architect has followed intuitively as a sign of authority — has elevated the track to the summit of a work of man; much as the authority of a on the head of a king transcends the merely human face below, and weighs upon it with the force of a dominant rule.
I don’t think this has anything to do with the Divine Right of Kings — however well such a concept might have suited Agnelll, il Re dell’Industria — but it has a lot to do with the desire for a comprehensible sense of order in a disorderly world, where the old rules of God had been banished and replaced by…well, nothing, except the dictates of a rationality bent to the service of madmen like Mussolini.
An order beyond human lunacy had its desperate attractions. Persico describes the workers waiting to enter the plant for the morning shift:
They do not speak, they do not move as they would in other human assemblies; they wait. All things are already in order, nothing can be changed; everything obeys an order which is not the expression of human will, but of a wisdom submissive to the Laws. They await the laws; they are a people still confused. without order, an image of humanity without rules…they have more need of order than of bread.
As one who, long ago, used to stand amorphously in a waiting crowd, silent in front of the gates of quite a different factory, I can vouch for the observational truth of tinat. I don’t, however, buy that apparent appeal for order at any cost, even though I know that it is not an appeal for the corporate order of the new fascist state but more likely an amalgam of Persico’s disciplined Catholic upbringing, and tine Ordine Nuovo, “a just society, an orderly society, made up of equals,” Imagined from prison by Antonio Gramsci, the only other Italian thinker of the period whom I find as sympathetic as Persico and organizer of the syndicalist occupation at Fiat after the first world war. But in the abandoned hulk of Lingotto, that thirst for order is an ever-present factor.
Those vast empty floors, almost purged of signs of human use or occupation, and inhabited only by endless rows of square concrete columns that stretch to apparent infinity, obeying no visible law save those of perspective…See, it’s catching! The phantom of order conjured up by Persico will not go away now for me. On the roof, even if I can’t take the test track too seriously, it seems okay to be your regular cheerful modernist, but in the body of the works, a different order…damn, there it is again…seems to prevail, and here Lingotto is superficially very like its American predecessors.
I have seen the inside of a lot of abandoned American industrial real estate over the last few years in the course of my researches, and I kept catching that quality, long before I rediscovered that Persico text. Cleaned and abandoned, with vast windows and endless rows of regular repetitive columns, these clean well-lit spaces have an uncanny and deeply reassuring calm. The noise and bustle of production, the bulging accumulations of racked products, have long departed. All that remain are rational frameworks for human activities — awaiting their orders. But even in what remains of Ford’s “Old Shop” at Highland Park, the only American site that has anything like the historical importance and cultural consequences of Lingotto, they are just neutral containers for which alternative uses, if any, will be found by the normal mechanisms of the market economy.
Lingotto is not just a neutral container. Too much cultural weight, too much self-conscious pursuit of modernism, too many quests for the order of the Laws, still haunt its 70 year old concrete. Whatever their real motives, Fiat are perfectly right to propose that its future be taken out of the hands of the market. But I see in none of the competition entries— sorry! consultative proposals — much real sense of that phantom of order which Persico left to stalk its echoing floors and which ascends by the two spiral ramps to the track that crowns the whole enterprise with a “a concrete image of speed…where nothing may deny the car.”