Misfits’ Guide to MILAN
The 20th century chronology of attention-getting buildings is over represented by America. It was only Le Corbusier who presented a sustained individual challenge to total American architectural dominance. Sustained national challenges were mounted by Scandinavia, Japan and Italy but, whether we were paying attention or not, Italy never ceased being a source of architectural intelligence and construction excellence. In Milan, I will look for evidence to back up this claim.
Ca’ Brutta, Vittorino Colonnese, Giovanni Muzio, Pier Fausto Barelli, 1922
Via della Moscova, Milano
This perimeter apartment block was one of the first reinforced concrete frame buildings in Italy. It had underground car parking, and heating and hot water were centrally provided. It lack of ornament borrowed from the Secessionists in reacting to Art Nouveau but earned it the name ‘Ugly House’. What ornament there was was variously accused of being inconsistent, playful, ironic, a detachment from reality, a primitive mysticism and a reaction to rationality. Decades later, bizarrely and without irony, post-modernists would scour this pre-modern building for proof they were right. Papers would be written.
Palazzo dell’Arte, Giovanni Muzio
Viale Alemagna 6, Milano
Another Muzio building. Whether by coincidence, contemporaneity, association, design, or sheer bad luck, this building gets described as fascist architecture even though masonry arches with little or no decoration are typical of Muzio whose style seemed fully formed with his 1923 Palazzo dell’Arte and wasn’t noticeably different thirteen years later with his Palazzo dell’Arengario in Piazza del Duomo. I think I’d prefer to see Ignzaio Gardella’s 1934 proposal there instead. Either would be unthinkable now.
Casa Toninello, Guiseppe Terragni
Via Perasto 3, Milano
The upper floor has been filled in but this building is still doing what it was meant to do.
This period was the one where Rationalist design met urban verncaular construction to became mainstream. This suggests that Rationalism and its emphasis on structure and configuration was a more useful way of understanding the same technical advances than was style. The result is that many of these buildings look very ordinary today. They’re easy to pass by. This is either a virtue or a failing, depending on what you expect of buildings in a city.
Casa dei Giornalisti, Giovanni Muzio
via Appiani, 23-25, Milano
This is the third of five Muzio buildings here, all except the Palazzo dell’Arte being within a few hundred metres of each other and each on a prominent intersection. This suggests a close connection with a local landowner. Note with this one how the end windows are slightly larger. We find this strange, as if expression and denial are the only two choices.
Casa Rustici-Comolli, Giuseppe Terragni
Guglielmo Pepe 32, Milano
Check those paired side balconies executed as a reinforced concrete truss. We’re looking at an idea we are to see again in Casa Rustica.
Casa Ghiringhelli, Guiseppe Terragni, 1933-35
Piazzale Lagosta 2, Milano
Here we see the protruding central portion of the previous two Terragni buildings, as well as paired central balconies on the symmetrical main facade. The top floor is again set back and defined as was the original roof on Casa Toninello. The same pieces are being continunally rearranged according to site, program and budget. There’s no compulsion to be inventive beyond that. These four buildings are in the same corner of town, again suggesting either a single landowner or word-of-mouth referrals between local landowners.
Casa Lavezzari, Guiseppe Terragni, 1934-35
piazza Morbegno 3, Milano
Following the streets allows rectilinear construction except for the elevator lobby and entrance hallways where it is an asset, and for the stairwell where it doesn’t matter.
Casa al Villaggio dei giornalisti (House in Milan), Figini & Pollini, 1933–35
via Perrone di San Martino 8, Milano
This is all we get to see of this house that previously appeared in the Pilotis post. You can find more information and the plans on www.ordinearchitetti.mi.it.
Casa Bonaiti, Giovanni Muzio, 1935-36
Piazza della Repubblica, Milan
These apartments are of the same time as Muzio’s other ones and solve much the same problem using a symmetrical layout with various adjustments. It was here I first began to notice the Milanese love for balcony planting. You’ll see many impressive and sometimes extreme examples.
Partly because of this and partly because Stefano Boeri is Milanese, I began to warm to his Bosco Verticale, a building I’d previously thought overly tricksy. The planting on this building is only slightly more outrageous than much of what you will see on balconies around town. I noticed that taller trees are prevented from blowing over by ventical cable stays suspended from the balconies above.
Bosco Verticale is part of a much larger new commercial centre development called Porta Nuova, west of Repubblica.
Off to one side of the park area beside Boscso Verticale is this building that looked rather interesting and built to last.
Casa Rustici, Pietro Lingeri & Giuseppe Terragni, 1935
Corso Sempione 26, Milano
There’s not much rusticity on show at Casa Rustici. The building is urban and urbane. It’s parade of balconies have more than a hint of Terragni’s Casa del Fascio completed the following year.
Villa Pestarini, Franco Albini, 1937-38
Via Mogadiscio 2-4
The top floor is an addition but I get the feeling Albini would have approved. Here’s what it looked like in 1938.
Edificio per abitazioni e uffici, Luigi Figini & Gino Pollini, 1947–48
via Broletto 37, Milano
Much of what you see in Milan will just look ordinary and decent – in a good way. Figini & Pollini were well-known architects but this looks just like any other sturdily-built 1930s building in Milan. On the other hand, it’s often the case when walking you’ll see buildings such as this next one that look like you ought to know who it is by. If someone had told me this was Terragni from 1928 I would’ve believed them. Instead, it’s just the natural result of architectural innovation and vernacular construction both having something to give each other to become the new normal.
Casa Albergo, Luigi Moretti, 1946-1951
via Corridoni, Milano
Why am I mentioning this? It’s an example of a post-war apartment hotel designed as a city-in-a-city with a entrance lobby, access corridors, a restaurant, library and shared amenities in a podium linking the twin high blocks and the single lower one. The building was designed as a repeatable typology with the shape of the podium altering to suit different site geometries. It’s good contemporary thinking. It’s 1946.
Casa Tognella (Casa dal Parco), Ignazio Gardella, 1947-54
Via Jacini Milan
It’s often mentioned how the design and construction of this building took seven years but, considering its location on a single block of land overlooking Milan’s most central and largest historic park, seven years seems surprisingly short to sort out permissions. Either Gardella had a gift for dealing with municipalities or the clients had some serious money and influence. The alternate name Casa dal Parco is not wrong, but seems somehow diminutive.
Internal planning has the strict public and private division typical of the class and era but is relatively relaxed regarding staff and occupants sharing corridors and stairs (but not elevators). The service areas of the apartment are zoned, rather than compartmentalized. The lady of the house might even enter the kitchen.
There’s little reason to break the rectilinearity, apart from getting more south light bouncing off the master bedroom wall, and getting more west sun into the living and dining room. Gardella took a Rationalist approach as the starting point for many buildings, but adapted it as circumstances dictated such as with Casa alle Zattere in Venice four years later.
Condominio di v. Marchiondi a Milano
Ignazio Gardella, Roberto Menghi & Anna Castelli Ferrieri, 1949-1953
via Marchiondi, 7, Milano
That’s it in the back. It faces a private park and is completely hidden at the back by other buildings and at the front by trees.
The planning is clearly Gardella’s – it’s beautiful! Only he can plan elevator lobbies and entrance halls like this, and extract maximum effect from angled walls whether he’s forced to or not. They never result in peculiar or wasted spaces.
Edificio per abitazioni ed uffici (mixed-use building)
Mario Asnago & Claudio Vender, 1950
Piazza Velasca 4, Milan
A ground floor with three floors of offices above, four floors of apartments and what looks like a recessed top floor. The offices have a stone facade and office windows, the apartments have a brick facade and apartment windows. The office window grid aligns with the upper left corners of the apartment window grid, but that grid isn’t regular. We don’t see the trope of lining through windows and masonry with adjacent buildings. Instead, identical floor heights are maintained and the buiding naturally assumes a complementary scale regardless of wind0w size and proportion. It’s subtly and quietly brilliant. Asnago & Vender buildings are ego-less architecture and, as such, near invisible.
Quartiere Mangiagalli, Ignazio Gardella & Franco Albini, 1950
via De Predis, via Jacopino da Tradate
The intelligent use of external angles immediately marks this building as one of Gardella’s.
So does the planning. He would normally have narrowed the stair landings towards the entrances but instead has made a screened void to keep the access balcony away from the bathroom windows. Once inside however, the entrance hall characteristically narrows towards to the living room and the living room narrows towards the view. The only internal triangular space created by the unusual geometry is used to widen the passage from living to kitchen. Note also how the bedrooms have their own corridor, separate from the entrance corridor? And how that circulation space below the bathrooms can be configured to make either two x 2-bed apartments, or 1 x 1-bed + 1 x 3-bed? Clever.
On the way there from Lotto (M1) Station, you’ll probably pass by this development on via Roberto Sambonet. It’s worth a look.
Corso Italia Complex, Luigi Moretti, 1951 & 1956
Corso Italia 13-17, Milano
The two office and residential towers at the rear of the site came first in 1951 and the two front blocks later in 1956. The pointed one overhanging the street and containing three apartments per level is perhaps the most wilful of all the buildings so far. [Plan from archidiap.]
The mixed-use building is a common typology in Milan and, like the 1950 Asnago & Vender mixed-use building, effortlessly combine the two. There’s no logic to those three well-placed subtractions on some of the balcony ends. Moretti has that gift we call ‘design flair’.
It’s also evident in the subtle bend of the north side having those balconies. Moretti pulls off that difficult feat of making the unnecessary seem right.
The four grouped flues at the end of the building don’t appear to be original but they’ve been added in a good way.
Pirelli Tower, Gio Ponti, 1953
Via Fabio Filzi 22, Milan
This building remains as idosyncratic and elegant as it was in 1953. Gio Ponti achieved international fame with this building that’s the only one of his I’m going to mention here. He “put Italian architecture on the map”, as they say. This was good for him and good for us because modern buildings in Italy became Italian architecture worldwide. It wasn’t necessarily a good thing for Italians as architecture wasn’t a local activity anymore. Italian architects now had their eyes on international recognition. The more Italian architecture became, the less concerned it was with Italians. In short, it lost its innocence, albeit not all at once and not across the board. Career Case Study #7: Gio Ponti is forthcoming.
BBPR (Gian Luigi Banfi, Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, Enrico Peressutti, & Ernesto Nathan Rogers) architectural partnership, 1954
Piazza Velasca 5, Milano
This 1954 building is also claimed, in hindsight, to be a precursor to Post Modernism because of its alleged historical reference to Milanese towers, the closest I suppose being the tower of the Castello Sforzesco but I’ll save that thought for some other time. I’d never really noticed the offset windows before. It might be the result of different internal layouts or it may be totally gratuitous for all I know. For now, it seems to be another case of someone making no effort to either hide something or express it.
The history of accidentally or contrivedly offset windows now goes back to the 1950s. Curtain walling doesn’t feature largely in Milan and there aren’t that many examples of the contemporary type we’re so familiar with.
Casa del Cedro, Giulio Minoletti, 1951-1957
via Fatebenefratelli 3, Milano
Having earlier admired the architectural insouciance of Asnago & Vender, I was prepared to dislike this proud little building but couldn’t. For pushing 70, it’s looking fantastic and in good health. I’d be surprised if it has any solar gain, thermal bridging or waterproofing issues.
Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista alla Creta, Giovanni Muzio, 1956-1958
Piazza S. Giovanni Battista alla Creta, 11, 20147 Milano
This is a curious little building – Muzio again! He always had a feel for brick and now he’s making something that’s obviously decorative yet can’t have been Post Modernism because Post Modernism wasn’t supposed to have been around in 1956. I find it easier to think of Post Modernism as a resurgence of what there was pre-Modernism. Muzio was always a bit behind the times but then the times went back to meet him, as with Ca’ Brutta. I’m not sure if any Italian architect has ever been a ‘modernist’ but at one stage Figini & Pollini, the authors of this next building, were very identifiably Rationalists.
Edificio per albergo e abitazioni (mixed-use building)
Luigi Figini & Gino Pollini, 1961-1965
Largo Augusto 2, Milano
I include this to show how Figini & Pollini became less shy about decoration as the century progressed. I have no evidence, but wouldn’t be surprised if the decorative balconies have a Venetian ancestor for they recall the ones Gardella was to use on Casa alle Zattera in 1958. Here, the absence of balconies from one floor seems irrational and difficult to justify as design flair despite it being the dominant aesthetic decision.
Torre Turati, Giovanni Muzio, 1966
Via Turati 40, Milano
This is the last Muzio building here. That’s it on the left, forming one half of a gateway to Piazza Repubblica. The building cantilevers out to provide increasingly large balconies to the upper apartments but this is not obvious when seen from along the street.
These two buildings show two different ways of working to the same rules but the one on the far side extracts maximum volume from the cantilever concession. It also produces that building-on-top-of-another-building effect that found recent popular affectation.
Edificio Residenziale al Gallaratese, Aldo Rossi, 1969-1970
via Enrico Falck 53, Milan
If Gio Ponti put the new architecture of Italy on the map, Rossi was the Italian face of Neo Rationalism that was, rightfully or wrongly, presented and understood internationally as Italy’s spin on post modernism. People saw whatever they wanted to see in it. Italians presumably saw the rational side and non-Italians saw a kind of classicism stripped down even more than Muzio’s as this time there were no arches. The most disturbing new development is Theory. In Rossi’s case, the theory was about urban artefacts being responsibile for the essential nature of the city. This is a convenient truth for an architect to claim but my perception of Milan is that it is not the sum of its landmarks but the sum of everything else. This one project is all I have to show of Rossi’s buildings in Milan, and even with this there wasn’t much to see.
The famous elevation on the other side is now completely obscured by planting, somewhat oddly as the building faces a park, but I suspect it’s to deter the architectural paparazzi.
I remember the building more from the endless graphics that announced it.
The apartment layouts however, are archetypal.
I preferred the neighbouring Aymonino Buildings [Via Cilea 34, Via Falck 37], designed by Carlo Aymonino & Studio Ayde (Aymonino & Rossi), and constructed between 1967-74. We can at least see them as they look over the street to the playing fields and parks beyond.
To be fair, the Rossi’s Gallaratese Apartments also did at one time and he’s not to blame for their current vegetative state. Nevertheless, his famous building exists only for its occupants and even then not how it does in our collective imagination. This can’t be a good thing. The entire area around Bonono station however is a delight. On a late summer’s afternoon, the dream of high-density buildings set in parkland seems to have been realized. There’s an abundance of well-kept towers, grassy areas, parks, sports grounds, and people walking dogs. It seems like a nice place to live.
Edificio Polifunzionale in piazza San Marco, Ludovico Magistretti, 1969 – 1971
piazza San Marco 1, Milano
This also seems like a nice place to live but now there’s external ornament that places these buildings firmly as self-conscious, post-modern Italian architecture. Its very clever with its revealed frame and its various rhythms but that cleverness is what now dates it. Despite that, life goes on.
• • •
I’ll stop it there. The only buildings I’ve mentioned are the ones I can put an architect’s name to. What struck me most about all of these buildings was how many of them were produced by local architects working within a very small radius. There’s no building here that can’t be visited with a day pass on the Milan metro. Terragni did most of his work in Como and Milan. Gardella worked mainly in Milan even though one of his early successes was his 1938 Dispensario Antitubercolare 75 km to the south-west in Allesandria.
As his reputation spread, Gardella worked as far east as Venice and as far West as Genoa, neither more than 300km away. If I’d extended my range to Seveso 20km to the north of Milan I could have included Terragni’s Casa Bianca.
If I’d gone on to Como another 20km north, I could have included Terragni’s 1936 Casa del Fascia, and if I’d gone the extra mile and a half I could have included Cesare Cattaneo’s 1939 Casa d’affitto a Cernobbio, a favourite.
But they can wait for some other time. What I like about Milan is that architects working locally had access to connections and knowledge and perhaps sensitivities others didn’t. It explains the buildings of Asnago & Vender that give shape to unspoken expectations so well that we don’t even notice them doing it. There’s client loyalty.
Local architects are more likely to have an innate respect and affection for a place that’s their home town. They’re unlikely to grandstand. For the first time in my life I had a feel for the ‘fabric’ of a city as a tapestry of old and new, of adjustments and allowances for materials and technologies that, though they may appear different, are still being used to for the same ends. It’s a rare thing to appreciate and a tricky thing for an architect to aspire to, let alone achieve. I leave Milan thinking that designing buildings for people is an honorable thing to do.
• • •
Since the 1970s, more Milan buildings are being designed by architects who aren’t local and whose first architectural obligation is not necessarily to the city or its citizens. In the image below, the building on the left is by Asnago & Vender whom we shall meet again in Architecture Misfits #26. The building in the distance is Generali Tower by Zaha Hadid Architects.