• Matteo Licata

The Story Of The Lancia Tower

That's how longtime Turin residents have always called "Grattacielo" the tower that once hosted Lancia's headquarters. The term is the direct Italian equivalent of "skyscraper," even though the building's 16 floors and less than 70 meters of height are unlikely to impress anyone these days...



One man's vision

The Lancia tower is the brainchild of Gianni Lancia, the son of company founder Vincenzo, to whom the street that runs below the building is currently dedicated.


Gianni Lancia took over the reins of the family firm in 1948 at the age of twenty-six. Under Gianni's passionate and ambitious leadership, Lancia reached new engineering highs and gained unprecedented success in motorsport, seemingly without much regard for costs.

So, in the eyes of Gianni's detractors, the Lancia tower is the physical representation of the ambition and hubris that would break the company's back in the space of a few years, but that's somewhat disingenuous.


While the tower undoubtedly made a powerful visual statement in Turin's 1950s skyline, it wasn't a mere vanity project. With it, Gianni sought to concentrate Lancia's management, administrative and technical staff in one modern and rational place, rather than having them scattered around various corners of the Borgo San Paolo factory.


Building the tower

Construction of Lancia's tower began in 1953.

The building is a steel and concrete structure just over 66 meters tall and was designed by the Turinese architect Nino Rosani, the head of Lancia's internal construction department until 1958.


What makes it rather unique is that it rises over the underlying road leaving an 18 meters wide opening for traffic and pedestrians to pass through, thanks to a bridge structure made from reinforced concrete resting on two dihedral bases.


The busy street, then known as Via Braccini, used to have Lancia factory buildings on either side and, to allow for the double-decker buses that Turin's public transport company used at the time, the tower's bridge structure stands six meters from the road surface.


At this point, though, the most observant and cultivated onlookers may notice certain similarities between Turin's Lancia tower and the more famous Pirelli tower in Milan, designed by Giò Ponti roughly in the same period, and that's no mere coincidence.


The legendary Milanese architect and designer was, in fact, brought in as a consultant on the project: his influence was particularly evident in the tower's planimetric arrangement, with the offices distributed along the two glass facades with services, stairs, and elevators at the two ends.


The Lancia tower does look rather slick even today, with its clean shape and large mirrored windows, and I can only imagine how strikingly modern it must have seemed to the eyes of 1950s Turin residents.

Paternoster

Rather interestingly, Gianni Lancia insisted on the inclusion, alongside the two fast elevators initially envisaged, of a so-called "paternoster" elevator system consisting of 36 cabins without doors that moved continuously and forced users to enter and exit them "on the fly." With such hazardous systems having long been forbidden in Italy, it's fair to assume it's no longer present.

Gianni himself would never get the chance to enjoy his new office as, by the end of 1955, Lancia's financial situation had deteriorated to a breaking point, with the company's control passing from the hands of the Lancia family to those of the construction magnate Carlo Pesenti.


A new era

The Lancia tower welcomed the first among the around 500 employees it was designed to host in 1957, and by 1958 the company's swanky new headquarter became fully operational, its blue sign shining bright in Turin's night sky.


At the time, the factory below the tower still was Lancia's main production facility, building Appias and Flaminias, but that would inevitably change following the inauguration of the new, modern Chivasso factory in 1962.


The Pesenti years could perhaps be considered the most glorious, dignified decline in the automobile industry: Lancia kept producing its unique flavor of exquisitely engineered, avant-garde cars built up to a standard rather than down to a price, seemingly without much concern about trivialities like, say, actually turning a profit someday.


By the late 1960s, and to precisely no one's surprise, Lancia's debt burden became unsustainable, and bankruptcy was avoided only thanks to Fiat's begrudging intervention.

Takeover

Even though new people populated its management offices, the Lancia tower continued to serve as the company's headquarters, as the company retained relative technical and managerial autonomy within the larger Fiat group for a few more years.

But, with the bulk of vehicle production taking place in Chivasso, the old factory in Turin lost its relevance with each passing day. Once the assembly of the unloved Gamma ended in 1983, the Borgo San Paolo works were relegated to producing low-volume models like the Thema Limousine and the Ferrari-powered Thema 8.32.

The present day

The blue Lancia sign ceased to shine in Turin's night sky in 2005 when the Fiat group finally sold off the long-redundant tower and the mostly abandoned, disused Lancia factory around it.


Over the following years, there have been a few more changes of ownership, and, for a brief time before the 2008 housing market crash, it seemed the former Lancia tower was going to be turned into exclusive luxury apartments.


That never happened, and the former Lancia tower remains an office block to this day, its floors fully leased by several companies.


However, the sprawling Lancia factory it once overlooked wasn't so lucky, as the vast majority has been torn down, with new housing and public places still being built at the time of writing.


One of the few surviving factory buildings has "Lancia 1911-2021" painted on its wall as a token gesture to honor the site's automotive heritage. It is now a retirement home: something that will be much more useful to Italy's rapidly aging population than the cool rally cars.


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