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Magazzini Generali, Chiasso
Via Magazzini Generali, Balerna, Chiasso, Ticino canton, Switzerland
Magazzini Generali, Chiasso
associated engineer
Robert Maillart
Ingenieurbureau Maillart
date  1923 - 1925
UK era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  Tl550079
photo  copyright ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv
The warehouse and covered storage at Chiasso’s Swiss-Italian goods railway interchange is one of Robert Maillart’s most recognisable structures and remains an icon of industrial architecture. As with most of his work, its construction by human hands is clearly visible, providing a lasting connection between the building’s users and its designer.
Chiasso is Switzerland’s southernmost city, situated inside a loop of the border with Italy. Italian is the local language, as it is for about seven percent of all Swiss citizens. The Magazzini Generali (literally ‘general stores’) is located on a 35,000 sq m siding area flanked by strands of multiple railway tracks, between Chiasso and Balerna Stations.
The Magazzini Generali was designed by Robert Maillart (1872-1940), in collaboration with local engineer and civic dignitary Ettore Brenni (1884-1955). It is part of a complex constructed to facilitate customs services between Switzerland and Italy, and continues to be run by governmental custom authorities. Swiss trains pull in and unload on one side, goods pass through customs inside the building, and are loaded onto Italian trains on the other side.
Maillart’s structure has three contiguous sections. From south-east to north-west, they are a conventional office area, a customs warehouse and a covered shed, open on three sides. At the time of completion, its main customers were cigar factories, wine merchants and cereal suppliers.
The offices and warehouse occupy a 25m wide rectangular concrete frame building with three storeys above a basement — the ground floor is at railway platform level. The exterior walls are brick infil between concrete columns. The pitched roof appears to be of terracotta tiles on (in the warehouse section at least) cast concrete truss framing with a cast concrete lining. The offices extend some 15-20m behind the gable end entrance, with the warehouse taking up the remaining 60-65m of the building’s length.
Inside the warehouse, Maillart’s patented beamless floors are carried on four rows of square-section mushroom-head columns at 5.2m centres. The column sizes are reduced at each level, from basement to roof. Floors are cast in situ and the ascending clear floor-to-ceiling heights are 3.8m, 4m, 3.7m and 3.15m. The pitched roof space (floor three) has a 3.6m maximum headroom.
The ground floor is divided into lockable room-like spaces (as it has been from the start), with longitudinal access down the middle bay of columns and side access from both platforms, under cover of a cantilevered canopy along each side of the warehouse. The first floor has a similar room arrangement. The second floor ceiling has large square openings in the longitudinal central bay, allowing in light from glazed roof panels and access to the roof space. The upper level holds locked bonded goods. All goods in the warehouse are carefully weighed to ensure that the building is not overloaded.
However, the most interesting structure in the complex is the open storage area, which is covered by an elaborate truss-like roof in reinforced concrete. It is relatively small at 33.4m wide in plan and 50m long. Though built as a continuation of the line of the customs building, there is no direct access from inside: entry is only from the platforms.
The entire structure of the shed is cast concrete — columns, trusses and pitched roof. Six pairs of rectangular-section, sinuous form columns are located along the platform edges. Together with the truss-like structures they support, they divide the space into five transverse bays. The roof structure is unique in form — notable for the way Maillart has been able to provide a wide span using economical means by closely matching the locations and shapes of the members to the stress patterns in the structure. The result is almost counter-intuitive, but highly distinctive.
The lower chord of each gabled pseudo-truss bends upwards at each end, and is connected to the upper chords by seven vertical concrete struts, with no diagonal bracing. The span of the pseudo trusses measures 10m from the central struts to the perimeter columns, which cantilever to meet them.
The sloping flat slab of the roof is propped by three verticals cradled by each pseudo-truss and stiffened by a rafter. The load picked up by the central hangar is transferred to the ridge and into the roof plane, then carried by the columns. The two longer props are braced to prevent buckling by longitudinal members. The ridge is approximately 7.5m above platform level (9.2m above the column bases). The overall span is 25m.
Maillart’s design philosophy for the Magazzini Generali shed has been much discussed since its completion. It seems likely that he used his innovative deck stiffened arch bridge design (of the same period) as a starting point, reversing the arch to form the base of the 'truss'. Maillart’s analysis methods tended to rely on graphical (rather than computational) calculations but the structure has been deemed technically correct. [see Robert Mark, 1973] The design could be considered analogous to the ‘stressed skin construction’ of aircraft built from thin sections.
The treatment of the columns is as intriguing as the roof. By turning the top of the columns inwards, the span is reduced and the roof structure reduced in depth, with obvious economic advantages and optimised head room.
A plaque just inside the door of the office entrance commemorates the building of the magazzini. Translated from the German, it reads: "Built in 1924 to the plans of engineer E. Brenni and the calculations of engineer R. Maillart".
Maillart’s shed survives very much in tact but has been extended by a much longer modern structure.
Client: Freilagergesellschaft
Associate engineer: Ettore Brenni
Contractor: Bernasconi & Mascetti
Research: ECPK
"What Was Truly Innovative about Maillart’s Designs Using Reinforced Concrete?" by Denis Zastavni, in Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, Cottbus, Germany, May 2009
"On Span and Space: Exploring Structures in Architecture” by Bjørn Normann Sandaker, Routledge, Abingdon, 2008
"Robert Maillart: Builder, Designer, and Artist” by David P. Billington, Cambridge University Press, 1997
“Robert Maillart and the art of reinforced concrete” by David P. Billington, Architectural History Foundation, MIT Press, 1990
"Robert Maillart's bridges: the art of engineering” by David P. Billington, University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1979
"Robert Maillart: The Warehouse at Chiasso” by Robert Mark, James K. Chiu and John F. Abel, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1973
"Robert Maillart: Bridges and Constructions” by Max Bill, translated by W.P.M.K. Clay, Pall Mall Press, 3rd revised edition, November 1969
"The Structural Design of Maillart’s Chiasso Shed (1924): A Graphic Procedure" by Dr Denis Zastavni, in Structural Engineering International, Reports, 3, 2008, pp.247-252

Magazzini Generali, Chiasso