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A trip to Bologna’s shabby outskirts is key to understanding the essence of MAST (Manifattura di Arti, Sperimentazione e Tecnologia), a new centre for art, technology and innovation designed by Labics of Rome. Located amid factories, warehouses and generic condos, the complex represents the forward-looking vision of one of Italy’s most philanthropic business leaders, Isabella Seragnoli, president and chair of COESIA Group, an industrial company that believes culture and creativity are integral to corporate well-being.

Left: A sculpture by Olafur Eliasson hangs in the main atrium. It is one of many contemporary artworks installed throughout the building. Right: The 2,000-square-metre public gallery rotates exhibits every few months.

While Seragnoli’s new centre stands as a symbol for COESIA’s public image, it also offers the public, and young people in particular, a new space for cultural activities. The 25,000-square-metre building resulted from an international competition that invited select firms to create a stimulating work environment, with such added amenities as a daycare, a canteen, and a wellness centre, along with facilities for visitors, including two galleries, a training centre, a cafeteria and a 400-seat auditorium.

The company daycare can handle up to 80 children at once, allowing employees to stay close to their families

From a distance, the building’s low-lying profile appears lean and compact. Closer up, its various functional blocks, ramps and elegant garden pathways fit together like pieces of a puzzle, merging into a dynamic and elegant three-storey complex. Three additional levels for parking and storage are buried underground.

The centre has two fronts: a continuous, linear one that relates to the industrial site, and a more composite one, characterized by pillars and cantilevered volumes that open to the green banks of the nearby Reno River. “We wanted the architecture to create a continuous flow of experiences,” says Francesco Isidori, who founded Labics with partner Maria Claudia Clemente in 2002.

State-of-the-art acoustics in the 400-seat auditorium accommodate everything from lectures to 3-D film screenings

They designed the complex to follow an ideal path, Isidori adds, with all of the activities linked through a system of gradual inclines. Inside, an un­mistak­able sense of openness and permeability prevails. Industrial materials such as concrete floors and exposed steel beams provide an elegant though skeletal setting, ideally suited to a space for technological innovation. Interior ramps lead to the 2,000-square-metre exhibition hall, the cafeteria and a fully glazed lobby. Here, a large steel stair and a clear glass box containing two panoramic lifts further augment the sense of transparency. What the public doesn’t see are the building’s ingenious rooftop photovoltaic and solar thermal systems that heat the water and control internal temperatures.

Colourful bands of glazed ceramic rods cover the daycare’s exterior wall, creating privacy but stillletting in light.

From the street, MAST draws the eye, with its double-skin glass envelope composed of a curtain wall and a glazed layer printed with a pixelated photo­graphic pattern. The effect at night resembles a cluster of lanterns. Elegant and innovative as MAST is, will it be enough for visitors to make the trek for a dose of culture? The architects have no doubt: “MAST differs from the surrounding fragmented urban fabric,” says Isidori enthusiastically. “It has a strong civic message, and a dramatic presence that’s playing a role in transforming the district into an art and innovation hub.”

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