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‘An image of forcefully expressed structure’: Benetton Factory by Afra and Tobia Scarpa

Bennetton factory treviso 2

Archive: Benetton’s latest factory joins the ranks of imaginative, modern industrial buildings that do more than just house industrial process

Originally published in Jauary 1994

The Italian clothing manufacturer Benetton is nothing if not a sophisticated image maker and propagator. Its provocative and often offensive advertising (a man dying of AIDS surrounded by his family: the veins of an inner forearm with an ‘HIV’ label attached) has created a notoriety for the company that inflates the old public relations adage that ‘all publicity is good publicity’ to new levels of insouciance. It has also created global recognition for the brand- a crucial ingredient in the modern marketing recipe. With 7000 shops in 110 countries, it is not surprising that Benetton’s corporate communication policy rests unequivocally on the maxim that the message must be ‘a global communication’. Four per cent of the group’s revenue is allocated to advertising, which trades in ‘images, which suggest that barriers between people can be broken down’.

A consistent design policy for buildings is as important to such a company as it is for clothes or hoardings. Since 1964, Afra and Tobia Scarpa have been charged by Luciano Benetton to be guardians of its three-dimensional form. The latest outcome of the company’s lengthy relationship with the Scarpas is the new Jeans and Tops factory at Castrette, which is just outside the north Italian town of Treviso.

Bennetton factory treviso 1

Bennetton factory treviso 1

Source: Marco Zanta

As Benetton becomes more instantly recognisable worldwide so the Scarpas’ buildings have become more expressive and distinctive. Their first on the Castrette’ industrial park site was an automated warehouse in 1980, followed by a factory for woollen garments in 1985. With this latest building, the architects sought to preserve a homogeneity and familiarity of image. As Tobia Scarpa explains, ‘the existing volumes were created to relate to the new (unbuilt) volume, which in turn must relate to the existing ones’.

From a distance, the new factory confronts its drab surroundings with an image of forcefully expressed structure. The bristling column-and-cable roofline resembles a row of seven infant suspension bridges. Closer up, the 40 000 m2 building swarms over the flat, featureless landscape, its horizontal mass reemphasized by the repetitive linearity of the ribbed zinc galvanized steel cladding. The factory facade reference appears in the western and eastern elevations, a row of seven pitched roofs that would look just as appropriate in Tunbridge Wells as in Treviso. Essentially, the structure is a sevenfold repeat of a module spanning the building’s width, made up of two wings and a centre portal. The wings are 84 m long steel lattice girders, resting at their outer ends on reinforced concrete slabs, at their inner ends on the portal.

Bennetton factory treviso site plan

Bennetton factory treviso site plan

Site plan

They are supported along their length by four pairs of steel wire ropes anchored to twin-legged masts 25m high. The masts are set into the reinforced concrete columns of the portal, which are joined together over a span of 39 m by a massive box beam. Four further sets of steel wire stays carry the roof girders’ stresses from the columns into the central structure. More box girders join each of the seven arches and the w hole structure is clad in a metal skin, wit h a row of north-facing skylights down the roof of the central spine. An 8 m high services tunnel runs beneath the roadway, and a separate section is tucked below ground level at the south-western corner for offices and a canteen, taking natural light from a cutting for a sunken roadway.

Functionally, the building is organised around the concrete box-girder spine, a tunnel acting as an indoor roadway and loading bay. There is room for lorries of considerable size to park, unload, reverse and manoeuvre down the length of the building to their allotted places, which correspond directly with the key points in the manufacturing or distribution sequence. Wasteful movement of goods and materials by hand is kept to a minimum, and the whole process remains flexible. Under the 84 m span roofs on either side, the manufacturing itself proceeds, entirely unhindered by columns or any other structural obstacle. Today’s quick-response manufacturing, a phenomenon of particular significance to the fashion industry, needs maximum adaptability on the production floor so that plant can be most efficiently used at all times. You cannot make a garment manufacturing area more easily adaptable than these two vast sweeps of floor.

Bennetton factory treviso 3

Bennetton factory treviso 3

Source: Marco Zanta

The Scarpas’ sensitivity to materials and proportion has kept this building from becoming inhumane. It has evidently demanded very tight control to prevent such a monster shed becoming a depressing and undignified place to work. Devoid of superfluous decoration, the marching columns and stays- ‘a choreographic arrangement of beams, poles and trusses’, according to Tobia Scarpa- are themselves decorative.

With the predictably tight budget of any modern industrial building, the architects have not been able to indulge in the noble materials for which Tobia’s father Carlo was celebrated. But the application of inexpensive but effective techniques of finish have imbued ordinary materials with more than a modicum of nobility. Aside from insisting on almost inappropriately smooth surfaces to the concrete, the Scarpas have built a kind of time delay decoration into the walls, using hot zinc galvanising for the cladding sheets. All the metal structure is coated in a thick layer of zinc for weatherproofing, but the wall panels have been dipped in the galvanising bath holding a different corner for each dip. As the zinc gradually crystallises over time, a herringbone pattern will slowly reveal itself against the horizontal ribbing. Inside, the factory is bursting with state-of-the-art high tech systems. Humidity and temperature are computer controlled to correct conditions for materials being worked; thearea is broken up into 56 modules, the microclimate for each of which is independently controllable. Heat regenerators collect warm air rising to the roof and mix it with fresh air before returning it to the space; ducts and outlets are only 5 m up, so that in summer energy is not wasted cooling an unnecessarily large volume. Lighting, equally, is computer controlled; lamps are turned on and off to keep light levels constant during the day.

Bennetton factory treviso section

Bennetton factory treviso section

Section

Great attention is paid to colour correctness, crucial for a garment factory. The designers claim that the combined effect of these installations will be a 25 per cent saving in running costs. Essentially, this is a straightforward industrial building. It has been designed to suit the complex order-driven manufacturing and distribution techniques of an advanced multinational company, and to use the materials and processes of its own construction in as cost effective and easily maintainable a form as possible. There is no suggestion of pretension or preciousness about its uncompromisingly expressed structure. The building is characterised by balances; between the towering height of the double columns and the low vastness of the main mass; between the hard, grey horizontally ribbed cladding and the graceful counterpoint of verticals and angles in the columns and stays, constantly changing with the viewpoint; between the massive reinforced concrete volumes of the central spine components and the light steel skin; even between the traffic on the busy indoor road and the untrammelled prairies of production space on either side.

The Scarpas’ latest creation for Benetton might not perhaps be so headline worthy as the company’s notorious ad campaigns; but the architects have taken care to serve their high-profile client well.