The “Pasta Check Point” in Parma. Notes on the architecture of the Barilla plant in Pedrignano.

The inauguration of the Autostrada del Sole (Highway of the Sun) in the stretch between Milan and Bologna that took place in 1959 caused the progressive construction of an industrial landscape which lined up along its course and was completely different from that which rose in the peripheries of the various urban centers where there were unexpected surfaces available and iwhen there was the opportunity to create plants out of the ordinary urban plan.

The Pavesi Autogrills, especially the bridged ones designed by architect Angelo Bianchetti (1911-1994) starting from 1959  had become works of engineering configured in architectural terms, like later on was the case of some industrial plants among which the Barilla complex, a true archetype in which the use of up to date prefabricate elements and attention to quality in the details derived from a construction industry that was very advanced in building planning technique.

Indeed, starting as early as from 1964 (the same year in which the factory designed by architect Gian Luigi Giordani (1909-1977) in Viale Veneto, today Viale Barilla, began operations), Barilla bought the land on which the future plant of Pedrignano would be built, as this was conceived in advance with respect to  the phenomenon of industrialization of the highway axis, but also with respect to the process of urban planning in Parma, since functional areas of this type were included in the Great Urban Plan only starting from 1967.

In those years, the idea of the highway began indeed to be considered as an opportunity and a resource for companies also in terms of advertising image, to the point that this influenced the new choices of localization for industrial complexes. As early as 1964 Barilla commissioned the studio of Pietro Gennaro and Associates the consultancy for a Survey on some criteria of choice between alternatives in investment on the possible economic advantages deriving from the localization of a plant for the production of pasta along the Autostrada del Sole (Highway of the Sun) in the Rome-Naples stretch: advantages connected to the increase of the volumes of production in virtue of the advertising effect induced solely by the access to the transit highway and independent from the inclusive system of industrial, economic and market relations on which the company is founded.

Nonetheless, from the point of view of the typology of the settlement, the new plant offered interesting opportunities. While the building at Barriera Vittorio Emanuele was characterized by a strong concentration of spaces and by a traditional vertical organization of activities, in Pedrignano the continuous production lines could be spread in horizontal, so to be organized according to that incessant process of automation with transfer machines that in those years was being developed, with an impact on industrial culture that was well described by sociologist Frederick Pollock in his book Automation of 1957.

Indeed, in those years the Pedrignano plant represented the heart of the industrial universe of Barilla that involves large part of the economic production process related to its products, as a warranty of control of quality characteristics, starting from the activity of grinding of the Durum Wheat flour (mainly done in the plants of Altamura, Ferrara and Matera), up to the cycles of inner processing of the Parma plant where the completely automated production line  carries on all of the interconnected operations, from the storage of  Durum flour in large silos to the making of pasta, to packaging and storage.

What is striking in the project of this plant is the importance of the role of the production lines that are spectacular to be seen both for the complexity of the set up, for their dimensions, and for their functional organization. These characteristics are strictly due to to the level of technical experience that has been reached in industrial engineering. In the previous plant of Viale Veneto these competences had been largely managed by the internal offices of Barilla, in a progressive integration process that made it possible to include the architecture of the external facades in a constructive system in which much attention was given to the details of the work area and to the organization of machines and of their structures.

In Pedrignano instead, the exceptionally large dimensions for those times (but this pasta factory is the largest plant of this type in the world still today), required a specific architectural project adequate to the large covered space and the machinery it hosts, and required the internal construction of large carpentry structures and machines that  had not yet been experimented, with the support of specialized mechanical engineering companies of this sector. These structures appeared in the photos of the dark and cavernous inner workplace as something absolutely unusual when compared to the traditional landscapes known at the time.

Indeed, in a factory that was so technologically advanced artificial lights and climate control would be the best choice,  and these could be obtained with completely closed facades and by a sophisticated installation of air conditioning to preserve the temperatures and the degrees of humidity required by the working cycles.

While the plant at Viale Veneto had been defined “ a house of glass” as the emblem of a productive community open to its own life, like stated in the title of an article that appeared in the Barilla inner newspaper of 1964, the  Pedrignano building, which does not allow anything outside the scheme of a rigid relation  between machines and operators, whose number decreased because of progressive automation, exalted the values of extreme rationalization and autonomy. These values in Italy in the 1970s can be contextualized as the consequence of a condition of extreme hardship in work relations, as can be seen in the movie by Elio Petri La classe operaia va in paradiso (the working class goes to heaven) of 1971. Today, these values do not necessarily have negative connotations, but correspond to working conditions of great dignity in an overall balance referred to recent history and to the entrepreneurial tradition of the Barilla family.

In other aspects, the architectural design of the building corresponded to the declared autonomy and efficiency of the plant, the substance and image of a modern production capacity on the part of Barilla that has its origins within its industrial know-how and is based on a fully developed technique in this sector.

The design group was oriented towards these criteria of efficiency in construction and was based on the professional engineering studio formed by Giuseppe Valtolina (1904-71) and Carlo Rusconi Clerici (1914-89) of Milan (who had already collaborated in the construction of the Pirelli Tower in the Lombard metropolis), and the US engineering company Austin for the executive design and construction work. This required a workforce of 600 people residing in the site area during the most intense phases of construction from 1967 to 1970.

The building was designed with the aim to achieve an interesting dominance of large technical volumes on the covering of the roofs that emerge from the body of the main factory almost as a basement formed with white cement prefabricated panels, and on the facades delineating an extremely large block that covered an area of 55,000 square meters with a continuous 340 meters long front along the highway.
The most significant detail is the design of the external prefabricated panel that encloses the 7 to 10 meters high facades, and that with its ribbing that look almost like buttresses makes  the inner framework of compressed concrete beams and pillars statically more stable against wind pressure.

These self-bearing elements with a shelf at their foot that holds them steady in their support, form a rounded platform that along with the ribbing accentuates the rhythm of the linear development of the facades. In addition to forming a support on which the panel is inserted, this base also gives the complex an unusual figurative profile with respect to other industrial buildings of this kind. The base actually unites the body of the factory to the terrain making its volumes easier to identify and emphasizing its linear design while  giving perspective to the wall that seems apparently crushed against the line of the landscape in the dynamic view from the highway.

Perhaps it was for these reasons that this authoritative, severe, and powerful work of architecture that is clearly outstanding among other structures along the highway appearing in comparison almost as anonymous, that Pedrignano was included n a 1979 survey organized by the architectural journal Modo in the top one hundred most significant works of Italian architecture built since 1928.

The Pedrignano plant complex is still visible from the highway front with its well defined outline today as it was in 1970. However, in time a much more complex and articulate industrial area has developed at its back with respect from the volumes that had been originally contemplated by the designers. Aside from a series of expansions and of new pavilions that were added in time, like the Egg Pasta department built by the Austin company between 1995 and 1996 that started production in 1997 and the Stuffed Pasta pavilion of 1998 inaugurated on October 26 1999 in the presence of Minister of Health Rosy Bindi, both built to replace the Viale Barilla departments that were being dismantled, a few architecturally significant episodes must be mentioned, as these aimed at a reconstruction of a sense of urban community that was so evident in the Viale Barilla complex demolished at the dawn of the new millennium.

First of all, we must remember the project designed by architect Pietro Porcinai (1910-1986) around 1984 that was not built, to organize the green areas surrounding the plant that extended also on the opposite side of the highway. Porcinai imagined the highway entering the area of the plant and going through it, flowing through a thickly wooded area, and fixing it as a part of geography and as a significant reference point, almost a sort of check point that could be recognized along the road between Milan and Bologna. On these areas, moreover, on a strip lateral of land cultivated as lawn several hundred white hens would have been left free to roan laying eggs around a few sties so to be visible from the highway and to represent, in very humorous tones, the production of egg pasta in a rural rendition of pop-art.

Instead of the ironic art installation, Porcinai was commissioned to redesign some of the areas of the plant and Pietro Barilla preferred to place a series of contemporary sculptures on the surrounding lawns and paintings by artists of the 1900s inside the offices that in the meantime formed a true art collection, by now famous, destined to workplaces, including works by Bacon, Balla, Boccioni, Cascella, Ceroli, Consagra, De Chirico, Léger, Ligabue, Marini, Picasso, Pomodoro, Savinio, Sutherland, Vangi.

It is worthwhile to notice how the theme of works of art inside factories in this instance was not subjected to any rhetorical emphasis, but instead was introduced with natural ease and almost casually  to be a visual counterpoint to the industrial landscape, dense with the steam of the numerous chimneys that is visible from the executive offices building.

The theme of visibility of the Barilla brand logo with respect to the architecture of the industrial buildings and the external set up found its balance in the design of the signs by architect Bob Noorda (1927 – ) from the Netherlands in 1989, which involved all of the complexes of the industrial group. These signs instinctively follow the prismatic silhouettes of the blue pasta boxes and they reproduce them on the scale of the buildings, either vertically or horizontally, with an outstanding straighten of synthesis of volumes, very coherent with the rarefaction of spaces that in Pedrignano determine a very original and clear aspect along the highway.

Lastly, between 1991 and 1993 Austin completed two more buildings on a project by architect Vico Magistretti (1920-) the first to be used as offices, for hosting the Director’s office, and for the accounting department, and the second to be used as company restaurant. These buildings are able to stand a dialectical comparison and to represent a true stylistic counterpoint to the first pasta plant of 1970, almost as to establish an itinerary in space that from the entrance gate leads the eye towards the inner part of the complex through these two buildings.

The complex of office buildings is organized around two squared inner courtyards that open on wide terraces on the third floor where the chairman’s office and a large meeting room are located in addition to  the large art collection, and serves a space for public relations. The structure is very simple and includes an armored cement frame in relief on the outside for the first two floors and a raised level (created during the building process), made of steel, designed as if it were the elongation of the square mesh of the frames of the facade.

The group of two buildings, offices and restaurant (the latter being a simpler building), from a figurative standpoint stress the idea of repetition of a white square framework on the facades and in the structure.

An aspect that became defined through time, all this is an effective way of introducing the Barilla complex creating the surprising itinerary of a guided tour that opens on a garden plaza with sculptures and large Plane Trees enclosed among the large volumes of the production plants and of the silos and showing dimensions, space relations, and architectural drama that greatly recall the strong contrasts of lights and shadows of the Piazza della Pilotta of Parma, almost as if this was the only known way to build a part of a city, a new heart for the history of an industrial tradition.