The former Agip service station at Piazzale Accursio in Milan becomes the headquarters of Garage Italia Milano of Lapo Elkann. After the restoration and conversion done by the studio aMDL of Michele De Lucchi, this iconic work of Fifties architecture now also contains a cafe and restaurant run by the chef Carlo Cracco. A new history that looks to the future

“The idea was to bring together Italian excellence in the sectors of motion, design and food, which represent passion, invention and beauty in all forms,” says Lapo Elkann, our host and director of the project, “to bring out all the potential of tailor-made service, which starting with automotive restyling is becoming more and more versatile. This new calling card for Made in Italy,” he continued, “begins in Milan, the city that is the symbol of contemporary Italy and design, with a constructive drive towards the future.”

Architect De Lucchi, what has the Garage Italia Milano project meant to you, as its designer?
“It meant the discovery of a new (old) world, that of the automobile, which until today had not been one of my main interests. I had somewhat lost touch with the charisma of an object that belongs to our everyday environment. I rediscovered that charm in the vision of Lapo and the work of Garage Italia Customs: we always need to find a place in which to project our imagination, the idea of who we are. It can be a house, a suit, a recipe. Or it can be a car, a motorcycle, a yacht, an airplane, a smartphone.”

By this you mean that it is vital to find objects with which we can personally identify?
“Of course. It is no longer enough to get nourishment or to get dressed to feel comfortable. Our comfort zone also covers what others convey to us in terms of a vision of life, a way of appearing and behaving. This vision, which I had set aside to some extent, took me back to the days of Memphis, 40 years ago, when we thought about how to create new languages with which people could identify, also in the use of objects, as a statement of belonging to the modernity of those years. This was a job that made me relive, with great enthusiasm, the effort of finding new terms to create original images and fantasies.”

Is this a reminder that design always has to stimulate something emotional, in order never to repeat?
“Absolutely. We architects work on objects. Always. Even buildings are perceived as such, beyond the context of reference, beyond optimal functioning, which call other parameters into play. The former Agip service station commissioned in 1952 to the architect Mario Bacciocchi by Enrico Mattei and completed in 1953 tells this story very well: it is an object that can no longer function for the purpose with which it was designed. But it is lovely, full of meanings, belonging to another era, with a strong communicative thrust we find appealing today. Putting this architectural object together with all the large and small objects that lead us back to the philosophy of customization of Lapo has been an extraordinary process of interlocking.”

In this interlocking, which took three years, we see Michele De Lucchi as homo faber, the maker of ‘Houses’ in wood using a chain saw, the attitude of a contemporary humanist?
“I’d say so, yes, more than one might think. The pieces of this puzzle are all part of a single landscape, the environment of Garage Italia Customs that channels a craft-industry approach down to the details, to design a more humane future. Architects and entrepreneurs design the behavior of the people who use spaces and objects, in keeping with specific roles. They stimulate their creativity. In the end, we are all designers, and I’m not saying this out of false modesty. If you think about it, we are the only animals who see ourselves from the outside, who know how to name ourselves and recognize ourselves in the mirror. We feel like individuals in a group of people. This explains why homo sapiens has managed to become responsible for the planet, for better or worse. Everything starts with us and with the way we want to construct ourselves. The person is always the reference point. The 21st century puts man back at the center, with greater awareness of being special.”

So, grasping this fundamental value, the model of Garage Italia Customs is destined to meet with success?
“Creativity in terms of customization is a fine theme. The real business challenge for Lapo Elkann and his team is how much they will be able to communicate this message in terms of potential for it to be utilized by many people. The model is meeting with good international response, and many Garage Italia facilities are opening in the world (from China to Japan, Arabia to the United States). Functional mixes of this type already exist abroad, but they are not so well structured. Here the platform includes a cafe and a restaurant run by the prize-winning chef Carlo Cracco, for light lunch, aperitifs and dinner, open every day. The place is also available for photo shoots, fashion shows, product presentations, art events. Success will be measured in terms of the capacity to present something new and innovative every time.”

Architects and entrepreneurs design the behavior of the people who use spaces and objects, in keeping with specific roles. They stimulate their creativity. In the end, we are all designers, and I’m not saying this out of false modesty"

But how can we measure the innovative impact of a proposal?
“In its diversity. Objects have value precisely because they are different. Difference is the source of enrichment on the market. We will continue to seek diversity in chairs, for example, when we design or produce them. Animals too always continue to work on their things, birds make nests, bees make hives, but they also do them in the same way. This vitality of ours also regenerates architecture, which in this moment is still more important than product design.”

Why do you say that?
“Because when you design a product you think about finding an audience interested in that object. When you design a work of architecture, the audience also includes people who are not interested. Namely the people who will establish a relationship with the physical presence of that building that wasn’t there previously on our already densely man-altered planet. The building is a sort of limitation of the freedom of others.
This is why the average citizen and the city have to somehow appreciate the work; reflecting on the artificial world in which we live and giving it a scale of values becomes a true priority. The evaluations have to be made on two orders of magnitude: that which does not have a representative-symbolic meaning, and an immediate, concrete usage value.”

In this sense, we can go back to the meaning of the project for the former Agip filling station: when things are no longer used, don’t they usually fall apart and vanish?
“Of course. But this is not only about restoring a very beautiful work of architecture from the 1950s, with an oblong, fluid, wedge-like form, due to the fact that it stands on a triangular lot formed by the intersection of two avenues. This is an example of modern streamlined design, with rounded borders of two horizontal off-scale canopies, stretching forward with aerodynamic thrust. The idea was also to make this building, that had immediately been seen as a sign of an important phase of economic and social growth in the postwar era, still very visible today with its function as a landmark and a channel of communication for the motorists on the street axis of Corso Sempione, heading north towards the Milano-Laghi motorway, be even more futuristic and dynamic, open and optimistic. A symbol of the progress and the focus on the future of which Filippo Tommaso Marinetti spoke in his Manifesto of 1909. Our work was to make a conservative restoration, with structural reinforcement, to make up for the neglect of the building since the early 1990s. We started by cleaning and repairing the ceramic mosaic tiles of the outer facades, as well as the curved surface of the two horizontal canopies. We managed to restore the original color thanks to the skill of the Gasparoli restoration company. In the meantime, another fundamental job was done by Maurizio Milan, in terms of engineer, and thanks to his expertise we have radically reinforced the whole structure. Conceived with a modern spirit, and based on excellent engineering, the building was nevertheless made with humble and salvaged materials. Starting with the bricks, which turned out to be all of different types when the stucco and plaster were removed. We have reconstructed with the same desire as in those years, to make new and extraordinary things that can also contain the dream of a restaurant and a roof terrace, but without modifying the former temple of the motorcar, with its architectural and historical character. On the edge of the wings there are two rows of fluorescents, positioned as they were in the 1950s. Above the roof line, the tall poles – which now support the Garage Italia sign – reproduce the design of the originals. Since we also wanted to operate in terms of ecosustainability, we have used Airlite paints for the surfaces, which exploit sunlight to reduce air pollution while eliminating mildew and bacteria. The true value of our work lies in the fact that an existing work of architecture has been able to reduce environmental impact, hosting a startup of the new generation.”

One thousand seven hundred square meters on two above-ground levels, plus a service basement. What were the most amusing and refined surprises that emerged in the staging of the internal spaces?
“The place has not lost the original industrial atmosphere of a mechanics’ garage, though the details have been enhanced. On the ground floor, just beyond the glass entrance (with curved walls and metal framework, conserved to ensure visual connection between inside and outside), a majestic cloud of flying cars hangs over the bar area in front of the shop corner. It accompanies the volume of the elevators and staircases that have original tire tracks on the steps; and, to the side, it extends towards the stage of Garage Italia Customs. This is a space with black concrete floors, where at the center, under the glass dome, the logo of the brand is inserted, with internal partitions made in raw iron and navy blue walls, a color personally selected by Lapo Elkann to highlight the splendor of the contents and his idea that colors are life. On the back wall, the materials library – the fulcrum of the creative activity – is a large bookcase that displays the quality and materic-chromatic richness of the painted bodywork, the films used for wrapping, the fabrics and leathers that can be selected to create one’s own customized dream. Going up to the first floor, the restaurant is a single room with a trapezoidal form, marked by windows on the sides that bring light to the whole space. It extends to the outdoor terrace in a small space set up like a yacht in mahogany and maple, with artificial leather seats in white and blue. At the center of the dining room and automobile provides the cocktail station, and on the ceiling a toy electric car track hangs, while along the perimeter custom padded benches, tables and chairs have been positioned. The furnishings, produced in collaboration with the Italian majors in this sector, like the lamps, are inspired by the world of automobiles, yachts and airplanes. In the kitchen, behind the restaurant, the cooking stations and layout have been designed by Carlo Cracco: another unique feature, aimed at facilitating his interpretation of Italian regional cuisine. At the back, the large outdoor terrace is bordered by trees and organized for outdoor socializing. The restrooms are lined with mahogany and maple wainscoting, and stand out for a special galvanizing treatment that gives the washstands and fixtures in steel a warm copper patina.”

As a whole, it is like seeing many images from the set of a new Dolce Vita: what scenes will be acted out here?
“The scene of human intelligence. You sit down, observe, converse, you transform desires and fantasies into surprising panoramas. That’s what the director wants.”

The leading players?
“All the travelers of tomorrow.”

Project by Michele De Lucchi - project manager Angelo Micheli, project group Davide Angeli, Nicola Boccadoro, Federica Cevasco, Silvia Figini, Francesco Forcella, Alessandro Ghiringhelli