24.03.2023 - Domus

Highs and lows. A metamorphosis between urbanity and nature

Cino Zucchi’s contribution to the latest issue of Domus 1077, “Urbanisms: working with doubt”.

“The skyscraper has transformed the life of the Milanese. Mysterious activities take place inside these vertical cities, which the horizontal city ignored, gently spread out on its plain, with its low palaces and secluded gardens.” Alberto Savinio, City, I Listen to Your Heart, 1944.

Comfortably seated on a Tripolina chair, with my feet resting against the ceramic parapets of my balcony designed by Lucio Fontana, I stare at the side facade of a peculiar building on which I even wrote a small book years ago. Its lower part hosts offices and its upper part apartments, both with a double view over the age-old Via Lanzone and a vast inner garden. Its “double nature” in terms of function and outlook is reinforced by three other architectural features: the disposition of its masses, the type and arrangement of its windows and the use of materials. The lower body touching the late-Renaissance Palazzo Visconti reinforces the concave space of the street, while a high slab perpendicular to it looks for light, air and views over the high trees. The “classical” proportions of the upright windows on the lower part contrast with the ribbon-like verandas of the apartments above, and the cladding alternates the nobility of the Perlino marble slabs towards the street with the almost industrial character of the cream-coloured clinker tiles of the higher body. We often try to define the character of a person or city, but when we try to grasp it, it seems to dissolve in the countless glass tiles of a mosaic. Yet some of these tiles appear to contain echoes of the bigger picture.

Domus 1077 – Highs and lows. A metamorphosis between urbanity and nature, Cino Zucchi

Mario Asnago and Claudio Vender’s building on Via Lanzone sums up many of the characters that make Milan one of the most interesting examples of how a contemporary city can evolve towards an ecological future and a global awareness without forgetting that its own body is an immense reservoir of material culture whose value lies in its specificity and uniqueness. This culture is produced not by the mechanical application of a general Weltanschauung to single aspects, but it can rather be seen as a “Darwinist” ecosystem where individual ways of doing, cooking and designing fight for their right to exist and are often iterated until they become evolving “customs”.

The reconstruction of Dresden, Coventry or Rotterdam after World War II followed the rather canonical precepts of modernist urban planning with evenly spaced housing slabs connected by traffic arteries and separated by green parks. But under the guidance of Piero Bottoni, Milan followed a different strategy marked by an attempt to keep the existing street pattern and built fabric along with the insertion of modern typologies. Mid- and high-rise buildings were “grafted” onto the previous fabric with mediating elements able to reinforce the concave character of the public spaces, and the Via Lanzone building is just one of many others that employ similar tactics. Some of the best architects working in Milan over the centuries – from Bramante to Giuseppe Piermarini and Luigi Moretti – were not born in the city, but contributed to its metamorphosis by merging innovation and permanence, international culture and local craftsmanship and materials.

The present transformations of Milan show different outcomes. Many of them display unconvincing eager-to-please mirrored twirls, while others look for the lowest possible profile with mimetic infills. But the best examples – in my view Rem Koolhaas’s Fondazione Prada, Herzog & De Meuron’s Feltrinelli building, David Chipperfield’s MUDEC, Grafton Architects’ and SANAA’s extensions of Bocconi University, Sauerbruch Hutton’s Maciachini Center and many others – seem to embody the peculiar mixture of openness and understatement, empirical attitude and interpretation of context that creates the silent charm of Milan’s layered urban landscape.

This article was originally published in Domus n.1077/march 2023.