Officine Grandi Riparazioni. A great industry bears witness to the history of Italy
March 29th, 2012
Built between 1885 and 1895, Officine Grandi Riparazioni represent a particularly significant testimonial of Turin’s early industrial development, which began just a few years after national unification. It was a crucial passage in the city’s history. After losing the title of Capital of Italy, held between 1861 and 1865, and with the demise of its role as political and administrative centre, held for centuries as capital of the State of Savoy, Turin had to face up to its future, reinvent itself and seek a new vocation. The city’s authorities had already been appealing to the wealthy aristocratic and upper class families to abandon their traditional forms of income, linked to property investments and the purchase of government bonds, for several years, and they made the decision to invest their money in industrial development.
The birth of the Officine falls right into this context. Built at a time of strong development of the infrastructural networks of a country which had finally been united and had every intention of entering into competition with the strongest European economies, Officine Grandi Riparazioni was conceived to be an avant-garde centre in the revision and repair of railway carriages and locomotives. A functional element to the strengthening of exchanges of industrial products and raw materials to and from Turin, a vital step towards the transformation of the city into a great industrial centre. A significant confirmation of this vocation is provided by the size of the complex. Officine Grandi Riparazioni, located along the railway line linked Turin and Milan, occupies a huge area (190.000 square metres) containing enormous constructions featuring an austere but appreciable architectural style with a similar structure to imposing modern cathedrals, with aisles as long as 200 metres. But is the position of the plants that really denotes the presence of an overall plan for expansion.
The Officine belong to a bigger complex of buildings, all located in the western outskirts of the customs area of 1853, with which they form the area known at the time as the “grandi servizi” (big services) area. These building include the Carceri Nuove (New Jail), built between 1862 and 1870, the Mattatoio Civico (Civic Slaughterhouse), on which work began in 1866, the Mercato del bestiame (Cattle market), which dates back to 1870-71, and the so-called Casotti daziari (Customs Houses), built in 1869. Imposing structures designed not individually, but as a complex, in view of the subsequent development of the city, as much from the economic as the demographic point of view.
A considerable amount of time has gone by and many of the structures that made up the “big services” area have disappeared during the evolution of the city and its needs. Part of the historical area of Officine Grandi Riparazioni, in particular, is now occupied by the extension of the Polytechnic and the so-called polytechnic citadel. However, alongside the Carcere Nuove (currently being reallocated for use), the main body of the Officine still stands, with the Assembly unit, Turning shop and Forge, which have been abandoned since the 1970s but still retain a rather solemn appearance, especially in the case of the plant, which is so imposing as to be known as “Duomo” (the cathedral).
Generation after generation, Officine Grandi Riparazioni has witnessed the work of thousands and thousands of employees: super-specialised labour, aware of the fact that they belong to an elite group of the most skilled craftsmen, in possession, like the old corporations of crafts and trades, of rare and complex know-how. At the Officine it was necessary to cope with all kinds of tasks: from repairing engines and plenums, to the shaping and welding of metal sheets, from the construction of the “skeletons” of the carriages, mostly made of wood, to the crafting of the furnishings. Being allowed to perform certain tasks, such as panel beating, led to the official recognition of an outstanding ability a title of merit which translated into the respect and admiration of all the staff. It should be pointed out that the staff selection processes was extremely strict in every department. When a prospective employee was admitted to the final recruitment stage, he had to present his “masterpiece”, an industrial product – a model, or a mechanism – with very high precision characteristics. Failure meant exclusion from the staff of the Officine. The impact that Officine Grandi Riparazioni and the “big services” were to have on the subsequent development of the urban fabric and the city’s history was undoubtedly significant. One of the characteristics of the skills of the Officine was, in fact, the very strong political and trade union intervention, which made the industrial complex one of the places where the idea of socialism, which was new at the time, spread fastest. When it was established, Officine Grandi Riparazioni was just behind the western boundary of the customs districted drawn up in 1853. With the positioning of very big plants in this area, it became necessary to build new houses, situated in the immediate vicinity of the Officine. The foundations were laid for the development of the Borgo San Paolo district, one of the biggest working-class districts in the city: that, along with Lingotto and Mirafiori, built up later around the big Fiat plants, was to mark the history of Turin’s working-class movement.
The residents of the San Paolo district were among the protagonists of the strikes in August 1917, during the dreadful hours of the First World War and, shortly after, in the summer of 1920, they took part in the occupation and self-management of the factories, an authentic experiment in the Italian socialist revolution. Borgo San Paolo, thanks particularly to the political influence that the young Antonio Gramsci was able to exercise on the local workers, was to spawn a significant part of the very first adhesions to the Italian Communist Party, set up in Livorno in 1921, and also provided one of its strongholds under the fascist regime. The workers of Borgo San Paolo, were also to make a very important contribution to the Resistance to Nazi-Fascism.