The Test Track in the Sky
Automobile factories are often impressive, be it for their sheer size or the complex manufacturing processes happening inside them. But few become true architectural landmarks, and possibly none is more iconic than Fiat's Lingotto in Turin, whose defining feature is a rooftop test track that's been sparking people's imagination for decades.
The Lingotto owes its name to the small group of farmhouses that existed on the plot of land purchased by Fiat in what then were the outskirts of Turin.
Room to grow
The decision to build a large new factory complex was taken in 1915 to give Fiat much-needed breathing room: its headcount had risen from 120 employees in 1900 to over 9400, way more than its original facilities could handle with any degree of efficiency.
Designed by the engineer Giacomo Matté Trucco, the Lingotto was deliberately inspired by Ford's Highland Park plant, and Fiat's not-so-secret aim to streamline production the same way is visually evident in the five-story, over five hundred meters long structure.
With a surface area of around 150.000 square meters, the Lingotto was among the first structures in Italy to be made entirely from reinforced concrete, with thick, strong support columns placed every six meters.
A test track in the sky
The rooftop test track's total length is about 1.5 Km, with the two straightaways connected by two spectacular banked curves designed for speeds of up to 90 Km/h: more than enough for the 1920s, when most cars struggled to go past 70.
That busts what perhaps is the most common misconception about the Lingotto's rooftop track: it was never built for speed, but merely to serve as the logical conclusion of a vehicle's assembly process, allowing up to fifty cars at a time to be tested for possible malfunctions.
The rooftop test track has recently become a public garden, accessible from one of the two spectacular helicoidal ramps that were added in 1926 to ease vehicle access.
You can walk and even jog on the track, but you're not allowed to crawl towards the top of each banked curve, as security personnel will remind you as soon as you step out of line. You sure can imagine how I found out...
A flawed masterpiece
Since its inauguration in May of 1923, the Lingotto attracted high-profile visits, including the legendary architect Le Corbusier, who cemented the Lingotto's position in the history of architecture by mentioning it in his seminal "Toward an Architecture" book from 1923.
But the Lingotto was soon to prove less than ideal for high-volume production: the multi-story structure meant the heavier machinery had to stay on the lower levels for structural reasons, and the presence of support columns every six meters was also a constraint.
This more or less capped the Lingotto's output to around 300 vehicles per day by the 1930s, leading Fiat to start designing the new, sprawling Mirafiori complex less than ten years after the Lingotto's completion.
Although the Lingotto is a 1920s building, large parts of the structure we see today actually is a faithful late 1940s reconstruction, for reasons that are quite obvious once you remember what happened between 1939 and 1945.
Being one of Italy's largest industrial sites made the Lingotto a prime target for Allied bombing raids between 1940 and 1944, and although it wasn't completely obliterated, the amount of damage was extensive.
The post-war boom
The Lingotto may have been outdated and inefficient, but with the demand for automobiles exploding during Italy's mid-century economic renaissance, Fiat needed all the capacity it could muster.
Initially relegated to the production of domestic appliances like fridges and washing machines, the old Lingotto started churning out new cars again from the mid-50s, focusing on slightly lower-volume models that required more skilled labor.
Over time, the Lingotto produced some of the most beloved Fiat models, from the 1100 family sedan to the 124 Spider and the X1/9.
However, the last model ever to roll off the Lingotto's production lines wasn't a Fiat but a Lancia: the Delta hatchback was assembled there from its launch in 1979 until the factory's definitive closure in 1982.
A new lease of life
By then, this symbolic building had become such an integral part of Turin's urban fabric that demolition wasn't an option.
So, in a rare display of cultural sensitivity and foresight, Fiat's management decided to hold an international competition for projects to repurpose the massive structure, won by Renzo Piano.
The process took several years, but now the Lingotto hosts, to name a few: an auditorium with a capacity of 1900 spectators, a large exhibition venue and congress center, office spaces, a suitably posh hotel, an art museum, a multiplex cinema, and the inevitable shopping mall.
Between 1984 and 2000, the Lingotto served as the biennial Turin Motor Show venue.
Those who visit the rooftop test track can also see the so-called "Casa 500," a sort of museum dedicated to a Fiat model that, somewhat ironically, was never manufactured at the Lingotto.
Nevertheless, it's well worth a few minutes of your time because of the solid mahogany piece of industrial art on display inside: the "master" model that served as the reference for the 500's production tooling.
It can indeed be said that all the Fiat 500s made between 1965 and 1975 are, geometrically, a copy of this exquisitely modeled wooden sculpture.
Over time, Fiat gradually divested itself from the Lingotto, retaining just the office building built in 1926 to serve as the company's headquarters.
However, Fiat's current parent company Stellantis sold the historic building in February 2022 to Reply, an Italian company specializing in digital services.