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'Jan just liked to draw'

Jan Kaplicky’s last building, the Ferrari Museum in Modena, marks the end of good old fashioned Futurism, writes Jay Merrick

Jan Kaplický’s final building, the Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari in Modena, memorialises an architect for whom the cover-line on the May 1951 edition of Astounding Science Fiction magazine – ‘Galactic Gadgeteers’ – might have been written.

The museum distils Kaplický’s obsession with big, big toys for big, big boys. This is a sleek, Modena-yellow obituary to architecture’s charming Mr Awkward, who dropped dead in a Prague street in 2009.

We may never again see such a bravura expression of this Flash Gordon Futurism, an essentially retro architectural genre dependent, in Kaplický’s case, on sketches. This zone is now occupied by parametrics, cybernetics and the mutant organic formalism of designers, such as the faintly satirical Hernan Diaz Alonso.

Kaplický’s protege, Andrea Morgante and his London-based practice, Shiro Studio, oversaw the museum’s late stage design and completion. The seven-year span of the project, which began after Future Systems won the design competition at the end of 2004, reflects a nine-month contract and fee negotiation, nine months of design, more than 18 months for public fund-raising, and a three-year build complicated by bureaucracy surrounding the building’s unusual form.

A yellow building should terrorise this calm part of Modena, but it doesn’t

Morgante’s exquisite design for the Enzo Ferrari ‘life story’ exhibition, in the family’s 19th century metal-bashing workshop building alongside the museum, bears no trace of Kaplický’s streamlined, high-tech manner. Nor is there any hint of Ferrari’s technical ruthlessness. He said, famously, that streamlining was for people who couldn’t design engines. ‘If Ferrari had been in politics,’ notes the motor racing writer Joseph Dunn, ‘Machiavelli would have been his servant.’ When told that Luigi Musso, his young, highly promising driver, had died in a crash at the 1958 French Grand Prix, Ferrari replied: ‘And the car?’

The dominating feature of Kaplický’s design is the museum’s sculpted, 3,300 square metre aluminium T&G sheeted roof. It was put together by boatbuilders and its double-curve is claimed as a first at this scale. The glass facade is also double- curved, tilting and swerving deliriously at an angle of 12.5º. Morgante says it was intended to suggest the grille of a sportscar. It doesn’t. Instead, one thinks immediately of Oscar Niemeyer, and of the steep sopraelevata banking at the Monza grand prix circuit in the 1950s.

The glazing sections are supported by pre-tensioned steel cables, withstanding 40 tonnes of wind or snow pressure, and the technical specification of this system has maximised transparency. Half of the building’s internal volume is below ground level, making it the first museum in Italy to use geothermal energy. This move also helped keep the museum’s maximum height at 12 metres, the same as the neighbouring Ferrari family’s workshop and home.

The roof’s curve is supported by a concealed grid of narrow eight-part trusses and, at the museum’s ‘receiving’ end, by two massive columns that splay into asymmetrical Y-forms. The result of the building’s envelope construction, devised by Arup’s Sean Billings, is a massive clear volume of light-filled space in which the translucent ceiling membrane spreads an even radiance from the roof’s 10 partially glazed scoops.

The whole of the museum’s open internal volume – the entrance area is connected to the exhibition level by ramp and staircase – is visible the moment you enter the building, as are the 21 historic sports and racing cars, set on slim platforms raised 450mm above the floor. At the bottom of the ramp, under the shelf formed by the entrance area, is teaching space, an audiovisual room and a conference hall. Everything, apart from the cars and the yellow pods that contain the shop and lavatories, is white. The interior suggests a vast, high-tech clamshell. And the cars – such as the cream 1948 Ferrari Barchetta, and the agate blue 1955 Maserati Zagato Spyder – are as perfect as pearls, figments from the nacreous grit of automotive ideas transformed into sleekly perfected machines.

Kaplický, says Morgante, wanted to create a sensitive dialogue between the two exhibition buildings that showed consideration for the original Ferrari workshop and the family’s old home. This seems a rather dutiful remark. Kaplický’s original concept illustration shows a purple Pop Art hand reaching for the old barn, in pink. Morgante confirms Kaplický’s pathological disinterest in design briefs: ‘Jan never cared about them. He just liked to draw. He never designed options – the final design was always the evolution of the original sketch.’ Morgante made one significant contribution to the design, suggesting that the building ‘should be as if it was turgid and inflated. He agreed immediately’.

Kaplický’s design monomania is broadly successful in Modena compared to, say, Future Systems’ hilariously absurd competition entry for Colchester’s firstsite art gallery, which suggested a sexually aroused amoeba. It is notable that the new museum, and the exhibition in the restored home and workshop, cost the equivalent of £11.8 million, which would barely secure a quarter share in an apartment at One Hyde Park.

Equally unexpected is the relationship of the museum’s form with its urban context. A bright yellow building with streamlined air-intakes should terrorise the mixture of architecturally calm 18th, 19th and 20th century buildings in this part of Modena. It doesn’t, perhaps because it possesses, in high-tech terms at least, a very simply expressed form.

Morgante is apologetic about some of the building’s details, and speaks wistfully of the kind of refinements seen in high-tech buildings by masters of structural detail such as Nick Grimshaw. His concern obscures an important conceptual imperative: racing cars, certainly in Enzo Ferrari’s lifetime, were pared down machines, always on a knife-edge between innovation and cataclysmic failure. The museum’s architecture approaches that same stripped quality.

If the Enzo Ferrari Museum is the new architectural star of Modena, the Morgante-designed exhibition covering Enzo Ferrari’s life, in the former workshop, is a brilliantly contrasting coda. Morgante’s pure white oblong with projecting fins, suggests the pages – some thumbed, some riffled asymmetrically – of a three-dimensional biography of Enzo Ferrari.

Screens telling his story are set back in the ‘pages’ so that, experienced as a whole, the installation radiates an almost unearthly stillness. High above this block, two massive new white steel cross-braces – shades of tough, 19th century engineering – hold the barn’s repaired brick walls together. The relationship between Morgante’s abstract modern architectural object and the old fabric possesses a fascinating, unexpectedly subtle tension.

This is a fine piece of restoration and exhibition design that has given the historical contents an interesting, faintly surreal piquancy. In all this white, sculpted purity, it comes as an amusing shock to gaze down into a small vitrine and behold Enzo Ferrari’s legendary black-framed dark glasses. The man who wore those glasses once said: ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ The Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari has realised Modena’s dream to sanctify its most famous son – even if some might give precedence to other Modenesi grandees such as the late Luciano Pavarotti, or the Vatican’s senior exorcist, Gabriele Amorth.

AJ Buildings Library

See full project data, photographs, plans, sections and details for Enzo Ferrari Museum, Modena, Future Systems and Shiro Studio

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