The eponymous design and innovation studio of Italian architect and engineer Carlo Ratti has shared its plans for a footwear testing and research facility in Milan that, per the firm, “explores new way to blend natural and artificial, mountain and city through design.” The project comes in advance of the 2026 Winter Olympics, which will be co-hosted by Milan and the storied ski resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Italian Alps. (Cortina d’ Ampezzo previously hosted the winter games in 1956.)
Located within a former industrial building in Milan’s Tortona Design District, the roughly 4,500-square-foot footwear lab is being developed by Vibram. Best known stateside for its minimalist “barefoot” FiveFingers shoe that tends to produce visceral reactions from people not wearing them, the 85-year-old company headquartered just northwest of Milan is a leading manufacturer of rubber outsoles and has deep ties to mountaineering. (Mountain-scaling founder Vitale Bremani was a member of the Italian Alpine Club.)
As Turin-based Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA) detailed in a press release revealing its design, Vibram Connection Lab Milano will be anchored by a 188-foot “testing ground” that will recreate “most” of the different rocky terrains found across the entirety of the Alps. By recreating a multitude of different mountainous terrains within a controlled lab environment, Vibram will be able to more accurately gauge how its footwear products hold up in even the most challenging underfoot environments.
“The stones that make the floor constitute a matrix of rocky granulometries, gradually shifting from fine-grained surface on one side to Dolomitic rocks including Candogli and rosewood marble on another,” elaborated CRA.
The main testing area at Vibram’s new Milan R&D facility will also feature a climbing wall, space for gait analysis, and all-important research workstations. The entire space will be a highly adaptable one that can easily be converted to host a range of public events and workshops, keeping in line with the venerable company’s “open-source creative process.” The Vibram Connection Lab will also include “molecular techniques and an electrostatic filter in the ventilation system” that can reproduce the chemical composition of bracing alpine air inside of the facility according to the firm.
“In 1927, the German writer Kurt Tucholsky penned a poem called ‘The Ideal’. He dreamed of a building where one side faces the bustling center of the city, and the other side the Alps. This was the inspiration for our project, which strives to reconnect Milan to its Alpine roots,” said Ratti, who also serves as director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab. “I believe that bridging the worlds of the natural and artificial is the key challenge of contemporary design. Together with Vibram, we tried to bring the Alpine atmosphere to the center of the city.”
Recently completed by CRA and on view through March 31 is the Italy Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2022. An AC-free, boat hull-topped temporary structure shrouded in a curtain of recycled plastic rope and incorporating a range of other recyclable/recycled materials, the Italy Pavilion is a collaborative design between CRA and Italo Rota with Matteo Gatto and F&M Ingegneria.