Turin World Design Capital

25 Sep 2008 by Sara Turner
Turing skyline C iStock-DarioEgidi-515973372

From art and architecture to transport and engineering, this Italian city is undergoing an aesthetic renaissance. Sara Turner reports.

I’m coming up to the parabolic bend, the ground curves beneath me and I speed up regardless, with mountains clear in the distance and the warm morning sun on my back. Running on the old Fiat test track, on the roof of the Lingotto factory, is an experience like no other – a peaceful moment above the city with an added high-octane thrill.

When Italians think of Turin, they imagine a grey, industrial city – no reason to go, except maybe for a football match. But both the city and the surrounding area have for decades been at the cutting-edge of design, as witnessed by the legendary cars conceived by designers such as Pininfarina and Giugiaro, as well as locally produced icons such as the Olivetti typewriter and the Fiat 500. And in recent years, according to the locals (“i Torinesi”), the city itself has finally made the metamorphosis from moody, grubby adolescent into a chic cultural capital.

Thanks to its location at the foot of the Alps, Turin has been a major centre for trade since medieval times, and was (briefly) the first capital of a united Italy. The seeds of its industrial success were sown in 1899 with the founding of Fiat, but it was the 1960s and 1970s that saw a mass migration of workers from elsewhere in Italy to the city’s car plants (Turin doubled in size in just 15 years).

The boom was short-lived, however, and by the 1990s, with industry in decline and Fiat in crisis, the city had to think again. Taking Barcelona as a role model, Turin’s authorities produced a strategic plan for long-term development, bringing together economic, cultural, architectural and transport elements.

Key to this renovation was the hosting of international events, and the effort paid off with the arrival of the Winter Olympics in 2006. And, proving that was no flash in the pan, Turin has been crowned World Design Capital 2008 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. The accolade recognises cities which have used design for social, cultural and economic revitalisation, and the project covers the whole of Turin, with multiple venues hosting exhibitions and events.

Paola Zini, director of the World Design Capital, was born and bred in Turin and her passion for the project, and her birthplace, is infectious. She tells the story of a city in a state of flux. “Being the World Design Capital has become an occasion to look at changing the area, as well as the culture and the mindset of people who live and work in the city,” she says. “All the factories around here, all abandoned, can be used, and there is this huge process of transformation. It’s really been a pilot project, in the sense that it’s the first time a World Design Capital has been named, so we have the task of experimenting.”

The exhibitions around the city illustrate the various incarnations of a modern metropolis. Andrea Bairati, vice-president of the Organising Committee Turin 2008 World Design Capital, says: “Today, cities are constantly undergoing change, a change which affects social, cultural and economic aspects. The contemporary city needs flexible answers. It must be able to continuously remodel itself, each time discovering a new capacity for adapting itself. World Design Capitals are cities in transformation that use design to help redesign a more sustainable and shared future. Flexibility is the method, design is the instrument.”

To see what Bairati means, visit the Flexibility exhibition (Via Paolo Borsellino 1; until October 12), where nine designers have addressed the task of creating adaptable objects for urban use. Among them is the Flexible Bench, a simple yet ingenious idea by industrial designer Giulio Iachetti – one way up it’s a park bench, but if you roll it over it becomes a shelter. Similarly, My Treasure Trash offers a place to put your unwanted belongings in the hope that someone else can find a use for them, while Spectre gives a makeover to the humble emergency sandbag – here, thick felt sacks in bold colours filled with a mix of sand and foam beads provide movable and inexpensive building blocks for a social space.

Meanwhile, the Dream exhibition (at Corso Massimo D’Azeglio 15; until November 23) demonstrates that Turin is still at the cutting-edge of automotive design. On show are a range of “concept cars”, including Pininfarina’s Nido. As the name (meaning “nest”) suggests, this two-seater urban runabout has a unique system for protecting its occupants – in a head-on crash, the vehicle absorbs part of the energy in the chassis, while an internal compartment slides away from the point of impact and enables its gradual, controlled deceleration.

Another example of Turin’s recent transformation is the redeveloped Lingotto building. Opened in 1923, it was Fiat’s main factory for more than 50 years and one of the most innovative industrial structures of the era. Starting on the ground floor, the manufacturing process saw the cars gradually put together as they rose through the building’s five storeys. The finished product was then tested on the rooftop track (which was also used to film part of the famous car chase in The Italian Job).

The factory closed in 1982, when Fiat moved to the much larger and more modern Mirafiori complex, to the south of Turin, and the Lingotto complex stood empty for a decade. Then, in the early 1990s, architect Renzo Piano oversaw the conversion of the whole complex into two hotels, a shopping centre, a cinema, an exhibition and conference space, a gym and offices.

Gianrico Esposito, general manager of the Le Méridien Lingotto and Art + Tech, is very conscious of the building’s legacy. “Lingotto, for the Torinesi and the city, remains a symbolic place because it’s where the history of the city was made,” he says. “For the era it was a very innovative factory because it was a groundbreaking process of working.”

Thanks to this and other regeneration projects, Turin’s future looks set to be as successful as its past. Brick by brick, the city is redeveloping itself, with plans for improved public transport systems, new buildings and yet more international events.

The exhibition To11: Biografia di una Cittá (Corso Castelfidardo 18; until October 12) details the vision. In the next few years, the metro will be finished and the railway network improved, while high-speed trains to Milan are already running and more services on the network are planned.

There are a lot of new buildings going up, among them a new university block designed by a team of architects including Norman Foster. In 2010, Turin will be the European City of Science and in 2011 the city will again be the focus of national celebrations with the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy.

Turin has the feel of a great European city, with a rich history and a joie de vivre more akin to Northern Europe than the flamboyant Mediterranean. It is also a showcase for how planning and design can change a city’s fortunes.

Esposito says: “Turin is a city that has been able to transform itself from a great industrial city into what you see today – a centre for tourism and for innovation in design.”

La Fiat

To understand Turin, you really need to get inside the gates of Fiat. When I arrive, I am met by my guide, Raoul, and a chauffeur-driven Fiat, which takes us to one of the main factory buildings.

Here they are making the Mito, a new Alfa Romeo due to be launched in the UK next year. Hunks of metal hang from hooks on a conveyor belt, with workers attaching the vehicles’ intestines. “Everything is synchronised, so the parts and the car meet just in time,” says Raoul.

It takes around 12 hours to make a car. First the body shell is assembled and painted by robots. The doors are then removed to make it easier for the workers to get in and out of the car to fit all the parts. Next comes the “marriage” of a car, when the engine and suspension group are united. The rest of the fittings are then inserted in turn, until finally the doors are reattached and the vehicle is complete.

Once the cars are made, tests are done inside the factory. I watch as a car is placed on a bed which shakes, rattles and rolls to check the suspension. Then there is a large shed, inside which the cars are given a drenching to check they are watertight. Outside, the vehicle is put through its paces on a test track with every type of road surface – from cobblestones and gravel to sand – and parabolic bends.

Next stop on my tour is the base of Abarth, Fiat’s racing brand, where they are putting the finishing touches to a batch of superhero versions of the Fiat 500. (The Abarth 500 is also due to launch in the UK in 2009.) Here, the cars are painted by hand, and take a lot longer to build. They also get a faster engine, external brakes, luscious interiors and cheeky Scorpion branding.

You can also visit the Mirafiori Motor Village. The largest Fiat Group dealership in the world, it has plenty of models to lust over, as well as memorabilia and the chance to design your own Fiat 500.

Fiat is based in Mirafiori, around 30 minutes’ drive from the city centre. Tours cost €10; for more details go to turismotorino.org. The Mirafiori Motor Village is open

Mon-Sat 9am-7.30pm, and until 10pm on Thursdays. Visit mirafiorimotorvillage.it.

Turin Gourmet

The dining opportunities in this city are second to none, and many of Italy’s finest gustatory exports were born here. Sara Turner samples some local culinary delights.


Housed in the old Carpano vermouth factory, Eataly is a supermarket based on the values of Slow Food, the non-profit organisation which works to improve biodiversity and encourage local producers.

As well as stocking up the larder with everything from top-quality Parmesan to pasta and olive oil to take home, you can enjoy a meal cooked with the same ingredients. Each area is dedicated to a product – pasta, cheese, meat, fish and bread – paired with informal themed restaurants. There’s also a library and the Carpano museum.

The idea of providing the best Italian food to try, buy and take home is now being exported to the Japanese market, with the first store outside Italy opening in Tokyo at the end of September.

(Open 10am-10.30pm daily.)

Via Nizza 230; eatalytorino.it.

Guido Gobino

Even if you’re not a chocolate lover, you’ll be ravished by Gobino’s, which is also due to launch in Japan soon. Here you can try the finest chocolate, made from the finest cocoa beans, sourced from independent farmers around the world.

The tasting experience is fascinating. For example, the Gianduiotto is a Torinese speciality, made from hazelnuts and cocoa – pop it in your mouth and let it melt slowly on your tongue. Try chocolate made from cocoa beans from four different places around the world, which although produced in exactly the same way, taste completely different. The best news is that it’s all good for you – cocoa contains antioxidants and lowers blood pressure. There’s even a chocolate made with salt and olive oil, which sounds vile but is delicious.

(Open Tues-Sun 10am-8pm, Mon 3-8pm.)

Via Lagrange 1; guidogobino.it.

Martini And Rossi

Martini is one of Turin’s most famous exports. Although the recipe is a trade secret, you can see and smell the ingredients that go into the wine-based aperitif including the caramel colouring that gives its colour to Martini Rosso.

The factory is on the original site in Pessione, a small town on the outskirts of Turin, along with the 18th-century family home of Alessandro Martini’s business partner Luigi Rossi.

Modern additions to the plant include a recording of birdsong played all day to keep the pigeons away. There’s also a magnificent museum with a collection of huge old wine presses.

(Open Tues-Fri 2-5pm, Sat-Sun 9am-12pm and 2-5pm.)

Piazza Luigi Rossi, Pessione; martinimuseum.org.


Cafés are among Turin’s most popular meeting places – and with sumptuous decoration and food it’s not surprising. Highlights include Café Mulafsano, a magnificent art deco affair famous for sandwiches, and the glitzy Caffè San Carlo.

Coffee afficianados, though, should head for San Tommaso 10, the ultimate venue to enjoy another of Turin’s most famous brands, Lavazza coffee. The lunch menu is also excellent – try the courgette flowers in tempura batter, and then ask for an “espesso” coffee, a light mousse dessert.

(Open 8am-midnight daily, closed Sun.)

Via San Tommaso 10; lavazza.it, santommaso10.it.


This riverside restaurant has a peaceful atmosphere by the smooth-flowing Po. Situated in the middle of the Parco Valentino, it is on the site from where one of the first airmail services departed, hence the name idrovolante (meaning “flying boat”). If you’re lucky, they might have some fresh porcini mushrooms in, which I had with a tender fillet of veal.

The restaurant takes part in the Turismo Torino initiative Torino Gourmet, which allows you to book a table through the website to taste a set menu of the local specialities, ranging from €15 to €35. As ever, with Italian food, the freshest and finest local ingredients are the base of the best food.

Viale Virgilio 105; tel +39 011 6687 602; ristoranteidrovolante.com.

  • All tours can be booked through Turismo Torino. Visit turismotorino.org for more information.
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