Utopia, Abandoned

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IN THE 1950S, the small town of Ivrea, which is about an hour’s train ride north of Turin, became the site of an unheralded experiment in living and working. Olivetti, a renowned designer and manufacturer of typewriters and accounting machines, decided to provide for its employees through retirement. They were given the opportunity to take classes at an on-site sale and trade school; their lunchtime hours would be filled with speeches or performances from visiting dignitaries (actors, musicians, poets); and they would receive a substantial pension upon retirement. They would be housed, if they liked, in Olivetti-constructed modern homes and apartments. Their children would receive free day care, and expecting mothers would be granted 10 months maternity leave. July would be a time of holiday, so that workers with homes in the surrounding countryside could tend to small farms — it was important to the company that workers not feel a division between city and country. Italy’s best Modernist architects would be hired to design in the Modernist style: Factories, canteens, offices and study areas would be airy palaces of glass curtain walls, flat concrete roofs and glazed brick tile. It would be a model for the nation, and for the world.

All of this was the initiative of Adriano Olivetti, who had inherited the company from his father, Camillo, who founded it in the early 20th century. Adriano, born in 1901, was a businessman of unusually wide learning, with strong inclinations toward humanism. He was a self-taught student of city planning, and he read extensively the architectural and urbanist literature of the day. He hired famous designers to work on his products, making some of them, such as the 1949 Lettera 22 typewriter and the 1958 Elea 9003 mainframe computer, into icons of design. Olivetti was a devout Christian and a socialist, but he was distant from the two main political parties, the Christian Democrats and the Communists, that occupied these poles in midcentury Italy. Instead, in 1946, he formed his own political party, Il Movimento Comunità, which was intended to shift power to the diverse social bases and competences of a broadly conceived community, away from the patronage and bureaucracy encouraged by Italy’s political parties, thereby charting a new course for not only the country but for the entire modern age. Though it was a failure, his ideas of increased welfare provision became more common and acceptable in Italian politics.

Today, the infrastructure the company built might sound like the standard “company town,” such as 19th-century Pullman, Ill., built by the Pullman railway company, but Olivetti was in fact different. In America, company towns first arose as a result of low-wage workers lacking both rights and basic amenities like transportation. The more dependent an employee was on the company he worked for, the more control the company had: Complacent workers whose boss is also their landlord don’t strike or ask for sick leave or better health care — or so the logic went. This era of company towns in America was effectively ushered out by modernity, as labor rights increased thanks to New Deal domestic policies — and also because, in some instances, workers began striking when employers attempted to evict them from company housing. The rise of mass transport also made proximity to the workplace less of an essential need.

In Europe, however, the company town had its roots in the model estates of the Victorian era, where wealthy landowners housed workers and caretakers in paltry accommodations. At the dawn of the 20th century, and in a rapidly industrializing Italy especially, the fortunes of various small towns were, and for the most part remain, inextricably linked to private companies. The main draw of Rosignano Solvay, established in 1912 in southern Tuscany, for instance, is its beautiful white sand beaches, the blanching of the sand a result of toxic chemical waste from the still-operational Solvay plant, which gave the town its name. Colleferro, a dreary town just outside of Rome built around a munitions factory that closed in 1968, has been plagued for the last 70 years by occasional explosions. (There are still company towns in Italy — the designer Brunello Cucinelli has spent the last 30 years restoring the Umbrian hamlet of Solomeo to serve as his eponymous company’s headquarters, and Diego Della Valle, C.E.O. of the fashion brand Tod’s Group, relies on local craftsmen from Casette d’Ete, a region on the country’s east coast, where his company’s main factory is located.) But many of the best-known towns that orbit around a single industry or company can seem decidedly un-Italian: There is no ancient architecture or grand cultural tradition because much of what remains of their history is contained almost exclusively within the 20th century. The people who still live in these towns are often descendants of the original company workers that inhabited them, even though the company has long since packed up and left. But Olivetti is unique among these places; for a time, it was likely the most progressive and successful company town anywhere in the world, existing not for the sake of control or convenience but rather representing a new and short-lived kind of corporate idealism, in which business, politics, architecture and the daily life of the company’s employees all informed one another.

The interior of the former La Serra Complex.
CreditNick Ballón
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Olivetti’s 1932 MPI typewriter.
CreditNick Ballón

In 1960, Adriano died, and the company — already saddled with its ill-advised acquisition of the American typewriter company Underwood — went into a crisis. Adriano’s brother, Roberto, took over but lacked Adriano’s sense of vision. Twenty-eight years later, Carlo De Benedetti, a figure imbued with the ethos of a corporate raider, began to streamline Olivetti, shedding its socialist impulses in a bid to compete in the computer age. His efforts failed. By the 1980s, Olivetti had become subject to the same global headwinds as many manufacturers, and the company foundered. In the early 2000s, it was merged with a telecom giant. At its peak in the 1970s, the company had 73,283 workers worldwide; today, it has around 400. But it’s the surrounding town that has been affected most deeply. Ivrea today has a population of 24,000, having lost a quarter of its residents since the 1980s. The average age is 48.

In 2018, UNESCO declared Ivrea a World Heritage site; the effect has so far, for better or for worse, been unnoticeable. (“UNESCO’s ‘World Heritage’ listing is the kiss of death,” the acerbic Italian critic Marco D’Eramo wrote in a 2014 article for New Left Review. “Once the label is affixed, the city’s life is snuffed out; it is ready for taxidermy.”) Arriving by commuter rail from Turin, one would have no idea that one was in a former capital of industrial design. An eerie spellbound nothingness prevails. Except for a set of fading explanatory placards along the town’s main road, there are few signs pointing to the landmark buildings — a housing project designed by Marcello Nizzoli, the lead designer of the Lettera 22; the Olivetti Research Center, designed by the architect Eduardo Vittoria, where the Elea computer was conceptualized — once renowned as much for their design as for the part they played in a munificent private welfare state. Only one of the office buildings is still in use. A former factory has been converted into a gym. Many of the remaining dozen or so structures are empty, speechless monuments to an aborted utopia.

ImageThe interior of the town nursery.
CreditNick Ballón

FROM ABOVE, IVREA is an hourglass, cinched in the middle where it is crossed by the Dora Baltea river. The northern side is the historic center, with the usual array of squeezed cobblestoned streets issuing into breathable piazzas. The southern side, with the buildings located at distances best traversed by automobile, sometimes set back from the Via Jervis and fronted by useless ceremonial greenery, is where the city’s decrepit industrial and managerial heritage lies. Via Jervis is the chief artery. It is a name that feels strange to say in Italian, though it is dedicated to the partisan Guglielmo “Willy” Jervis, who was captured by fascists in 1944 and executed by firing squad. To walk it, as I did from my guest home in an adjoining town, is to experience the desolation of an idea that has gone to seed. An office building from the 1980s looks faded and unremarkable without the hum of activity that must have once surrounded it. Tennis courts are covered with weeds.

Ivrea had been a settlement since the fifth century B.C., and under the Roman Republic it went by the name of Eporedia. But it came into greater prominence during the Renaissance, when it fell under the sway of the Turin-based House of Savoy. A sterling example of this past lingers in the convent of San Bernardino, with its excellent frescoes of the life of Christ completed around 1490 by the minor Italian artist Giovanni Martino Spanzotti. It was to this convent that Camillo Olivetti, born and raised in the surrounding Alpine foothills that are visible from nearly anywhere in the town, moved his family when he established his typewriter company in a still-standing brick building. If you stand in front of the tan stucco of San Bernardino, you stare directly at the once-modern exteriors of Olivetti, whose glass exteriors were meant to exude the future and reflect the past.

In contemporary Ivrea, however, it is hard to imagine the bustle of the recent past. A former employee, Enrico Capellaro, who had started in manufacturing in the 1950s before working his way up to management, described his daily routine as fairly relaxed: Renowned Italian actors like Vittorio Gassman and comedians came through at lunchtime. New books and magazines could be consulted at the 30,000-volume library (which was open to all Ivreans). A Pullman bus would drive through town at midday, carrying workers home for lunch, if they wanted. The Social Services Building, built of sandy concrete and organized entirely around repeating hexagonal shapes, from spindly columns to large rooms, was across from the main factory buildings and was where the company offered health care to its workers.

Two major additions to the red brick building, built between 1939 and 1949, look like perfect representations of a moment in architectural thought: The first is a long, low-slung block threaded with ribbon windows; the second, known as Ico Centrale, is a fully glazed, curtain-walled facade, shielded from the light by Corbusier-style brises-soleil. A third building, also covered with a slick glass-skinned facade, now houses a nursing school. The others are empty, filled with the detritus of companies past, having only recently been acquired by a developer who is attempting to secure contracts for new firms while preserving the buildings. These are glorious, light-filled spaces, unsung monuments to the rationalist, functionalist architecture that dominated progressive thinking in the midcentury. On the southern side of Ico Centrale, a perpendicular bend causes two portions of the building to face and reflect each other — the implicit idea being that employees on either side would have the opportunity to see each other in their daily work, and, even more implicitly, that the company was open and transparent to itself and the world.

Olivetti also built housing and hotels, two of which are the most strange and wonderful buildings in any city. The West Residential Center, popularly known as the Talponia, is a crescent-shaped block built into a hillside. Its roof is paved and walkable, its facade entirely glass, articulated into rectangles by dark gray metal framing. Originally intended for short business stays, it projects a spirit of efficiency, with modular furniture and bedrooms separated only by curtains. The Hotel La Serra, outside the main center, was built in the 1970s and betrays the influence of postmodernism. Composed of an irregular series of stacked, graduated floors, it is meant to look like a typewriter, but from the inside, the rooms feel like the tightly constructed cabin of a ship, with oval porthole-like windows and a secret armoire holding a vanity mirror, whose curved doors open perfectly into the concave surrounding space.

It makes sense that Olivetti would be a symbol of historic pride. As a principal player in the 20th-century “miracle,” when Italy climbed out of the depths of fascism and the catastrophe of World War II to become the eighth largest economy in the world, it is essential to Italian identity. The nostalgia for this time in Ivrea can be intense. Stefano Sertoli, the recently elected mayor, mentioned how often he came across people with an incredibly precise recall for eras and moments in company history. Some 1,900 residents of the city are recipients of the spille d’oro, or “gold pins,” which represent 25 years of continuous service to the company. The legacy of Olivetti is, he said, “un patrimonio pazzesco” — an insanely rich heritage.

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The exterior of the La Serra complex.
CreditNick Ballón

IF AMERICAN COMPANY TOWNS were tied to private industry’s desire to quell progressive movements, in Italy, the company town was just as influenced by the rise of fascism. Sabaudia, a coastal town near Rome, was created in 1933 as a result of orders from Benito Mussolini, who transported the urban poor from Rome to the coast in order to drain the surrounding malaria-infested marshlands. Monfalcone, near the border of Slovenia, became a part of Italy only after World War I but was soon converted into an important shipbuilding outpost by the fascist regime. Many of these towns began a slow decline in business and population following World War II, though it’s no accident that the best of Ivrea as imagined by Olivetti emerged as a postwar phenomenon, a place in direct ideological opposition to Mussolini’s government. If most company towns, both in Europe and America, were paternalistic in the extreme — some of them going so far as to pay workers with “company scrip,” which could only be used at company-owned stores — this was not the intention in Ivrea, thanks in no small part to Adriano, who combined in his person the grandiose impulses of a humanitarian, the self-obsession of an entrepreneur and the sententiousness of a rich autodidact. Inducted into an already successful company, he also, crucially, had experience working in a factory. Unlike the mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor from a generation earlier, who also came into factory life from an elite background but drew the conclusion that work needed to be rationalized within an inch of its life — leading to his concept of “scientific management” — Adriano arrived at a factory and experienced the full spectrum of alienation. He would later testify to knowing “the awful monotony and the weight of repeating actions ad infinitum, on a drill or a press.” His experience led him to the realization that “it was necessary to set man free from this degrading slavery.” Gastone Garziera, an engineer who had worked on computing and electronics in the 1960s and ’70s, recalled Adriano Olivetti’s “desire to lighten in any way possible” the burden of work.

Adriano returned to Italy to take up the mantle of the family firm; he became president in 1938. He was committed to Modernism — not just as an architectural and aesthetic phenomenon but as a political program. Though he joined the Fascist Party during the years of Mussolini, he eventually sought to make contacts with Americans and supported the resistance, for which he was arrested. Adriano makes an indelible character in the Italian novelist Natalia Ginzburg’s marvelous “Family Lexicon” (1963), a memoiristic novel of life in Turin during the two World Wars:

He was fat and pale and his uniform fit badly over his round, fat shoulders. I’ve never seen anyone wear that gray-green outfit with a pistol at the waist more awkwardly and less martially than him. He had a pronounced melancholic air about him, which was perhaps because he didn’t like being a soldier in the least. He was shy and quiet, but when he did speak he talked for a long time in a low voice and said confusing and enigmatic things while staring off into space with his small blue eyes, at once cold and dreamy.

This implicitly self-regarding personality expressed itself in the spirit of the company he led and in the products they created. As with the Bauhaus, the short-lived but highly influential German school of design, there was an attempt to unify aesthetically the entire production, from the products themselves to the advertisements for them, but with a markedly stronger emphasis on rendering the work environment itself a humane one. (The influence of the Bauhaus was in some cases direct: Alexander “Xanti” Schawinsky, an alumnus of the Bauhaus, designed a new typewriter for Olivetti, the Studio 42, and consulted on the construction of the new headquarters. Herbert Bayer, one of his instructors, designed company advertisements.) Olivetti wanted to build, as the modernist architecture critic Mario Labó wrote, “a place of work ruled by progress, guided by justice, and fired by the light of beauty.” Workers became part of the management of the company through a system of co-determination, and thus helped build the welfare institutions that catered to them.

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Housing from 1956 in the neighborhood called Canton Vesco, in central Ivrea.
CreditNick Ballón
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The entrance to another housing complex, Edificio 18, built in 1954 by Marcello Nizzoli.
CreditNick Ballón

In these years, Olivetti produced several of the products that brought it world renown. The lightweight and (relatively) portable Lettera 22, one of the most beautiful and functional machines ever made, became a popular typewriter for business as well as private use. Its baby blue coloration and the light, springy action of its rounded keys were part of the transformation from a typewriter as a loud, mechanical object for processing business to one that lent itself to contemplative, private writing. (It was the favorite of many American writers, including Thomas PynchonSylvia PlathGore Vidal.) A couple of decades later, in 1968, and with the help of the designer Ettore Sottsass Jr., Olivetti would produce the apotheosis of the typewriter-for-pleasure, the Valentine, a lollipop of a machine, the high point of Pop Art in design. Advertisements for the Valentine showed its users taking the typewriter to the beach.

But by the ’70s, people were moving from typewriters to electronic devices, and though the company had created what is considered the first personal computer, the P101, the company’s success on this front had stalled. Some observers attribute Olivetti’s downfall less to company failings than to nefarious plotting by foreign powers. Mario Tchou, Olivetti’s brilliant chief computer programmer, died in a car accident, and Olivetti’s last independent president, Carlo De Benedetti, suggested that it was widely believed among Olivettians that “he had been killed by forces connected to American secret agents.” Garziera also vouched that the Americans were suspicious of computing advances falling into the hands of a country that was perpetually on the verge of Communism. And in 2019’s “The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti,” the journalist Meryle Secrest advances a circumstantial version of the same theory (without, it must be admitted, confirming it). Whatever the reasons, the failure to achieve results in computing doomed the company, and — at least for the near term — Ivrea with it.

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The former Sertec building, designed by Ezio Sagrelli and built in 1968, which held Olivetti’s engineering offices.
CreditNick Ballón

HOW DOES A company town reinvent itself once the company leaves town? In some respects, Ivrea reflects broader trends in Italy, rather than circumstances unique to itself. Changes in technology may have made Olivetti obsolete, but the Italian economic miracle of the 1950s and ’60s peaked around 1970 anyway, when Fiat’s production headquarters, in nearby Turin, became one of the largest car factories in Europe (and during which time Olivetti was still one of the most successful manufacturers of typewriters and other business machines in the world). This growth was helped by a mass migration of workers from the country’s impoverished south to the heavily industrialized northwest. But as the ’70s turned into the ’80s, Turin, Ivrea and other cities and towns that had grown rapidly after World War II fell victim to the same economic trends that would stunt the growth of American manufacturing towns across the Rust Belt: Recurring recessions meant that costs were cut across all industries, labor was outsourced to cheaper countries and companies like Fiat and Olivetti began laying off thousands of workers, plunging the very concept of the company town into an existential crisis. There are, according to a 2016 Italian environmental association report, some 2,500 rural Italian towns that are nearly abandoned and depopulated, half-empty monuments to departed industry. Others, like Ivrea, are more of a nostalgic time capsule, less a ruin than a shell of the past trying to find ways to bring back their old glory.

As major companies shrank in size or merged with larger corporations (Fiat now owns Chrysler), their corporate paternalism faded from view, replaced by more immediate economic concerns. This would end Olivetti’s well-intentioned experiment in humane labor. Now, as is the case in so many small municipalities in Italy and elsewhere in the world, Ivrea has experienced an alarming turn in its politics. After decades of center-left rule — including a stint by Adriano himself as mayor — last year the leadership shifted to the right, with a new government affiliated with the anti-immigrant party La Lega. I spoke with the new mayor, Sertoli, who had been part of the effort to secure UNESCO recognition for the city. He talked vaguely of the need to “bring back excellence” to the city, but also noted it was problematic that so many of Olivetti’s structures were in various private hands. The current holder of the Brick Factory building is Icona, a coalition attempting to redevelop the original Olivetti buildings in the hope of returning industry and innovation to the area. Icona’s slogan is “The Future Is Back Home.” The atrium connecting the Brick Factory to the others still has a mosaic tile statue of Camillo Olivetti.

The West Residential Center, popularly known as the Talponia.
CreditNick Ballón
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The interior of the Hotel La Serra, in Ivrea, an Italian company town run in its prime by the Olivetti typewriter manufacturer.
CreditNick Ballón

Other efforts at reviving Ivrea don’t take their cues from Olivetti at all. Gianmario Pilo, a book marketer in Turin whose father worked at the company for 35 years, has started a literary festival, La Grande Invasione, with the aim of jump-starting the cultural life of the town and encouraging younger residents to stay. He spoke about how his parents were always passionate readers, partly because of the company’s efforts to inculcate culture in its workers’ lives.

The extraordinary achievement of Olivetti is also part of what overwhelms and partly vitiates the lives that have come after it. The afterglow that still hovers over Ivrea is that of young Adriano in “Family Lexicon”: dreamy, speaking at once to everyone and no one, quietly saying “enigmatic things.” It may be the best example in history of a city organized around a single company and its vision, in which some profits were reinvested into the life of the company’s workers and the surrounding community. At its best, the spirit of reinvestment can be given back, if perhaps never again at the level it once had. When I asked Pilo why he pursued his desires in Ivrea, he said simply that it was to “give back to the city that had gifted me a happy childhood and adolescence.” The children of Olivetti may yet restore the ideas that still whistle down the quiet streets of the town it once dominated.

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