During the past decade Milan has hosted several stunning urban renewals, ushering in a new age of globalization. The tallest buildings in Italy have risen in alien shapes from the ruins of ex-industrial yards, sheathed in shiny tinted glass, while transnational corporations have anchored themselves into the city fabric as the new godfathers of urban space. Among the most popular, and frankly the most elegant, is the new Apple store designed by Sir Norman Foster’s office, just off the principal commercial artery of Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle in Piazza del Liberty. The open space, presided over by a spectacular fountain set in a double-height glass case that carries the company’s logo, has been reconfigured into a gradual descent of granite landings to become one of the favorite places for digital youth to lounge. The store, far below grade, where once there had been an underground cinema, is likewise a grand basilica-like space with many seating options that can be used for leisure but in general offers a kind of amusement park for experiencing new gadgets like I-pads and digital watches. A privately owned transnational corporation has generated this lively public space, heavily “branded,” and just in case one has doubts whether it belongs to the commons or not, the street sign reads “Piazza del Liberty/ spazio privato”.
Whereas the public spaces of the past belonged to everyone, and were sponsored through citizen taxes, almost all of the new Milanese interventions have been financed through private development, often in exchange for publicly owned land, and though they remain open to the public, usually 24 hours a day, qualify indeed as private property. Thus, you will not be able to organize a demonstration in these spaces, and the owners have the right to exclude anyone they dislike from their property. The ludic character of these spaces induces a kind of tourist atmosphere, an escape from the pressure of the Milanese hustle. One doubts that many of the users of the new public space actually live nearby, excepting those walking their dogs.
Part of the success of Piazza Gae Aulenti, the central space in the Porta Nuova/Garibaldi station renewal, can be attributed to Jan Gehl, the celebrated Danish social architect, who consulted in programming the area for liveliness. The eventual designers from the multinational conglomerate of AECOM insured the connectivity of pedestrians going and coming from different directions, the interaction of seating areas with commercial activities, and the possibility to play or just relax. They also made sustainability evident in the photovoltaic pergolas surrounding the space and the three perforations of the surface that bring natural air and light to the lower level commerce and parking.
The project, which originated with Pierluigi Nicolin’s initial proposal to ramp over the heavy rail and automobile infrastructures of the Varesine area in order to connect all of the surroundings, resulted in a distinctly non-Italian approach to urban fabric. Once realized, the individual towers and pavilions—the Unicredit tower with its spiral pinnacle, the Bosco Verticale towers with their 1,000 trees, the recently renamed IBM pavilion encased in exposed glulam beams--stand on their own, both formally and physically, with no connection to the city’s grid. The atmosphere is more like a fairgrounds or campus than a city. The single completely public component of the project came with the fanciful “Library of the Trees” park, designed by Petra Blaise, with the botanical assistance of Piet Oudolf. The third largest green space in central Milan, the 9-hectar area covers the underground parking and transportation infrastructures and is crisscrossed with a series of bold axes that point to important nearby buildings, such as the regional offices of Lombardy. A dozen circles, each planted with a different species of tree, regularly intercept the pathways. While the liveliness of the Porta Nuova district is undeniable, one cannot help but read it as a victory for gentrification, and ask: is this community life or just consumerism?
The same ambiguity emerges more pointedly at the other major renewal area, the ex-Fiera, known as City Life, but now more commonly called Tre Torri after the three eccentric skyscrapers at its core. Here one can access the area directly by a new metro stop and find themselves in a sensual, two-level ovoid plaza, accessible to two pre-existing axes. The space, framed with upscale restaurants and cafés is foreplay for a large, three-level, suburban-style shopping mall with a multiplex cinema. While consumer relationships tend to be anonymous, a phenomenon probably not anticipated by the developers has emerged amid the comfortable tables and chairs of the eating area, where dozens of teenagers regularly hangout doing their homework. So far the guards have been tolerant.
The 200-meter-long Feltrinelli Foundation by Herzog/de Meuron remains the most exquisite new addition to Milan. Not far from Porta Nuova, the repeated bays of its stark concrete frame and glass infill, capped on the fifth floor by a pitched roof, remains an homage to the typological investigations of Aldo Rossi. Although 2/3rds of the project was a speculative venture leased to Microsoft, the Feltrinelli Foundation desired the project to be understood as a gift to the city, including a major new piazza, which runs the length of the building, a grand, double-height multi-use hall for cinema, concerts, and co-working, and at the top a triple-height reading room, a truly unique cathedral-like environment for the general public to consult items from the largest archive of Marxist literature in the world, or to use for study. Once again the intervention resulted in a public realm governed by private capital. One wonders how Marx would respond to these obvious setbacks in the class struggle, but more, why communities don’t ask for more truly public good from such profit-driven interventions.
Credits © Richard Ingersoll for "Domus"