From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The Mole Antonelliana was broadcast on the 12th March 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
For a city that was once, very briefly, the capital of Italy, Turin is often overlooked. Which is a shame because it’s simply brimming with architectural wonders, including one of the most bizarre: the Mole Antonelliana. The German philosopher Nietzsche thought it ‘perhaps the most ingenious building ever constructed’. The word Mole means building of great size, and Antonelliana refers to its architect, Alessandro Antonelli. What he created looks more fantasy than reality. It starts conventionally enough – a solid masonry base facing a narrow street in the centre of the city, classically detailed with columns and porticos, but as it moves upward, it becomes odder, with an almost excessive run of columns around a tower that is then topped by a strange, elongated dome like a simplified version of Brunelleschi’s great dome in Florence. This is topped by a dainty tempietto and then – and here’s the true oddness – an immense spire reaches far up into the sky, taking the overall height of the building to nearly 170 metres. When it was completed in 1889, it was, briefly, the tallest structure in Europe until the Eiffel Tower stole the title that same year. More incredible, perhaps, is its lack of metal framing, that height putting extraordinary stress on the humble brick from which much of it is constructed.
Equally surprising is how it was commissioned as a synagogue, following the unification of Italy in 1861. Turin had been the seat of the kings of the House of Savoy since the 11th century and was chosen now as the capital of the new nation. The Jewish community, which until only a few decades earlier had occupied a ghetto within the city and been subjected to strict laws, thought this would be the ideal time to celebrate and assert their presence in the city. Primo Levi, the chemist from Turin who wrote so eloquently about his experience in Auschwitz some eighty years later, said it would have been like a giant exclamation mark on the urban landscape. The building would have offices and a school on the lower floors with a vast hall above, reaching up into the dome, and able to hold 1500 people. But that never came to pass. As more states joined the new Italy, Florence took over as the capital and then Rome. It no longer made sense having the grandest synagogue in Italy here. There was also the question of cost, given that Antonelli couldn’t be dissuaded from building the outrageous spire. The city council took over, covering what had been spent and giving a parcel of land elsewhere on which a synagogue in the Moorish style was built, another of Turin’s architectural treasures. The Mole was now dedicated to Victor Emmanuel ll, the first king of Italy, who had been born in Turin.
From 1908 it was home to a unification museum but it’s now the National Museum of Cinema, an apt use, given this is an epic building. In 1961 a lift was installed to carry visitors to a viewing terrace above the strange dome; it rises through the centre of the building entirely free of any enclosing shaft. Instead, the wires dangle freely in the air, giving the occupants of the glass cabin an unobstructed view of the interior as they ascend.
If buildings say something about the city in which they stand then the Mole speaks of a city filled with creativity and invention, famous for its coffee, luscious hazelnut chocolate and FIAT cars, the company that had itself a test track on its factory rooftop. It’s also a symbol of significant changes in Italy’s history. So if Turin is overlooked today, then there’s surely no better place from which to overlook it.