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Where the car's the star

The Enzo Ferrari Museum in Italy is a fitting memorial to its maverick creator as well as a racing giant. By Jay Merrick

Jan Kaplicky knew how to fail, brilliantly, better than any other architect in the 21st century. The practice that he and Amanda Levete ran in London's swish Holland Park was called Future Systems, and it became famous for losing architectural competitions with building designs that ranged from gleaming amoebas to towering, ribbed condoms. Even so, they delivered two of Britain's most extrovert buildings, the periscopic Lord's Media Centre, and the glittering supersized basque known as Birmingham's Selfridges.

Kaplicky's final building, the Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena, has just been completed by his protégé, Andrea Morgante and his London-based practice, Shiro Studio. Kaplicky's fascination with cars and big, big toys for big, big boys is perfectly distilled in the museum's design: it's a giant sports car bonnet, a sleek, Modena yellow obituary to architecture's charming Mr Awkward, who dropped dead in a Prague street in 2009.

We may never see a building like this again. Its architecture comes straight from Kaplicky's dream world, which was filled with the shapes of military aircraft, high-tech bits and bobs, and 1950s sci-fi magazines. The museum's shell suggests the sleek lines of a 1972 Ferrari Dino 246 GT, but also recalls spaceships on the covers of Astounding Science Fiction. Kaplicky was, as per the cover line on the May 1951 edition, a "galactic gadgeteer".

The museum is his finest gadget. And two things about the building are completely surprising. The museum, and the Ferrari family's beautifully restored original home and workshop next to it, cost the equivalent of £11.8m – which would barely secure a quarter share in an apartment at One Hyde Park.

Even more unexpected is the relationship of the museum's form with its urban context. A bright yellow building with 10 rooflights shaped like streamlined air-intakes should terrorise the architecturally calm 18th, 19th- and 20th-century buildings in this part of Modena. It doesn't. Why not? Firstly, because it is half buried, with an aluminium roofline no higher than the ridge of Alfredo Ferrari's old metal-bashing workshop. Secondly, because the museum is simply graceful.

Simply is the key word. Morgante, who completed the project for the city of Modena, is apologetic about some details, and speaks wistfully of the refinements seen in high-tech buildings by that master artificer of structural joints and connections, Nick Grimshaw.

Morgante's concerns are slightly misplaced: racing cars are pared-down machines, always on a knife-edge between innovation and failure. When Norman Foster designed the TAG McLaren headquarters in Surrey, his proposals for wind-bracing struts were turned down: McLaren's boffins designed simpler ones. The architecture of the Enzo Ferrari Museum lacks that ultra-refinement but it succeeds in the most important way. Its form is more than an obvious metaphor for fast cars: the building looks, and feels, absolutely, a part of this stripped-down, high-performance world.

The Enzo Ferrari Museum may not be the official Ferrari museum – that's in Maranello, 10 miles south – but it is still a cabinet of beautiful automotive curiosities, with 21 cars floating on platforms a metre above the floor.

Everything, apart from the cars and the yellow pods that contain the museum's shop and lavatories, is white. The interior is like the inside of a vast, high-tech oyster shell. And the cars – such as the cream 1948 Ferrari Barchetta, and the agate grey-blue 1955 Maserati Zagato Spyder – seem to have formed like multi-coloured pearls; automotive figments transformed from the nacreous grit of design ideas into gleaming perfect high-speed machines.

In this museum, we glimpse an age when cars screamed round the bumpy sopraelevata banking of the Monza track at 170mph on tyres that wouldn't be acceptable for a modern BMW saloon. Enzo Ferrari was a ruthless overlord of this world. "If he had been in politics," reports the motor-racing writer Joseph Dunn, "Machiavelli would have been his servant."

There's more than a touch of the sopraelevata to the museum's facade, a slanting double-curve of glass striated with horizontal louvers, engineered by Arup's Sean Billings. Each of the 30mm-thick steel-tension rods that lock the glass panels into position can take 20 tons of pressure from wind or snow. Kaplicky conceived this part of the design as a car radiator but that analogy doesn't work. The facade is more like a windscreen that might have been designed by the Brazilian genius, Oscar Niemeyer.

Morgante cheerfully confirms that the museum is an example of Kaplicky's pathological disinterest in design briefs: "Jan never cared about the briefs. He just liked to draw. He never designed options – the final design was always the evolution of the original sketch." Morgante made a significant contribution to the design, suggesting the building "should be as if it was turgid and inflated, like a bonnet, and Jan agreed immediately."

The museum architecture is the star of the show, but Morgante's design of the exhibition covering Enzo Ferrari's life, in the barn-like ex-workshop, is a conceptually exquisite masterpiece. Morgante's idea was simple: a white oblong with projecting fins suggesting the pages of a 3D biography of the man known as Il Commendatore. Screens telling his story are set back in the pages so, as a whole, this oblong form radiates a wonderful stillness. And high above the pages, two massive white steel cross-braces hold the barn's walls together.

Morgante has delivered a fine piece of restoration and exhibition design that is far more engrossing than Kaplicky's original idea – a meandering red tifosi banner-cum-surface carrying images and artefacts from Ferrari's life. It comes as an amusing shock to gaze down into a small display vitrine and behold signor Ferrari's famous black-framed dark glasses.

The man who wore those glasses once said: "If you can dream it, you can do it."