An abacus of light and speed
The building by Atelier(s) Alfonso Femia / AF517* for Dallara, the Italian racing car chassis manufacturer founded in 1972 and among the world’s top competition car constructors, is a concrete expression of the essence of speed. Standing comfortably in its rural setting, this sleek, meticulously designed ensemble embodies the technology and style that allowed a small business born in the province around Parma in central-northern Italy, in what is now called Motor Valley, to become an international legend. Dallara is all about turning precision mechanics, aerodynamics, research and innovation into material things. Like his fellow Italian architects, Alfonso Femia holds materiality dear, as is clearly evidenced in the way he has given the Dallara success story a physical form with the right choice of materials combined with attention to every detail making up the company’s new academy. Speed was the byword from the start. Beginning with the actual project, launched only two years ago with an invitation-only contest organized by the chassis-manufacturer. Construction combined painstaking on-site craftsmanship and traditional structural frames alongside the assembly of prefabricated modular units, an engineering feat in itself that in some phases had ten different teams on site at the same time. The result is a building - inaugurated last September - that slips effortlessly into its landscape, a key client requirement for a complex, which, as well as the firm’s representative office, also houses the second year master university course in Racing Car Design of the Motor Vehicle University of Emilia-Romagna (Muner). A series of simple, almost archetypal geometries executed in a range of different materials gives a clear account of what Dallara does and how it does it. To achieve this, the Femia practice brought to bear the full weight of its international know-how. The program could even be likened to an abacus of Femia’s multiple skills with ceramic, glass, metal, concrete, timber and cardboard. Yet these variegated elements come together in a single discourse, underpinned by a clear rationale, to produce a building whose interiors flow out into the grounds, blending the complex into its natural surroundings. The continuum is both horizontal, with the exhibition section reaching out to the green Apennine slopes, and vertical, the natural light penetrating the three cones containing the lecture rooms to fill the center of the complex. Assertive but never opinionated, Alfonso Femia’s creation takes you on an experiential journey through a series of different volumes that trigger reactions and relations. Each space is right for its function, catering for its specific needs. The play of associations and references implicit throughout aptly underscores the technical and creative skills that are the distinctive traits of Italian know-how at all levels. Yet what strikes you about the building is its quiet assertiveness, the absence of dramatic flourish. It exudes a calm - I would even call it - contented presence. Compared to the international scene, which Alfonso Femia is very familiar with, and where the accent is usually on the serious, weighty responsibility of the solitary architect and his product, it is a heartening relief to see a construction that is generous and fun in its candid use of materials - a welcome respite imbued with light. Built on an empty plot between the historic factory and the River Ceno nearby, the Dallara Academy stands at the eastern edge of the little town of Varano de’ Melegari and has become its undisputed landmark, thanks also to the intriguing use of different materials running along its façades. The patterns in relief on the ceramic tiles create bronze reflections on the upper sections of the three truncated cones rising above the rest of the building and containing the three lecture rooms of 85, 136 and 35 sq. m. The top band running the length of the broad curving volume containing a chronological exhibition of the company’s achievements - a tribute to Indianapolis where Dallara first made an international name for itself as a racing car brand - comprises an uninterrupted series of bronze panels, the folds in the metal making it resemble fabric. Beneath this long upper strip, an extensive crystal glass curtain wall encloses a 920 sq. m exhibition space. Prefabricated unrendered concrete panels clad the large, trapeze-shaped volume containing the 450-seat auditorium and laboratories. Apart from the glass curtain wall of the exhibition space, the base of the other sections is in fiber cement panels whose surfaces have been treated to reflect the light. The panels cladding the cylinders are appropriately rounded. The entrance to the Academy is via an easily accessed open approach above a covered ground level area strewn with specially treated gravel whose glinting reflections are projected onto the gilded ceiling under the exhibition area. Finally, the green roofs help nestle the building into its natural environment, lessening its impact on the landscape. Inside, all the volumes have been designed to allow for spatial adaptation to future requirements or special events. The hallmark of the interiors is wood. The furniture and regularly spaced partitions are all in wood. Walls and doors are clad in an innovative honeycomb cardboard, its pattern resembling old fabric. The Academy complex presents as a well-knit series of different shapes and volumes. Conceived to give concrete form to power and speed, the building itself is a dynamic machine. An intricate composition of solids and voids, it becomes almost an audible musical score “played” by the natural light.