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Jan-Feb 2014 | Issue n.55

Labics designs a corporate campus that reflects a special relationship with art, culture and philanthropy.

Technology, experience, art and innova- tion are the key words of MAST, a new mixed-use complex and headquarters of the Coesia Group, an innovation-based industrial solutions company, located in the suburbs of Bologna. The building is the result of a re- stricted private design competition held in 2006 and won by the Italian architectural firm Labics, founded in Rome in 2002 and led by Maria Claudia Clemente and Francesco Isidori. The competition, launched by Coesia president Isabella Seragnoli, sought the development of a series of buildings across the company campus, thereby providing staff facilities as well as public spaces.

The project is not only a new headquarters, but also a shared space for the community. In fact, the MAST Foundation is a cultural and philanthropic institution that focuses on art, technology and innovation, favouring the development of creativity and entrepreneurship while also cooperating with other institutions in order to support economic and social growth.

In a way, the project carries on the tradi- tion of important Italian entrepreneurs who pushed and supported growth during the economic boom in Italy following the Second World War. The most influential figure of this generation was Adriano Olivetti (1901-1960).

His experiment in Ivrea, a small town near Turin where Olivetti set up his manufactur- ing company headquarters, remains the cutting-edge of a perfect mix of clever busi- ness politics, good architecture and a posi- tive urban and social impact. Today, what the MAST Foundation shares with Ivrea is a public aspect and the strategic choice for a contem- porary architectural language. But the social aspects of the project still remain in doubt due to the period of prolonged crisis in which this laudable business and social venture is set.

What is well-defined are the intentions of the architects: the final output is a composite building, a sort of campus manifested as a compact micro-city from the outside, but articulated in pathways and multiple functions on the inside, the total area of which is 25,000 square metres. On the ground floor is located a company canteen, exhibition hall, service rooms, gym and a large nursery with its own garden. At the first level is an exhibition space and cafeteria, and the top floor is occupied by various classrooms, a foyer and an auditorium that can accommodate 400 people. Two main fronts represent its connection with the surroundings. The private and regular front relates to the existing company buildings, whereas the public and more communicative front, thanks to long ramps, encourages the public to get into the heart of the building. Here, the monumental red sculpture by Mark di Suvero, Old Grey Beam, establishes a strong dialogue with the cantilevered auditorium. This is just one example of a number of special relationships devised by the architects. To underline this strong link, the entire building, from the external ramps to the multiple internal foyers, is conceived together with contemporary works of art in each of its areas. Permanent installations include large sculptures by Anish Kapoor, Donald Judd and Olafur Eliasson that reinforce the power of the spaces and create a stimulating contrast.

In its fragmented urban context, the building responds as a mediator, also thanks to its configuration: a solid and translucent body that becomes transparent at night – a bright urban object. This occurs thanks to the double-skin glass of the facade, which itself is composed of two layers: a transparent curtain wall and a glazed layer, screen-printed with a pixelated photographic design. ‘The power of this architecture is in its simplicity and in its openness. It is a melting pot of different activities and potentialities. And we hope all the citizens will feel it as their own place’ affirm the architects.

It is undeniable that the success of a building like this is strictly related to the response of the public. The project represents the outcome of a very virtuous process, something not always taken for granted in a country like Italy, where international competitions end up inconclusive in the majority of cases. The timing is extraordinary as well, an exception in the Italian panorama where a combination of delays, political changes, and now the economic crisis usually leads to a stalemate. The contest was launched in 2005, the winner announced in 2006, the building site opened in 2009 and the official opening was held in October 2013. It is an almost unique instance that demonstrates the excellence and the will to persevere that, nevertheless, still exists in Italy.