Italy’s Invisible City

Archivio Storico Eni

A Milanese architect muses on the everyday design of Milan.

With fashion at second and football at third—design is the number-one reference for Milan. Design is everywhere. As Italians, we love Vespas, make our coffee in the morning with a Bialetti Moka, furnish our homes with timeless masterpieces—just because we like them, not because they are masterpieces.

In this city the most beautiful, sophisticated designs are often found in public spaces. If you want to enjoy the finest pieces of Italian design tradition—the only thing you need to do is walk around. No need to shop or buy—just stroll and you are in history. But here’s the thing—in Milan the designs are in the public space. And they’re so incredible that they become invisible, just by being there day by day, for everyone to see and use.

Imagine you’ve arrived at Malpensa airport. Few visitors spend the time enjoying one of Ettore Sottsass’s most incredible projects. To enter an extravagant house and spot his furniture is thrilling; but having the city’s main airport designed by Mister Memphis himself is one step beyond. So beyond, that 99% of stressed travellers don’t even notice it. Malpensa Terminal 1, not to be confused with the new wings, was designed in 2000 by Sottsass Associati at the peak of their power. To have an airport designed by a Norman Foster or a Renzo Piano using high-tech vocabulary would be an obvious choice. To have it done in a postmodern style—that’s something you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

If you enjoy postmodern design, and airports, then after Malpensa you must go to Linate. Here you’ll find some of the impressive Aldo Rossi’s work in the airport extension (1991/1993). Although less powerful than Malpensa, you can still take in a full view from the landing strips.

Another example? Take the subway in either direction: the “linea rossa” (red line) or “linea verde” (green line). If Sottsass was the king of postmodernism, Franco Albini was the knight of the modernist Italian style. In one of the stations, take a break and stop for a moment. Spend ten minutes observing the details: colour palette, handrails, surfaces, various objects… All lend to one of the finest examples of the 1960s Italy. A whole universe built between 1962 and 1969. A collaboration between the architects Franco Albini and Franca Helg, with the visual identity and graphic design of Bob Noorda. Isn’t it beautiful? Wasn’t it worth the stop? How come you never noticed it before? Albini is one of our favourite architects and designers. The metropolitana is one of his masterpieces: she’s more than 50 years old, and still quite timeless. The older she gets, the more fascinating she becomes.

Linea Rossa designed by Franco Albini, a fine example of 1960s Italian design. Photo by Giuseppe D.

Is Albini’s modern language not powerful enough for you? Do you want more? Do you like things hardcore? Then take the “passante” urban train and get off at Rogoredo or Certosa station. The architect was Angelo Mangiarotti, in 1982. Many stations along the passante were designed by him: Bovisa, Repubblica, Porta Venezia. But Rogoredo and Certosa are the most impressive. It is difficult to separate engineering from architecture from product design, making this whole system quite a feat. The Rho Fiera station, from 2006, is one of his latest works.

Think of Stazione Centrale; designed by Ulisse Stacchini and opened in 1931. Its mesmerising architecture is impossible to link to any known style. It looks as though it’s from some Mesopotamian kingdom, but we can’t even be sure of that. Or, travelling back in a time machine, we could arrive at the original Navigli system developed by Leonardo da Vinci. If you weren’t aware of this accomplishment by the original Renaissance Man, you can see some of its fascinating leftovers in Via San Marco.

The most impressive part of this whole story is that Milan has a sizable amount of “design for all”. Design in public spaces, but oddly enough, design that’s always related to some practical function. Italy is a country of theatre, of being constantly on stage—a country where form follows form. Palazzi, piazze and the rest. The Italian square—a place where you sit and lazily sip your aperitivo beneath a nice sunset; design for pleasure, leisure design. To this extent Milan is an exception. Milan is undoubtedly un-Italian, with a functional DNA at its core. You can find design in anything: a train station, an airport, a subway infrastructure or a gas station.

Before we forget, if you like the “gas station” theme, hit Piazzale Accursio to find a mesmerising jewel by Mario Bacciocchi (1951/1953, originally for Agip). It is design of the finest kind and since its primary goal is function we don’t pay enough attention to it. Occasionally we’ll notice it when it gets old, like the yellow cars running on the tramway network. Their official name is ATM Class 1500, a.k.a. Type 1928; 1928 because they started their honoured career in that same year. They are still running now.

Stefano Mirti is an architect, designer, teacher and founder of IdLab, Milan. He teaches at Milan’s Bocconi business school, and is head of the relational design on-line/off-line master’s at Abadir, Fine Arts Academy Catania. For many years he has been working on new forms of teaching, including Whoami, Design 101, Architecture 101 and several other projects

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