AGIP gas stations: when Italy put up a beautiful fight

Il comprensorio del Lingotto a Torino in un'immagine del 1920 - The Lingotto complex in Turin, in a photograph from 1920

1) The Lingotto complex in Turin, in a photograph from 1920

This is the second episode in the story of AGIP gas stations as told by Francesco Andreani. You can read the first episode here. The numbers in the brackets point to the relevant photographs.

by Francesco Andreani

The first generations of 20th-century European artists believed that the cars zooming by on the roof of Turin’s Lingotto were poetic epiphanies of a new world that was on the brink of turning into reality, just like architecture was on the brink of freeing itself of traditional constraints (1). Novelty, as a necessary and unshakeable feature in art, took over the new category of buildings that were tied to the automotive industry and to its products (2,3).

As with any architectural innovation, the first years were the most varied and dense of new characters and types. Before the commercial growth of fuel companies – rather than real building and construction needs – could suggest a standardized architectural model, Italy saw a number of unique and diverse gas stations pop up throughout the country. Natural gas stations in Milan looked like a huge arch thrown over the pumps; the contracted platform roofs Sordelli designed for AGIP stations in the 1940s were somewhere between Noucentist porticos and the civilian pavilions of the postwar Rationalist movement (4,5,6).

Starting in 1953, AGIP built over eight hundred gas stations according to the types defined by Mario Bacciocchi (7). However, Bacciocchi himself came up with substantial variations, such as the splendid station in Piazzale Accursio in Milan, where the modern, white, generous, horizontal projecting roof is paired with a brave oval shape, suggested by the city layout itself, at the crossroads with some of the main access roads to the center, conveying an awareness that from that point on the station belonged to the city more than to the AGIP Cortemaggiore sales network (8).

The number of projects carried out in this especially creative season of Italian architecture grew with the first motels (“motor hotels”) annexed to the stations along major roads. Other authors were called upon by AGIP: Gellner designed the Motelagip in Cortina, Bacigalupo and Ratti those in Vicenza and Modena (9,10,11). However, one might say that time eroded the initial character of the first buildings from the 1950s, which openly declared a certain “diversity” through materials and lines that suggested a clearly poetic and lucid, albeit commercial, agenda.

The AGIP motels designed after that first period fell in step with the dominant architectural philosophy tied to rationalist method and rigor, and moved away from Bacciocchi’s poetic and inspirations. The notable exception was the work by a colleague of his from Rome: Mario Ridolfi, who worked on the Settebagni Agip Motel – an unfortunate project by an architect of great fortune – resuming much of the character that these buildings could represent. He imagined a moving structure and hinted at a commercial identity that could migrate towards a mature and poetic architectural language (12).

Because their commercial connotation – today so commonly tied to thoughtless productions – was only the pretext to explore lyrical and timeless qualities, and because they continue to impress to this day, we believe these gas stations made a real contribution to the beauty of that season of Italian art.

(Bibliography: S. Caccia, “Architettura in movimento. Stazioni di servizio e distributori di carburante: un patrimonio da salvare”, ETS, Pisa 2009. L. Greco, “Architetture autostradali in Italia”, Gangemi, Rome 2010).

November 10, 2015