Italy is a land of contradictions: While it appears profoundly conservative on many levels, it often produces surprisingly vivacious technical and cultural vanguards. A prime example is Enzo Ferrari (1898–1988), founder of the eponymous sports car enterprise, who lived an apparently conventional private life but produced some of the most audacious speed machines of the 20th century. The city of Modena, proud of its famous native son, decided in 2004 to turn his birthplace into a museum and chose, in a competition, a truly radical solution. (This perhaps compensates for the same city’s decision in 1999 to reject a new gateway by Frank Gehry, FAIA.) Flanked by a set of train tracks, the 19th-century house and attached workshop—used by Ferrari’s father to fabricate panels for the trains—have been renovated and framed by a strident yellow carapace. Designed by the late Jan Kaplický, the Czech-born founder of Future Systems, this colossal aluminum hood rises to the same height as the historic buildings. Its bulging crest is slit by 10 protruding gills, evoking the molded metal skin and air vents of car bodies without making literal reference to them. Despite the new structure’s extroverted form, color, and technology, Kaplický conceived it as a passive addition, like an open hand protecting the L-shaped complex of original buildings. It is parked discretely, like a very expensive car, in the background.

That the new museum will attract car enthusiasts goes without saying, yet one can imagine its greater appeal as a pilgrimage site for architects, curious to witness one of the handful of projects attributable to Kaplický. After his untimely death in 2009, the commission, which was won in competition, was faithfully stewarded by Andrea Morgante, an Italian architect who worked at Future Systems during the last five years of its existence, and now heads his own firm, Shiro Studio, in London. True to Kaplický’s ideals, the new structure appears as a smooth and sensuous object charged with a high level of technical bravura and innovation. Future Systems, which until 2006 included Kaplický’s partner and ex-wife Amanda Levete, had teased architectural culture during the last two decades of the 20th century with alien visions of high-tech organic shapes that seemed culled from science fiction comic books. Pioneers in parametric design and great believers in programming sustainable performance into structures, Kaplický and Levete finally proved their worth with the free-form Selfridges Building in Birmingham, England, completed in 2004, which is one of the most iconic works of the 21st century. The new museum in Modena, while less intrusive, presents a similarly surprising image, living up to the Future Systems’s ethic of organic form that synthesizes technology.

Like so many breakthrough structures in modern design, the Enzo Ferrari Museum received technology transfers from naval archi­tecture while harking back to Paleolithic typolo­gies. The 5,000 aluminum panels that form the roof surface were crafted by boatbuilders using a technique of tongue-and-groove joinery suitable for the hulls of ships. The 3,300 square meters (35,521 square feet) of the double-curved roof rest on a vaulted steel space-frame poised at the higher, glazed Eastern end on two colossal forks that absorb the load of a serpentine steel anchoring tube running above the length of the glass entry façade. The 10 roof vents serve as computer-controlled monitors, allowing hot air to discharge during the day. The long rectangular structure sinks into the ground like a primeval dugout, and the roof appears to sit over an excavated void. The long flanks and rear of the structure have a few tangential concrete buttresses sunk into earthen berms that line the north and south sides of the building, providing grass-covered thermal mass.

The interior ceiling covers the unified space with long 2-meter-wide strips of cream-colored PVC fabric that has been stretched taut. The thinness of these uncanny bands can be observed through the 4-centimeter gaps left between each one, making way for pendant light fixtures and other systems. The museum’s undulating glazed façade cuts a sinuous oblique to open up the rectangular volume and admit daylight into the interior. Here the technology reaches its apex with the glass panels tilting 12.5 degrees inward as they rise, attached at their corners to a custom-designed joint that, on the interior surface, slips around a vertical, pre-tensioned steel cable, like those used on suspension bridges. On the exterior, the same joint sustains rows of black aluminum louvers that help reduce glare.