In Jan Kaplicky’s posthumously completed Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena, the architect’s obsession with amoebic, streamlined forms finally makes sense
Enzo Ferrari always signed his name in purple ink. It was a colour that he had a particular nostalgia for, being the hue of the carbon paper with which his father used to copy letters — a magical process that entranced him as a child. His other trademark was a distinctive pair of sunglasses, without which he would never be seen in public.
Both the purple ink-filled fountain pen and the dark black wayfarers now sit like papal relics in a glass case in the Enzo Ferrari Museum, which has just opened in his hometown of Modena, Italy. Next to the sunglasses, a telling caption reads: “The very fact that meeting his gaze without ‘barriers’ was a privilege says a great deal about the psychology of a person who was very proud of his uniqueness.”
Anecdotes portray the enigmatic founder of the world’s most sought-after car brand as both a genius and a monster, known for pushing his drivers to their limits. After being informed that a crash had killed one of his best racers in 1957, he is said to have replied “And the car…?”
For a man of such uncompromising vision, whose impact on the region was so extensive that he became known as “the Pope of the north,” it seems highly appropriate that the museum built in his memory has been designed by one of the most uncompromising architects of our time.
Kaplicky’s last words to BD were: ‘I forbid you from running any more of my work’
“Jan Kaplicky was quite a lone master,” says Andrea Morgante, who worked alongside the Czech-born architect at Future Systems for eight years, and has seen this project through to completion since Kaplicky’s death in 2009. “His way of running the office was almost military.”
All who met him have familiar stories of a man both inspirational and infuriating in equal measure. His last words to the editor of BD, 10 days before his death, were: “I forbid you from running any more of my work” — his regular threat, which would usually be followed by a friendly phone call some days later. So apologies in advance, Jan — we trust you will forgive us one last time.
What would be the practice’s final project started life in 2004, as an invited international competition to design a Maserati Museum — a brand then associated with Ferrari, both under Fiat ownership — in the grounds of the Ferrari family’s former house and workshop.
Future Systems’ entry was almost identical to what now stands here today: a streamlined metallic shell, pierced along its length with openings like the air vents of an early Ferrari bonnet, emerging out of the ground to frame the existing building with a sweeping curve. Only it was bright blue — the brand colour of Maserati.
Source: Shiro Studio
It was the first major international competition win for Kaplicky, and the closest he had come to the ambition set out in his book, Confessions: “Let’s create something so poetic, colourful and overwhelming as a blue sky. Nobody will dislike it.”
It may now be yellow and named after Ferrari, a change made when it was thought impolitic to build a monument to Enzo’s deadly rivals in his back garden, but its form embodies the same ebullient, overwhelming spirit.
Morgante recalls how the competition process was unusually calm: the design never wavered from Kaplicky’s first sketch, there was no shouting and they even finished a day early.
“It immediately felt like the right kind of chemistry,” he says. “Jan was all about cars, boats and aeroplanes, so it was the perfect brief for Future Systems.”
It is hard to disagree. For while many of the office’s dreamy competition proposals had seemed wildly inappropriate — from those bulging bosoms on the banks of the Seine for the Bibliotheque Nationale, to that glassy shell perched over Bankside power station for Tate Modern — here Kaplicky’s obsession with amoebic, aerodynamic forms finally makes sense. The building is bold, brash and unforgiving — as flash as a Ferrari, nonchalantly parked askew on the edge of the old town centre.
Source: David Pasek
Approaching from the street, a marching line of yellow railings frames a long forecourt which leads to a pantile-roofed, terracotta-rendered building, the former metal workshop of Enzo’s father. Lurking behind this, barely rising above the roofline, the new museum is hardly visible. Its presence is only given away by a silvery tongue that extends around the corner, ending in a curve whose geometry is at once recognisable as being from the Future Systems stable.
As you turn the corner, this chromed tendril flares up to frame a concave glass wall that tilts back into the building, as though being sucked inwards by the taut diaphragm of the roof. A series of horizontal louvres extends the length of this facade, in reference to a radiator grille — although inevitably recalling the curtain wall vernacular of a corporate office block.
Source: David Pasek
The roof itself is a magnificent tour de force, a chameleonic form that mutates as you circuit the building. Seen from the neighbouring elevated railway line to the north, it looks like a shark beached broadside, its gills upturned. From the rear,it recalls the furrowed shell of a horseshoe crab, or some mutant armadillo, crouched low in the landscape. For all its dazzling colour and formal swagger, it is a surprisingly stealthy object.
The seamless, slippery finish is formed by powder-coated aluminium tongue-and-groove planks, a system developed by an Austrian boat-building company and used by Amanda Levete on the facade of 10 Hills Place, a small building off Oxford Street, that was being developed in the office at the same time. Crucially, the structure avoids the need for expansion joints — the aluminium shell rests on a lattice of steel trusses, via 4,000 metal nodes fixed to rails, allowing the skin to flex independently.
Entering the building is a true Jonah experience, like being swallowed into the cavernous belly of a space-age whale. The interior is drenched in a seamless whiteness, from the white resin floor that moulds up into the walls, to the arching ribbed soffit. The only visible supporting structure is two giant, forked steel props, painted the same canary yellow as the roof, which lean cartoonishly back against the tilted facade. They connect to a hidden 1m-diameter circular section double-curved steel tube which runs around the perimeter of roof, welded on site in 4m-long sections. Unfortunately, lack of budget precluded expressing the underside of the roof’s curvaceous north lights, so daylight is instead diffused through slots in the suspended ceiling.
In section, the floor plane gradually slopes down to a level 4.7m below grade, the volume carved into the ground to prevent the roof height from overshooting its neighbours. The open-plan space takes visitors on a free-form journey around 17 vintage cars borrowed from private collections — from Alfa Romeos to Maseratis, Stanguellinis to De Tomasos — displayed on little plinths, giving them the look of Matchbox toys. The story of the region’s car industry is told in a long white leather-upholstered display case which circumnavigates the edge of the room, along with a series of speakers that convincingly project the roar of car engines racing around the perimeter. At the lowest level, circular openings lead to a subterranean classroom on one side, a conference hall on the other.
Talking through the protracted history of the project — the seven-year gestation apparently not unusual for a €14 million publicly funded building in Italy — the reason for the rather loose plan becomes clear.
“There wasn’t really a brief. We were sort of left to do what we wanted to do,” says Morgante, tactfully describing the client as “plural,” a complex alliance of local officials, departments and ministries. “But Jan would never wait for a brief, he would design anyway.” Without the patience and diplomacy of his right-hand man, it is clear this project would never have got off the ground.
The building is bold, brash and unforgiving — as flash as a Ferrari, parked askew on the edge of the old town centre
It is also evident quite how hard Morgante, working as the independent Shiro Studio since 2009, has strived to detail the building in the spirit of Future Systems. “Jan always said you should spend money where it really matters,” he says, pointing out the different choices of bespoke and factory-produced details that infuse the building with the spirit of the handmade cars on show.
The glass facade, for example, is supported by steel cables, pre-tensioned to 40 tonnes, which connect to the glazing via custom-designed nodes that were cast in lost-wax by a local foundry. Similarly, Morgante designed the door handles, sinks, chairs and marble benches — milled by a local marble company, run by three generations and hand-engraved by the grandfather.
Source: Studio Centro/Andrea Morgante
The project also stays true to Kaplicky’s environmental thinking, as one of the first architects to champion sustainability before the term became fashionable. Twenty-four probes drilled to a depth of 125m provide the building with geothermal energy, while the entire 3,300sq m space is naturally ventilated, the roof-lights opening at night to cool the building.
In places, the project has clunks. Sinuous, floating forms always have difficulty meeting the ground, and this one is no exception. The perfect yellow shell sits uncomfortably on a 3m high mound of compacted earth — the budget wouldn’t stretch to green-wall honeycomb matting — although this is soon to be sewn with grass and ivy. The need for car parking left no space for a public park, and, as a landed object, the building does somewhat turn its back on its surroundings.
But these are minor niggles in a building that is brimming with the life of both its architect and its namesake, which stands as a vivid testament to ambition of these colourful characters.
The house & workshop
Built by Enzo Ferrari’s father in the 1830s, the house and workshop had long been abandoned, with the ground floor used as temporary garaging, while squatters lived upstairs.
As part of the project, Andrea Morgante oversaw a complete restoration of the building, preserving what could be salvaged, and inserting a new steel bracing frame to shore up the walls.
Source: Studio Centro/Andrea Morgante
A sinuous display structure extends down the centre of the 40m space, conceived as a 3D immersive biography, with chapters of Ferrari’s life separated by undulating “pages”.
Two rooms off to the side, where his father typed his letters, contain the hallowed pens and purple copied correspondence, the walls covered in stretched white membrane and backlit with a violet light. Rooms upstairs have been converted to house the museum’s administrative offices.
Architects Future Systems and Shiro Studio, Client Fondazione Casa Natale Enzo Ferrari, Project management and structural engineer Politecnica- Modena, Main contractor Società Consortile Enzo