“In our period – wrote Sigfried Giedion in his architecture, you and me – feeling seems to be much more difficult than thinking.
Man is able to invent nearly everything he wants in science and in all kinds of gadgets; but as soon as we approach the emotional, or, if you prefer, the aesthetic sphere, we meet the strongest resistance.”
That was in 1956 and more than 50 years have passed since the great historian proposed his interpretation of the, seemingly irremediable, crasis between signifier and significance in architecture. In the second half of the 20th century, the fast-moving evolution of building methods, as too continued experimentation with materials and designed forms, brought the phenomenon envisaged by Giedion to complete fulfilment.
MAST Bologna, the facade with the work by Mark Di Suvero
Today, architectural quality is seen solely from a formal standpoint – repeatable and often mechanically reiterated – almost as if it were obvious that the single artefact cannot resolve the complexity of the great urban process that increasingly impacts on the entirety of the territory.
Throughout the last century, the histories of industrialisation and architectural design were enmeshed in a complex weave that saw the fascination with the great myth of the factory spill over into an emulation celebrated in buildings converted to the most diverse uses in an attempt – via their form alone – to remember that they belonged to the Modernist era. This is what, back in 1981, Reyner Banham wrote in A Concrete Atlantis, highlighting the huge influence of North American industrial archaeology on the formation of the type/morphological features of much of the USA landscape.
MAST Bologna, detail of the facade
Although smaller in size and development, Italian cities have suffered similar fates and the now shabby suburban tangles show clear signs of anomalous scale systems. Until a few years ago, these were home to industries that are now abandoned or even demolished. A normal enzymatic process you may say but that is not really so.
A city’s connective tissue is also made of voids and the bachelor machines shaped by the now faded traces of 20th-century production glory. Genoa, Turin, Milan and Venice are place-names that evoke this fate in northern Italy. Yet, for those wishing to observe recent history, Bologna also presents a similar example which is currently being celebrated by the opening of a building that, we hope, will have the strength to become a catalyst of many local and national narratives.
MAST Bologna, the nursery
MAST – Manifattura di Arte, Sperimentazione e Tecnologia – opened on 4 October on a site adjacent to the suburb around Via Emila Ponente. It forms part of a 25,000 sqm complex designed by Rome practice LABICS, winner of an international competition called by COESIA president, Isabella Seragnoli. The new building stands beside the historic G.D factory and the headquarters of the COESIA Group, a world leader in advanced automated machinery and precision mechanics.
The MAST project aims to integrate the open business system – local but on a global scale – in the area and highlight a social responsibility to help the community of which it is an integral part grow. “A responsibility for economic, environmental and social development,” says Isabella Seragnoli, “that realises the importance of operating in a vibrant and innovative area that appreciates and cultivates the values of entrepreneurship.”
MAST is a large investment that, via the eponymous non-profit foundation, will encourage the development of creativity and entrepreneurship in the younger generations, partly in collaboration with other institutions and with a view to sustaining economic and social growth. Centred on technology, art and innovation, MAST is a multipurpose centre open to both COESIA employees and the community. It will offer services such as an exhibition space, an auditorium, an innovation and entrepreneurship academy, a nursery, a wellness centre, a company restaurant and a cafeteria open to the public.
MAST Bologna, machines gallery
As the two architects Claudia Clemente and Francesco Isidori explained to us, the underlying concept of this ambitious project emerged from the competition requirements, “The complex competition programme called for the design of several areas for activities such as company restaurant, academy, nursery, gym, auditorium, exhibition space, cafeteria and underground car park. We interpreted that by bringing the different functions together in a single complex so as to instil greater force and identity into the design and best interpret the building’s role as a public/private interface. The end result is a well-structured building both in terms of morphology and programme, a sort of micro-city given over to the arts, innovation and technology, with a single outer image but structured routes and functions.”
MAST Bologna, Mondi Industria gallery
The building is strongly characterised by two pedestrian ramps leading to the entrance and symbolising a metaphorical bridge linking company, surrounding city and adjacent park. With three storeys above ground and three underground (for car parks and stores) totalling 25,000 sqm, it has two glazed fronts and is environmentally sustainable. The complex is divided to provide a number of private, semi-public and public functions that unfold consistently throughout the three storeys above ground. The nursery is a traditional way to meet the needs of workers – and not only those of the COESIA Group – and combines the most interesting pedagogical research with an architectural response targeted to the children’s requirements. Opened in 2012 with 69 children, it will be able to accommodate up to 80 and was designed in collaboration with Reggio Children, a centre that has developed methods based on teamwork and deep-rooted relationships between children and their families.
Remaining on the subject of education, the third floor is home to A, again designed with cutting-edge technology for E-learning, the new teaching frontier that eliminates spatial boundaries and makes good teaching easily accessible. This occupies 1,000 sqm with classrooms that are open to local schools, providing them with opportunities to study advanced technology. Also on the third floor is the Auditorium, a unique architectural feature in Bologna for its size: 400 seats in a sound box close to the city centre and constructed with state-of-the-art technology that allows the modulation of the acoustics according to activity type, from conferences to 3D films, theatre and dance. Access to the Auditorium is enriched by the presence of Anish Kapoor’s Shine sculpture in the foyer.
MAST Bologna, auditorium
The cafeteria is open to the public and has an open kitchen, equipped with advanced technology and furnished to allow gastronomic experimentation and demonstrations. Open seven days a week it will be a great attraction, especially from spring to autumn with its large terrace overlooking the pool in front of MAST. The wellness centre is closely linked to the company restaurant, another stunning space open to the public at weekends and on public holidays. The aim is to bring together physical activity and the development of healthy and sustainable lifestyles via the provision of advanced technology and equipment. There is free access to the Gallery, 2,000 sqm devoted to exploring technological and business innovation processes and featuring new exhibition technologies with interactive instruments and devices, multimedia stations and augmented reality installations.
All designed to draw in young people in particular. The building’s opening saw the presentation of an interactive exhibition on the world of mechanical industry, an exciting edutainment route offering the chance to construct objects with mechanical pieces and raising awareness as to the physical and corporeal nature of technology.
MAST Bologna, facade
The gallery route passes through a space portraying the evolution of work from the 20th century to the present day. “The Industrial World is a selection of 200 pictures from the MAST industrial photography collection totalling approximately 1000 photographs and is curated by Urs Stahel, former Director of the Fotomuseum in Winterthur. Exhibited until December and then changed every six months, the photographs illustrate the changing scenarios of industrial production, the workplace, the product, the architecture and how people relate to their work environment.
In this case, a bridge was also built between the centre of Bologna and MAST by means of the first edition of the “Biennale Foto/Industria”, opened in the same period and with the added intention of conveying a sense of the importance of industrial photography. Curated by François Hèbel, Director of “Les Rencontres de la Photographie” in Arles and holding 17 exhibitions in ten iconic locations in the city of Bologna, it showcases extraordinary images by great international photographers – from Cartier Bresson to Doisneau, Basilico and Erwitt – on the theme of production development from the 20th century to now.
MAST Bologna, facade
The visitor route ends with the gardens and external structures, designed by landscape architect Paolo Pejrone and enriched with artworks, including Mark di Suvero’s monumental fiery-red Old Grey Beam sculpture. As Seragnoli again reminds us “MAST’s focus on the arts, experimentation and technology is also conveyed by other sculptures such as Olafur Eliasson’s Collective Movement Sphere in the atrium, Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Sfera in the Academy, Donald Judd’s Coffee Table and Anish Kapoor’s Shine in the foyer.”
In terms of its insertion, the location – the suburbs just outside the centre of Bologna – and the pre-existing alignment of factories fit in with the measure and calibre of the building, which acts as a point of mediation between the minute and scattered dimension of the surrounding urban fabric and the compact larger-scale masses of the industrial buildings. The overall image of MAST is one of a light, translucent and changing building. The serigraph-glass panel cladding that runs all along the structure and passes in front of opaque walls, coupled with aluminium lamellae, conveys an image that is uniform but, at the same time, liquid. By night, the building becomes a luminous object, allowing a glimpse of those moving around inside.
MAST Bologna, detail of the facade
The complex effectively stands as one on the outside whereas the inside layout is simple, effective and well developed. The only nagging doubt emerges when you look at the position of the Auditorium. Perhaps the most characteristic and unique feature of the structured whole, it suggests a potential dialogue with the neighbourhood that is denied by its closed outer skin. A strong, debatable but firm choice that we would love to discuss with the architects – a rare Italian example of a practice outside the usual and glittering star-system that has completed a work of this size. In this privileged part of Italy, the Modernist myth lives on. Elisa Poli – cofounder Cluster Theory
MAST building site. Photo Gabriele Basilico