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  • Writer's pictureDominic Dalglish

Lingotto and the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin

A building for the people? Built in the 1920s, the Lingotto car factory is a design classic. Its renovation under architect Renzo Piano has helped to preserve the building for the future, as well as transform the factory into a mixed communal space complete with offices, teaching spaces, concert hall, shops, restaurants, and now roof-top garden and gallery. It should certainly be thought a success in many ways, but for all the spiel about public ownership, the building remains capped by an elitist crown.

Turin is a city that sits somewhat in the shadow of better-known places in northern Italy. Given that it’s competing with the likes of Milan, Genova, Bologna and Venice, not to mention the alpine climbs and lakes that skirt the wider region, that’s not a great surprise. But as with these more famous destinations, Turin has enjoyed half a millennium-plus of royal and aristocratic accumulation, as well as nineteenth and twentieth century economic prosperity that mean it’s teeming with museums and galleries.

Many of these reflect the industrial and technological history of the city: the Museo Lavazza (think coffee), the Rai museum of Radio and TV, and the National Automobile museum are amongst a number that attest to the city’s status as one of the economic powerhouses of the Italian north. However, Turin’s most impressive display of this past is unquestionably a relic of industry itself: the Lingotto car factory. Commissioned by Giovanni Agnelli, founder of the Fiat automotive corporation, architect Giacomo Mattè-Trucco began work on the project in 1915. Opened in 1923 in what was then an industrial area of the city, it housed everything from foundries and production lines, to offices and test track, the latter being a 1km loop on the roof of the main building.

Above: Aerial view of Lingotto from the northwest looking southeast (Photo: Focchi)

You can’t really miss a half-kilometre, five-storey concrete edifice, but despite its size, the magnitude of the building is hard to grasp from the street. On the east side a cluster of buildings interrupt the view, as do trees lining this stretch along the Via Nizza. With these breaks, your average person walking the street might not think twice about the extent of what’s behind. But go beyond these, and the building is revealed as an enormous, modernist heart-throb. The dark recesses of the doubled-up ground floor run into the distance as a long bass note; up above, eyes run from left to right along the floors of this musical score, the open windows like notes on a stave. This is the beat and rhythm of the machine-age. It is of its time in other ways, too, particularly the use of what would become modernist traits in design. There are no great ornamental frills, but where there is decoration, it is pleasingly asymmetrical: notice the moulding between floors, closer to bottom than top.

Above: Lingotto from the southeast (Photo: Focchi)

This aesthetic earnt it praise from the foremost proponent of what has come to be called Modernism, Le Corbusier, who includes photos of Lingotto in the conclusion to Vers une architecture (1923, ‘Towards A New Architecture’). In fact, they are the very last pictures of buildings in the book.[1] Mass, surface and planning – the three key tenets of his architectural approach that challenge the frills and distractions of ‘style’ – are all found in abundance at Lingotto. In concluding, he wrote (p.286):

Construction has undergone innovations so great that the old “styles,” which still obsess us, can no longer clothe it; the materials employed evade the attentions of the decorative artist. There is so much novelty in the forms and rhythms furnished by these constructional methods, such novelty in arrangement and in the new industrial programmes, that we can no longer close our minds to the true and profound laws of architecture which are established on mass, rhythm and proportion: the “styles” no longer exist, they are outside our ken; if they still trouble us, it is as parasites.

The spirit of mass-production that Lingotto effuses is akin to some of the North American industrial constructions of the time. Like Le Corbusier, American modernist painters (Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keefe, Charles Demuth amongst others) saw the appeal of this refined and stripped back architecture. Grain elevators and long factory buildings seem to have left a particular impression on many of them. The incorporation of this architecture into the artistic output of the day was an important statement about its own force as ‘art’. Ancient temples, cathedrals, modern car factories: all could inspire reflection.

Above: Modernist Paintings and Le Corbusier's elevators. From Left to right: 'My Egypt' Charles Demuth, 1927, Whitney Museum of American Art; 'Amoskeag Mill Yard #1' Charles Sheeler, 1948, Currier Museum of Art; 'Ozark Lime Kiln,' Georgia O'Keefe, 1938, Kelly Kissel collection; 'Canadian Grain Stores and Elevators,' in Le Corbusier 1923, Towards An Architecture, 27.

In an age of increasing mass-production and global competition, the similarities between North American and European industrial design at the start of the twentieth century are to be expected, yet Lingotto retains a sense of place. The northern end features a two-story colonnade on three sides; as common a feature in Turin as it is in other Italian towns and cities, this helps to locate us. Yet it shuns rounded columns of marble and decorative flare in favour of the exposed rectangular bones of the building. It is an industrial colonnade.

Above: Lingotto external colonnade from the northeast.

Sixty years after its opening, car production at Lingotto ceased. When it closed its doors in 1982, thoughts immediately turned to what would happen next. Such an important part of the urban fabric was clearly felt to be worth preserving, but now came the difficult task of deciding what to do with such an enormous space.

Following an international competition, the studio of Renzo Piano was chosen to lead the renewal in 1985. Over the course of the next two decades, the space was gradually developed and opened up to the public in various ways. Already by 1987, shops, bars and restaurants (collectively known as “otto”) began to open primarily on the first floor. Today offices, hotels and part of the Turin Polytechnic are housed on the floors above. In 1994 followed two major additions, the ‘Bolla’ and the Auditorium Gianni Agnelli. The latter is a concert and performance hall on the ground floor, capable of seating 3,500 people in a clever design that has dug beneath the building itself. The ‘Bolla’ by contrast, is a glass dome or bubble on the roof, replete with helipad. Designed as a meeting room, it affords 360˚ views of the surrounding city. In 1997 work began on the final major addition to the site in the form of the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli (a gallery named after the then owner of the Fiat company ‘Gianni, the grandson of the founder, and his wife, Marella). Opened in 2002, its most recognisable feature is the ‘spaceship’ that hovers, somewhat, over the roof itself.

Above: plan of the Lingotto redevelopment undertaken by Renzo Piano studio. On the top image to the left is the 'Bolla', on the right the Pinacoteca, and dug down from the floor the auditorium. (Image: Atlas of Places).

Walking into the building, the signs and advertisements for the multitude of businesses Lingotto now hosts distract somewhat from the otherwise simple power of the structure. Nevertheless, the interior ramp leading to the roof dominates the space. From the outside, the building is all about straight lines – vertical and horizontal – that lead the eye and direct your movement around the building. But then you come to the ramp, and curves and diagonals everywhere sweep you upwards. The walk from the bottom is liberating: the noise of shoppers drops to a murmur as you make slow turns through five storeys until finally, you’re on the roof.

Above: view looking up to the roof, and across from the ramp (Photos: Dominic Dalglish).

Here you find the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli. The gallery is built into the existing building, but extends it with the ‘spaceship’ above. Lower floors of offices are topped by a temporary exhibition space on what is the fifth floor of Lingotto, but feels like a basement in the context of the Pinacoteca. On the roof / ground floor is an exhibition on the history of design around Fiat cars and obligatory café, whilst the ‘spaceship’ above holds part of the Agnelli family collection on permanent display.

Above: plan of the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli at Lingotto, developed by Renzo Piano studio. (Image: Atlas of Places).

By the time Renzo Piano and studio got around to designing this gallery, and especially its novel parts, they had already worked on several exhibition spaces. He was also one of the world’s most celebrated architects, not least for the Pompidou centre’s design with Richard Rogers, for which he is perhaps still best known. Though the contract could conceivably have gone to another firm, it would have been a serious slight to look elsewhere. Given their past form with the Menil Collection (Houston, Texas) and the Fondation Beyeler (Riehen, Switzerland), there was no reason to doubt that Piano’s studio could both construct buildings well-suited to the display of artworks, and listen to their commissioners wishes.[2] Employing a system of automatically moving slats on the roof designed to work with interior lighting, the paintings on display are certainly well-lit. The spaces within the gallery, too, are proportioned nicely.

Above: the Pinacoteca (Photo: Dominic Dalglish).

Be that as it may, this has to be one of the least-interesting buildings both from the outside and inside that Piano has worked on. The idea of the ‘spaceship’ – something futuristic by nature – was presumably meant to push this once future-defining building into the new millennium. But from the outside, it struggles to rise above the level of transport container on stilts. In stark contrast to other galleries Piano has designed, it gives people inside almost no means of engaging with the wider space: there are practically no windows. It is a bank vault of precious art suspended in the sky, but you might as well be twelve stories underground.

Fittingly, the artworks on display are exactly the type of investment-purchases you would expect to find in said-lockup. The catalogue is a guide to ‘master artist’ spread-betting: best not put all your money in ‘modern art’ (if Picasso and Matisse still count as such), better have a Canaletto or two for good measure. There’s no need for us to judge the works themselves on this basis, but let’s be clear that they are here as investments and fashion accessories as much as anything else. Private collections can always have an investment air about them, but there are some that are much more than this. In any event, it doesn’t matter so much how they were formed as how they are subsequently displayed.

Above: the Pinacoteca interior (Photo: Dominic Dalglish).

Buildings on the scale of Lingotto are places of contested ownership. The ideas that surround them cannot remain fixed. Commissioned by Giovanni Agnelli, a man that did extremely well thanks in no-small part to his connections with Mussolini, this building could be seen as a colossal monument to capitalism and the developing ideas of Italian fascism. But cities such as Turin were inevitably also centres for developing worker’s rights movements, best illustrated by the presence of Antonio Gramsci who was active in the city from his student days until the collapse of the workers’ councils after they had formed during the strikes of 1919-20.[3] Whilst places of work might literally belong to those that own the land and buildings, in order to function as a work-place, they need people. The very idea of work-place demands a degree of shared ownership; people quickly apply possessives to their office, desk, or work-station.

As a structure, Lingotto embraces architectural and civic planning principles that wanted to extend beautiful design into the working and domestic lives of people other than the elite of society. As Le Corbusier somewhat emblematically demonstrates, the motivations for and consequences of such visions are not straightforward.[4] Equality in design is as potentially stifling as it is freeing. Whatever way we experience the building, the retirement of the factory brought it into the life of the community in different and arguably more expansive (certainly diverse) ways. But it was at this point that any question of who its true owners were, was rather cynically quashed by the construction of its roof-top additions.

The Pinacoteca hovers like the space-craft it evokes over the landscape of this building, containing the work of ‘masters’ that rise above the mundane below. As with the works of the collection, this is the addition of another ‘master’ artist, the clearest outward indication that ‘you own a Renzo Piano’. This is also true of the ‘Bolla’: a blue-glass bubble that seems to completely misunderstand the effect of line the rest of the building presents. Not only that, but few things say ‘elitist’ like a private helipad. The ‘quirkiness’ of their design is likely what has shielded them from much critique (and of course general affection for the architect), but what do they really add? What would be lost if they were gone?[5]

Above: view from the stairs up to the Pinacoteca looking south towards the 'Bolla'; to the sides, the new garden and exhibition space (Photo: Dominic Dalglish).

The final blow – a mundane point, but enormously important for who actually experiences these buildings and their contents – is the entry fee. It’ll cost you €2 to go on the roof, and a further €10 for entry into the galleries. We’re used to paying these kinds of fees without blinking, but this gallery bears the name of one of Italy’s richest families, billionaires many times over. ‘Giovanni Agnelli and Marella Caracciolo donated twenty-five masterpieces from their collection to the city of Turin… to deepen knowledge and encourage engagement with art,’ reads the bumph for the gallery. Beyond the claims to be open to Turin’s people, you are here welcomed to pay for the right to see the great collection of the Agnelli family. The more you think about it, the more monstrous it gets. Perhaps this seems a touch dramatic. But this was an opportunity to give over in full an iconic space to the community that has been squandered in order to crown the building with a symbol of personal ownership, helping in its own small way to perpetuate the elitist culture that surrounds art. It does the opposite of what it is (supposedly) meant to do.

This year – the twentieth anniversary of the Pinacoteca’s opening – has seen further additions to the space. The roof-top test track now hosts a garden and will act as a rotating outdoor exhibition space. If it weren’t for the horrendous weather when I visited, I could have stayed there all day. It is far more of a communal project and space than the Pinacoteca in its current form can hope to be. I can’t help but wonder if this development is a product of a guilty conscience, even if the instinct to still charge a fee to access it has evidently still won out. Whatever the case may be, it is a welcome addition to the evolving biography of Lingotto even if it cannot fully compensate for others in its past.


'Otto' shopping centre at Lingotto - Free

'La Pista 500' roof top garden - €2


Dominic Dalglish is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space

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[1] The final image is a (smoking) pipe – a precursor, of sorts, to René Magritte’s surrealist depiction of the same subject. It's a blunt reminder of Le Corbusier’s sense of architecture as art. The appropriateness of thinking between paintings and buildings or any other artistic medium, is here expressed overtly through art itself.

[2] Paul Winkler gives an insightful account of the working relationship surrounding the building of the Menil Collection in K. Goodwin et al. 2018, Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings.

[3] Here he is in 1921 discussing the Communist movement in Turin, referring directly to Fiat factory workers.

[4] Recent revelations about Le Corbusier’s undeniably strong links to the French-Vichy government, and various fascist individuals and organisations in France, Germany and Italy, contrast with writings on architecture and building designs that are socially progressive, emphasising the right to dignity in work and life through the spaces people occupy. 2015 saw the publication of three books on the wider subject, as well as a major retrospective at the Pompidou in Paris (designed by… Renzo Piano). Simone Brott’s review piece discussing various controversies of the time is worth a read.

[5] Another interesting example is Piano’s studio’s work at Ronchamp – holy ground for Le Corbusier aficionados – which attracted a great deal of criticism during planning stages and once subsequently carried out.


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