Arese, Alfa Romeo” is an exhibit about the construction of Alfa Romeo headquarter in Arese, in the 1960s. Historical images and documents from Alfa Romeo Historical Archive, a documentary and a 1971 diorama.
From the Portello to Arese
Grown beyond measure during the war period, thanks to militarization and to the production of engines for airplanes and heavy duty vehicles, in the 1950s Alfa Romeo had entirely recovered from the crisis of the immediate post-war period, when the yet shy automotive market was incapable of saturating the company’s manufacturing capacity. However, with the 1900, first, and then above all with the Giulietta, Alfa Romeo was able to react: it was launching more economical projects, with a wink towards the emerging “mass” market, and proposing vehicles that could make a large metalworking industry of the “small” factory – small at least in automotive terms. In less than ten years, Alfa went from producing a couple of hundreds of 6C 2500s to the 18 thousand vehicles produced of the 1900, and until the more than 177 thousand of the Giulietta, which consequently deserved the nickname “Italy’s girlfriend”.
The Portello had been trapped in the expansion of the city of Milan and was no longer able to reach the target of 150 thousand vehicles per year, which the success of the Giulietta was outlining on the horizon. The construction of the plant in Arese was decided in October 1956 as a consequence of having to expand Alfa Romeo’s manufacturing capacity. Shortly after, the foundations for the Test Track in Balocco were laid as well as for the Alfasud project, with its plant in Pomigliano d’Arco, on the wave of a growth which, in those years, seemed to be unstoppable.
In Arese – but also the municipalities of Rho, Lainate and Garbagnate Milanese were involved – a new cutting-edge plant was to emerge, with an extension of over two million square meters and with almost 20 thousand employees, a goal that was reached in the early 1980s. The internal flows of the factory were carefully studied and the project was entrusted to renowned architects: Ignazio and Jacopo Gardella and Anna Castelli Ferrieri for the Technical Center, Giulio Minoletti for the central Spine, in which the main services were located. Particular attention was also paid to the “silos” for finished products, to the sales department, to the offices of the Experience Management (the so-called “Beehive”). Decentralized with respect to the manufacturing area, but visible from the Milano-Laghi highway, the Headquarters stand tall – created between 1966 and 1976 it remained active until the 1990s, and also included the Museo Storico Alfa Romeo. The transferal of the manufacturing departments from the Portello district was gradual, and the Giulia itself, the first vehicle born in Arese, was initially assembled with many of its components still being produced in the “old” plant.
The construction site of the manufacturing pavilions was buzzing with activity, but as far as the Management was concerned, the initial idea was to keep it at the Portello. However, in the end it was decided to erect a new building in Arese. Already on 2 December 1966, the first meeting was summoned, which saw the participation of architect Cassi Ramelli, as well as Vito and Gustavo Latis and Vittore Ceretti, who for this project joined forces under the name “Studi Riuniti”. Very soon they were joined by Leo Finzi and Edoardo Nova for the structural part and landscape architect Pietro Porcinai.
From the beginning, Alfa Romeo requested a building complex with a horizontal development, to counter the trend followed by many companies which built “towers” for their headquarters. The three proposals that were initially presented were merged into what was to become the Headquarters, with modular office blocks, Museum and cafeteria connected by a lifted “plate”. The chosen solution guaranteed an articulated but functionally well connected building complex, as well as a construction that could easily be extended in the part dedicated to offices. Of the four building blocks initially planned, only three were completed; only the basement floor was built of the fourth. The construction work continued until 1976.
Although based on different architectures and projects, the management buildings, the cafeteria located in the underground floor, and the Museo Storico Alfa Romeo, were linked not only physically, but also by a common external appearance, thus generating an articulated yet homogenous building complex, in which the different functions were distinct, but effectively connected.
For the offices, chairman Giuseppe Luraghi requested “a certain liveliness”, but underlined that “sophisticated and opulent solutions” should be avoided. Much attention was paid to the arrangement of the Museum, which was not supposed to be a simple collection of vehicles and testimonies, but, to the contrary, was intended to offer an experience that could communicate the history and tradition of Alfa Romeo, apart from being the perfect location for events, presentations and official visits to the company. The Museum was officially opened on 18 December 1976.
Curator of the exhibit was Luigi Fusi, designer since the days of Jano and renowned historian of the brand. He was assisted by Gonzalo Alvarez, who reorganized the archives. The exhibition project was entrusted only to Vito and Gustavo Latis who, after having decided on a layout with six offset floors ideally connected by the central impluvium, proposed two different solutions for the internal layout. The more linear of the two was preferred, with the vehicles placed in chronological order and an intuitive flow of visitors: the arrangements were very simply but exhaustive, with a well-balanced amount of information.
Crisis and rebirth
“City-factory” or “cathedral of metalworkers”, the plant in Arese experienced all the phases of the big Italian automotive industry, including the more critical periods of trade union battles, strikes and controversial social situations. However, it would also go through many of the great moments of Alfa Romeo, including the racing and sales successes of the Giulia, the Alfetta and their derived vehicles.
In the middle of the 1980s, the company experienced a moment of crisis that lead to its acquisition on behalf of Fiat, which was then followed by a reduction of the production processes in Arese. The plant ceased its manufacturing activity in the beginning of the years 2000, and also the management and administration were transferred to Turin, putting the Headquarters to a different use.
The Museo Storico Alfa Romeo, despite some initial hypotheses, was never opened to the public, but could still be visited free of charge if access to the area was granted. At the same time, the building or museum exhibit were not updated; but the collection was enriched by the new models that were produced, which in part were displayed and in part stored in the garage.
The Museum was closed to visitors in 2011, when the Ministry of Cultural Heritage decided to protect the collection and part of the buildings, now out of use, due to their historical interest. This was the state of affairs when the redevelopment works were started by FCA Partecipazioni, with the goal of reopening the Museo Storico Alfa Romeo – now called “The Time Machine” – and inserting it into a wider context, which was to transform the former Headquarters into a brand center, including, apart from the Museum, the Documentation Center, the restaurant-bar and bookshop, spaces for events, the sales showroom, as well as an 850 meter path between the Museum and the highway.