< Back to News





Located in a suburb of post-industrial Turin, once the ‘Fordist world’s most prototypical town’, the proposal is for a campus university sited within the endless 20m x 20m concrete grid of Fiat’s behemoth Mirafiori plant (1939). The proposed high-speed railway link between Lyon, Turin and Budapest is seen as a driving agent in re-establishing the city and its traditional expertise in manufacturing within a wider European context. The project is an exploration of the open-plan, balancing the generic with the particular by interweaving new programmes and functions into the repetitive matrix of the existing concrete frame.

The design focuses on the sectional distribution of the master plan, with workshops, offices, lecture theatres and public squares at ground level, and housing, communal facilities, nursery schools and shared gardens inhabiting the building’s roof. Occupying a site equivalent in area to Turin’s historic centre, the project envisages Mirafiori as a new city quarter articulated by the shifting presence of production, research, commerce and living.


The images above depict an installation built as a 1:500 representation of the site. Conceived as a simple armature, the model afforded a large-scale, neutral, three-dimensional surface that momentarily held the light and colour cast by a moving, digital projection. I was interested in how this plain surface could take the role of both narrative device, upon which the dynamic history of the building’s conception, construction and early operation could be retraced and re-recorded, and serve as a framework within which to test differing scenarios for the site’s re-inhabitation.

Reflecting on the experience of making this installation, I have now come to realise that what had started out as process of historic site analysis, drawn to scale and illustrated through light, had become (quite unintentionally) suggestive of a proposed architecture. Experienced at 1:1, the installation produced a dreamy environment of diaphanous surfaces, coloured light and whirring sound. Whilst the subject and intent of the installation was still historical, it no longer just retold but ‘produced’ a shifting architecture, temporary in nature and formed through the lightest touch of light, colour, diffraction and shadow. Exploring this disjunction between intent and outcome a bit further, I can now recognise that through the initial planning, fabrication and composition, activities that at the time I only understood as a means to an end, I had already made a series of decisions about the installation’s form, scale and materiality. The subsequent processes of animation, projection, filming and finally editing footage and sound together, added further faculties of decision, critique, editorship and importantly chance or accident. Each, in turn, contributed an iteration – an opportunity to reflect, develop and transform – which, slowly but surely, transformed a representation of the past into a proposal for the future.

Alastair Browning is a member of the Auckland Castle team at Niall McLaughlin Architects. His thesis project FIAT-Mirafiori, undertaken whilst studying with Unit 17 at the Bartlett and tutored by Niall McLaughlin, Yeoryia Manolopoulou and Michiko Sumi, has been selected as one of 11 highly-achieving postgraduate projects from across London’s architecture schools to exhibit at the Architecture Foundation’s Futures in the Making Exhibition.

Futures in the Making is being held at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Twenty Tottenham Street, London W1T 4RF ( Until the 28th November 1.45 – 6pm)



The Element Of Surprise

Sarah-Jane McGee, Project Architect (Right) and and Sophia Tibbo, Structural Engineer (Left) on site, 2014

I recently explained to a relative that the most exciting part of my job is the element of surprise. I compared the world of desktops and emails and repetitive strain injury to that thrill I get each Wednesday when arriving on site to inspect progress. It is the uplifting discovery of the unexpected that is most satisfying to me.

The origin of the word ‘surprise’ ranges in meaning from ‘overcome with emotion’, ‘strike of astonishment’ or ‘a taking unawares’. This is also common to the early process of design during which the building takes shape inside your mind as a sequence of spaces, moments and details. As architects, our job for many months and even years on a single project is to translate this purely imaginary set of ideas into a two-dimensional rule-book for eventual construction. The resulting documentation is scientific, precise, and impersonal. It is accompanied by reams of contracts, costs, schedules and sums. It is in short, quite dull to the naked eye.

This document then comes into contact with a wide range of people; contract managers, site agents, sub-contractors, labourers and tradesmen. They have a unique ability to bring this pile of paper to life. Over the days and months the team forms the structure like bees in a hive. One week there is a hole in the ground, soon after the steel is measured and delivered, the floors and stairs go in, the roof lights are installed, the doors are hung and the whole thing is ‘buttoned up’.  Suddenly what was abstract becomes real, what were lines become tangible surfaces, shocking in their dimension and materiality.

Construction is simply connecting one thing to another thing, layering over and over and over. The physical actions are drilling, digging, hammering, stacking, lifting, fixing, pouring, spreading, sticking, brushing, nailing. It is a human activity, with each person lending his or her very specific skills to create the whole.

To me it seems surprising and almost contradictory that something as animated, chaotic and personal as a construction site can become a silent space of light falling on blank walls. The story is hidden behind white layers of plasterboard, a secret that will only be uncovered in the next round of renovation or demolition.

After all the humming and drilling the building gets built. The bees move on; an enchantingly empty hive remains.  And we begin to imagine again.

Sarah-Jane McGee graduated with a first class honors degree from University College Dublin in 2008. Sarah-Jane won the Irish Architectural Graduates Association Gold Medal in 2008 and her thesis project was highly commended in the OPUS Construction Awards in 2008. Having worked in Ireland for O’Donnell and Tuomey Architects and in Italy for Mario Cucinella Architects, she joined Niall McLaughlin Architects in 2011.  Since joining the practice she has worked as Project Architect on a recently completed private house in Hampstead, London as well as working on St. Cross College, St. Teresa’s Carmelite prayer room in Dublin, a fishing hut in Hampshire and the ROQ Masterplan in Oxford.