These days so much architecture is about appearance, making a big statement and attracting the eye (and the Instagram account). Many critics accuse architects of going for one-liners rather than developing anything deeper. Is there anything beyond the wow factor? It’s a good question to ask and I’m certainly among those who are a little jaded by the relentless swirling, curling skyscrapers that are springing up in every corner of the world. And yet sometimes a bit of wow can be refreshing, shaking things up, making you question whether things have to look the way they do. There have, after all, always been buildings that wow us.
As an adolescent, I was drawn to modern architecture because so much of it looked outlandish. When you’re trying to figure out who you are then naturally you’re drawn to things that seem to be doing the same. I was particularly attracted to the first decades of the twentieth century when architects wanted to create something they thought was more suited to the modern age. Tradition was out; rule books were ripped up. My eye was caught by Le Corbusier’s white-box houses that promised so much. How different they looked from my own home back then – a 1930s brick house with a half-timbered gable and leaded bay windows, the sort seen everywhere in Britain in some form or other. (When my father first took my mother to see the house, she refused to get out of the car, saying she wanted a double-fronted Victorian house, not 1930s Tudorbethan.) No one I knew lived in a modern house, although some lived in new houses, which weren’t the same thing at all. In Britain, a new house was often just as traditional as those built decades before, only flimsier, with bay windows and a jumble of small rooms.
Some stood out, though. As a little boy, I was excited whenever we drove past what my sister and I called the mushroom house. It was built in the early 1960s with the upper floor cantilevered out so that it looked as though it might topple over. Cars could be parked in the paved area below the cantilever, and to cap it all off, the house had a broad balcony, another source of joyful wonder. It was like no other house I’d ever seen and it made me smile each time I saw it.
I experienced that same glow when I was seventeen and I happened across a building that made me gasp with amazement. On a rainy morning in Rome, after a dismal overnight flight (French air traffic strikes) and unable to sleep, I slipped out from my hotel, turned a corner and came face-to-face with the Vittorio Emanuele monument. It’s the huge wedding cake that looms over the ruins of the Forum and puts Michelangelo’s Capitoline Hill in the shade. With its columns, chariots and flights of steps, it’s very white, very ostentatious and downright vulgar. I thought it was simply fantastic. Among the faded grandeur of normal Rome, it’s like a drag queen walking into a Pall Mall gentleman’s club. It makes me want to laugh every time I see it. You’ve got to love a bit of architectural dissonance, a bit of unexpected wow.
FIAT’s Lingotto factory in Turin was another building that enthralled me. You may know it from the original ‘The Italian Job’ film with Michael Caine, with a trio of Minis hurtling around its rooftop track. The first time I saw it in a photograph I felt like doing cartwheels. It was so wonderfully, joyfully mad and yet, when you thought about it, it was totally rational. It’s the work of engineer Giacomo Mattè-Trucco. Its concrete frame allowed massive windows which let in oodles of light to the factory floor, there were elegant, spiralling ramps at either end of the building, and there was that roof track. In 1922, it encapsulated the brave new world of mass-production and practicality. To the modernists, it may as well have been a temple.
I can’t believe that it took me until last year to visit it for the first time. FIAT moved out in the 1980s and the buildings have been repurposed as a shopping centre, a university, a hotel and an exhibition complex. Thankfully, the track remains.
I was there for the Slow Food movement’s biennial Terra Madre exhibition, which I heartily recommend to anyone who has the least interest in food. I had an amazing day talking to people who grew cacao in the Amazon rainforest, made blue bread in Hopi territory and harvested rose petals in Iran but some of the thrill was knowing I was at Lingotto. (You can hear my interviews here with some of the Terra Madre exhibitors and the Terra Madre organiser.) Leaving the festival, nourished by stories of the resilience of remote communities saving their traditions by finding new markets in a world hungry for authenticity, I was more than ready to explore the old factory itself.
Until the early 1980s, every single FIAT was made at Lingotto. The first pieces were welded and bolted together on the ground floor assembly line which then moved onwards and upwards, floor-by-floor, until the car was completed at the top level. The final step was to test drive the finished product, which meant a whizz around the rooftop track. All being well, it was then driven down the ramps at the end, loaded on to a train, and transported to a FIAT showroom in Italy or beyond. It’s so logical and the Italians were justifiably proud of it. At this time in Britain, half-built Morris cars were being shunted around their plant in Oxford by lorry. No wonder everyone wanted a look at the FIAT place. Le Corbusier had photos of it in his cutting-edge book Toward An Architecture in the 1920s and managed a spin around the track in 1934.
The recent revamp by Renzo Piano is fairly sympathetic, with a futuristic turquoise-glass conference module up there on the roof and the inner courtyards filled with jungly palm trees. What looks like an old water tank actually houses a small but rather gorgeous collection of Matisse, Canaletto and Italian Futurist paintings that belongs to the Agnelli family, who owned FIAT. You have to visit the gallery to be allowed out to the roof track but it’s certainly worth it. I walked its perimeter, scrambling up the steeply-banked corners, and curbing a desire to run around the whole place singing Italian pop songs. I was enchanted to discover that the spiral ramps still smell of rubber tyres. It was easy to imagine a stream of tiny FIATs taking those curves at speed. I can only imagine how astonishing it must have seemed in the 1920s.
Lingotto’s blend of the madcap and the practical might not take away your breath in the way the latest computer-aided blobs by current architects do but it will definitely put a smile on your dial. I loved every part of my experience there. And, decades on from the first wow days of my youth, I was happy to find that architecture still gets my heart racing, that even things I have seen before can still make me gasp.
I’m convinced that Lingotto managed to be built in such a revolutionary way because Turin itself was filled with good architecture from every period, although much of it is Art Nouveau (called Liberty style, in Italy). There was a precedence of innovation. When we see something that breaks the rules then doesn’t that encourage us to produce something equally shocking? Maybe that’s the case in the cities of the world where every skyscraper and new project seems to be competing for your attention. A little can go a long way if it all boils down to simple superficiality. But when it raises a wow and a smile then maybe it’s worth it.
What building wowed you the first time you saw it?