The Barilla Complex at Barriera Vittorio Emanuele. The project by Gian Luigi Giordani, 1957-1964

Luca Monica

The consolidation of the Barilla complex in its historical headquarters in the city was achieved with the construction of the building by architect Gian Luigi Giordani (1909-1977) of Milan, who, a few years earlier in 1957 had designed a pharmaceutical industrial plant for Farmitalia in the important Lombard city, featuring many similarities with the plant in Parma.

Giordani was active in the context of the Italian Rationalistic current of the 1930s, and as it had already been done for the Milan plant, he was asked to design a type of factory developed on a vertical scheme by reorganizing a series of existing buildings located in the outskirts of the industrial periphery of Parma.
As it can be seen from the designs of the project and as it emerges from the initial model chosen, the new building should have partially substituted the system of buildings that had been constructed starting from the original nucleus of 1908, while progressively taking over the old structure according to a complicated process that intertwined the engineering resources of the Barilla technical department and the architectural know-how of Giordani.

The first works on an internal project of the technical department in 1955-57 concerned the west wing. The historical block of buildings for production was remodeled, and a new design was set for the inner facades facing the service courtyard that had been used as a main entrance since 1942. This facade built in 1957 on a design by engineer Ugo Vitali Mazza ( 1902-1978) was suspended on columns bearing two orders of windows, and it was kept by Giordani, though it was entirely resized eliminating any element that could seem to belong to a classicist style (symmetries, framing ribbons), to obtain a more abstract style (a ribbon of windows around the corners, continuity in volumes) in a complex and engaging operation to integrate the entire block up to where the new unit buildings began: these faced the Via Emilia and were intended to be used for company representation. In Giordani’s original project the inner court ended with a facade that should have extended to the north area towards the bread bakery of 1930 to replace it, but this was not built.

As it can be clearly seen in the study model, this side extended as a glassed-in gallery suspended on pillars, leaving in sight the frame and the floors in reinforced cement, which were slightly set back, through the transparency of glass.

Instead, the block that formed the beautiful external front along the Via Emilia was completely new, and with respect to the typology of building, it was clearly identifiable by a structural frame in armored cement with very deep and ample floors (about 15 meters) that opened on a curtain wall window facing south to allow as much sunlight as possible to filter inside, according to the lesson of Rationalism which was still alive. The complex in its entirety appeared on the Via Emilia as a design with the unexpected touches of a refined composition, such as the continual treatment of large mass surfaces in glass or in white tiles of fine dimensions, reduced to a minimum or hidden in the corners (as on the south western corner), to lighten the weight of the painted walls that wrapped the volumes of the complex up to the tower element which contained a set of stairs and was inserted in a grassy knoll almost as large as an embankment created by landscape design Pietro Porcinai (1910- 1986) in 1959-1960, that accentuated the different levels of land inclination between the Parma countryside and the Via Emilia (that then was called Strada Elevata).

The inner space was ordered according to a slightly rotated mesh with respect to the facade on the south, following older passages of pillars and ancient construction lines and was characterized by deep and well lit spaces alternating with darker inset caves thickly filled with production lines that, even though renovated through time and rendered adequate to new technical needs, did not substantially alter the type of set up as is well illustrated in two photographic surveys made in the same places at a distance of a few years, the first in the 1960s and the second at the end of the 1990s.

Most of all, the setting of the great double height nave that is placed on the eastern staircase tower on a metal scaffolding with large trestles is striking. This scaffolding was placed in the two upper floors and directly lit from above, and was of service to the production lines at the beginning of the pasta processing belts. What is surprising abut this construction phase is the method involved in making a project, still tied to the work of the internal engineering office of Barilla that organized the disposition of the machines and the distribution of spaces, working side by side with the architectural design of Giordani in the development of the plans to be implemented. The numerous detailed construction plans used in the partitioning of the facades, for the frames of the large window and the refined southern framing ledge are still stored at the Historical Archives and demonstrate the ability to connect even the most delicate architectural phases to the physiological aspects of the industrial mill.

The characteristics of this building, the vertical structure, the composition of tile and glass walls, the transparency and luminosity, the relationship with the grassy land, all recalled some of the ideal concepts on the architectural model of factories. This is especially evident in the idea of “a glass house”, as the title that appeared in a 1962 internal magazine of the company named it[1], that served to underline the concept of a social community that recognized itself in the buildings of its own plant, in the light diffused by the large windows that the Rationalist tradition imposed to give a stronger human dignity to workplaces, in the abstract game of the hygienic structures with tiles placed on the inside and the outsides, as in the small and ancient workshops for the production of bread and pasta, up to the openly declared individuality of the building that towered over the periphery of Parma like a “public building” and like only a few factories had been able to do in the still recent history of the industrialization of Italy.

An architectural dignity and the use of materials characterized the plant well beyond its nature of industrial building, making it completely part of the monumental asset of the city. The concatenated series of demolitions and new buildings that should have made it possible for the structure designed by Giordani to rapidly and completely taking over the ancient industrial premises clashed in real life with a series of fast transformations in the Barilla company economic and technical structure, to the point that this project was rapidly placed at the margins of the entrepreneurial potential of the entire group.

On one hand, the activity of the old bread bakery ended in 1952 and the production was focused on the pasta sector. Then, in those years the automation process of the production lines was being perfected, as these had already been introduced in 1957 even though they were still organized vertically. Moreover the production complex very soon reached the maximum volume of production allowed by the available spaces, which had revealed themselves to be quantitatively inadequate to the development of the market.

Indeed the necessity for a new building emerged immediately, and this was theorized to be located along the Autostrada del Sole (the Sun’s Highway) according to a study of 1964[2]. Nonetheless the Barriera Vittorio Emanuele plant was largely utilized up until its definitive shutting down and the demolition that foloowed in 1999. In spite of this, the building never appeared as anachronistic in its typology with respect to the technical needs of industrial activity (that was more specialized with respect to the food industry tradition of Parma, and that was destined until the end to the production of egg pasta and stuffed pasta), but its dismissal coincided with the idea of the impossibility to proceed with the cycle of successive transformations that were possible in this industrial area, as this was by now too engulfed in the weave of the city to allow for the dimensions and the necessary access points for the the volumes that are produced today.

Indeed, starting from 1964, as soon as the Giordani factory started its production, Barilla acquired the new areas for the Pedrignano plant that was built there starting in 1968 and that has been in use since 1970, and that is characterized by advanced processes of automation on transfer machines, switching to horizontal progression in the production lines and typology of the implants.

The life of the plant of Via Veneto, today Viale Barilla, lasted until June 30th, 1999, through a progressive phase of dismantling, as this was the date it was definitively closed and the demolition works began.

But if the Giordani building perhaps could not possibly be updated and configured for an industrial activity that would be logistically and economically feasible, it comes natural to ask ourselves up to what point it could have been possible to transform it to allow its survival (together with the beautiful home by architect Karl Elsässer of 1933), instead of carrying on the long work of demolition (testified in a documented report[3]) since by those times the formal statement of this architecture and the quality of craftsmanship had made it a protagonist of the monumental landscape of the city that stood out for importance beyond its original function.


  1. Una casa di vetro (a house of glass), in “Notizie Barilla” (Barilla news), 1962, April, p 1.
  2. PIETRO GENNARO E ASSOCIATI, Promemoria su alcuni criteri di scelta tra alternative di investimento. Typewritten document (A note on some criteria of choice in investment alternatives) , 1964 [ASB, O, Cartella Stabilimenti – Pedrignano].
  3. Stabilimento Barilla di Parma: lavori di bonifica e demolizione,(the Barilla plant of Parma: cleaning and demolition works) in Recycling, a. 3, n. 3, September 1999, pp. 66-71.