Milano: The Grand Tour

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“Milan is…under construction.”
It is the first thing Professor Danilo Palazzo says as I sit down to talk about new development in Northern Italy in his office at the at the Politecnico di Milano.  He is a professor of Urban Planning and Design and a long-time resident of this (rapidly) evolving city.  He currently leads a thesis prep course for international, master’s-level graduate students.  He takes me through a brief history of Milan – from it’s industrial and Fascist roots to the prominent urban plans of 1980s and 90s to the future city plans for Expo 2015.

Milano has an interesting story to tell about expos and fairs in general.  The old Fiera, or Fair grounds, was built in the 1920s (just west of the historic city center), when Milan hosted the city’s first world’s fair type event.  It was used heavily in the post-war years and up until the 1990s.   At that point, the demand for exhibition space and services began to far exceed the current (fair/land) capacity.  In response, new fair grounds were commissioned on the outskirts of Milan (more specifically, in a town called Rho in the Milano metropolitan area).  This is the site of the new Fiera Milano, a development that was crowned when the Massimiliano Fuksas iconic canopy was built over the exhibition complex.

The older fair site, near the center of the city is now called the ‘CityLife‘ project and is very much under construction.  (There are massive construction walls surrounding the site.)  Palazzo says the development is the result of a competition in which the best design solution – one that was popular with the people and was sensitive to city context – didn’t win.  Instead, the decision to commission a trio of international architects (Libeskin, Hadid, and Isozaki) was based purely on money.  Their mixed-use, residential schemes were the most economical to build.

The relocation and development of the Milan Fair sounds like the story of new city building.  When an existing agglomeration lacks physical space/room for program, and existing infrastructure is at full capacity for efficient operation, a new piece of land, often at the edge of the existing development, is allocated for this new purpose.  This addition is unique from urban sprawl because it is often a self-sustaining and independent development, and it often has it’s own inscribed urban growth limits.

I’m interested in the plans for the Milan 2015 Expo and the potential of public architecture, public space, and experiment that can ensue.  Milan’s plan, unlike the enormously-scaled, quarantined, mega expo-sites for Shanghai, Hannover, (and even the Beijing Olympics), scatters seeds of development throughout the city.  It seems like a plan for urban acupuncture, a healing/regenerative attempt to revitalize the entire city with several site-specific urban renewal-ish design solutions.  Palazzo says it has to do with the budget, one that has been severely cut due to the economy.  I wonder if this solution, one that was generated via a financial externality, will become a model for the future.

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Expo as urban accupuncture

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Milan’s Reverse ‘T’ plan

The day turns into an incredible motorcycle tour of the new development in and around Milan.  We see: Rubattino, Santa Julia, Porta Victoria, Bocconi (University), Fiera Milano City, Portello, Maciachini, and Bicocca – huge revitalization projects included in Milan’s “Reverse ‘T'” Plan (named for its physical form seen in plan).

Santa Giulia is Milan’s example of ‘on hold’ or ‘tentative urbanism.’  The 296-acre residential/retail area, designed by Norman Foster, was partially built before the project/developers declared bankruptcy approximately one year ago.  Today, this development exists partially inhabited and less than 3 miles from the center of Milan.  Construction has halted and metal fences remain as blockades to main public areas.  Residents are living without some basic services, like schools and roads.  (In fact, the route we took to access the development wouldn’t have been an option if we weren’t riding this bike.)  The worst news seems to be that residents might lose the rights to the property that they purchased here.  Santa Giulia seems like a blaring example of planning gone wrong (too mono-functional, mainly)….but hopefully, it is one that the city can learn from.

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Where the sidewalk ends: Santa Giulia

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Tentative urbanism: Santa Giulia collective space, TBD

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more edges

I get the feeling Milan can be a superficial place.  Milan seems extremely focused on it’s outward appearance.  Close proximity to other powerful European Centers has given the city a complex; this hub of fashion and design wants to look good standing next to its rivals.  Milan has been a fierce contender in the competition for international events like Expo 2015 and the 2020 Olympic games.  However, these ambitions for greatness may only be skin deep.  Sometimes the people of Milan are left out of the equation.  Santa Giulia is one blatant example of neglect toward residents.  Fiera Milano City could be another.  The voice of the people seem crucial for the future of the city.  Professors and Researchers like those at the University should be more involved in future design decisions and the residents themselves need to be recognized.  With a marginal population to begin with (Palazzo is not the only one who describes the Milanese as “not Italians, but Europeans”),  Milan needs to establish a deeper connection to its people – to find its identity from within – or it risks ending up like Brussels and the EU – a soft and generic center lacking true identity.

Other projects of interest in Milan:
San Vittore Prison (a panopticon from the 1880s, located in the center of Milan, designers proposed conversion into a major public landmark/use)

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