The Financial Times
Published: April 12 2007

Leonardo da Vinci might have been one of its planners but Milan often seems to have more in common with Detroit or the British Midlands than Rome, Venice or Florence. Home to Italy’s industrial revolution, the Italian business capital is full of factories that once produced cars (Maserati), rubber and cable (Pirelli), steel (Falck), ceramics (Richard Ginori) and chemicals (Montedison).

Soon, however, the boarded-up houses and industrial archaeology that mark other former factory towns will be a thing of the past in Milan.

With 20 significant projects and 6m sq metres under development, the city is now the biggest construction site in Europe, undergoing a transformation of the scale not seen since da Vinci updated his Sforza patrons’ fortifications 500 years ago. One site, Citylife, spanning 366,000 sq metres, is even bigger than London’s Canary Wharf.

No longer will Milan be a designers’ destination with no important new building design. By 2015, nearly every hot architect – Daniel Liebeskind, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, David Chipperfield, Kohn Pedersen Fox, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, Cesar Pelli, Tadao Ando – will have left their mark.

Behind the boom are several factors. The death of Milan’s heavy industry left open huge, fairly central tracts of land. Elsewhere such areas became vortices of decay and crime that deterred investment. But Milan’s varied industrial base meant that crises struck sectors in successive waves, giving businesses sufficient breathing space to adapt. Former steam-engine and turbine plants now house photo studios and fashion showrooms.

Beginning in the 1980s, city and regional governments stepped in, buying decommissioned properties and modifying zoning procedures. With a 1999 law, Lombardy replaced rigid practices from the 1950s with ones to encourage private-sector co-operation. A mutually beneficial partnership gets developers to satisfy public needs – parks, cultural institutions or infrastructure – in exchange for greater zoning flexibility and reduced risk.

Bribery scandals in the early 1990s caused construction in Milan to slow considerably. A mere 1,000 new residential units were built between 1982 and 1991; since 1991 only 657 have been added, according to Scenari Immobiliari, an independent real-estate research institute. But this has left significant pent-up demand upon which developers are now capitalising.

Geography also remains Milan’s most important resource. Sitting on the intersection of the trade routes crossing Europe, the city was the Roman Mediolanum or “camp in the middle”. Today, officials use nocturnal satellite pictures to show that the city is a big star in the constellation extending from Geneva to Venice. It is the key to Italy’s rich north, connecting the whole country to the rest of Europe. Albeit haltingly, national and local government bodies are promoting high-speed rail links and motorway improvements to ease traffic in Milan’s outskirts.

Residential development is at the forefront of the city’s new building boom. Its government wants to reverse the population flight spurred by high prices in central neighbourhoods. Officials hope conservative Italians will spread into areas that have not been traditionally residential and, collaborating with private companies and developers, they have induced cultural institutions to act as magnets.

Extensions of Milan’s Statale and Politecnico universities and a new theatre and design centre have moved to the Bovisa and Bicocca areas, former sites of Italy’s chemical industry and Pirelli, and new housing has followed. But even though both are only half an hour from the city centre with prices at less than half of those closer in, neither seems to have firmly entered the Milanese psyche as “real” places to live.

Across town, the transformed Via Savona area is more integrated into the city. The neighbourhood’s “creative recuperation” began in 1983, when two well-known photographers turned a train shed into the Superstudio, a complex for fashion and photography. Followers established a mix of businesses and residences (not always legal) scattered in lofts and converted industrial spaces. Public intervention has been limited to the city’s 1990 purchase of the Ansaldo locomotive factory and its cession of part to La Scala’s workshops, where Chipperfield is creating a cultural centre with museums for non-European art and archaeology.

Spaces formerly occupied by General Electric, Schlumberger and Nestlé have been revamped; now they house modelling agencies, the Domus design academy, a hotel and Giorgio Armani’s theatre and showrooms. Soon, the former Osram plant will be turned over to the Residence San Cristoforo, with 22,000 sq metres of space for 230 families. Developer Alessandro Cajrati Crivelli is proud of how far the area has come. “Our design-oriented renovations make Via Savona the actual città della moda (city of fashion),” he says.

That phase originally referred to a plan to turn rail yards, a derelict amusement park and nomad camps in the city centre into a multi-functional complex that failed to take off. Now, decades later, the intended città della moda is under construction. It covers 290,000 sq metres and, when completed in 2010, will have new regional and municipal offices (designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners), Milan’s third-biggest park, a shopping centre and office and museum space for the fashion industry.

Gianni Verga, the Milan official (assessore) responsible for public land and housing, says the project, also known as Garibaldi-Repubblica-Varesine- Isola, was the “spark that started the public-private collaboration” driving the city’s recent transformation. Backing up to wealthy Corso Como and Brera neighbourhoods, where properties go for €6,300-€9,000 per sq metre, the land belonged to 20 landlords and included several zoning categories, so there were huge disparities in price, which made agreement and sale as one unit impossible. Verga’s idea of treating the entire swathe as a “condominium”, averaging prices between pieces intended for public or commercial use, got it to the market. The US’s Hines bought it in 2001 and handed design over to Pelli and an international team of two dozen architects.

Raised above sunken streets and tram lines, the new area will finally physically connect the wealthy city centre to the formerly working-class, now trendy, Isola district. Residential space will total 70,000 sq metres, offering bachelor pads in apartment towers, lofts and family-oriented “city villas” with terraces and gardens.

Citylife is the other poster child for the new Milan. Occupying the former trade-fair grounds, the project, scheduled for completion in 2014, illustrates (some say too well) co-operation between the city and private developers. A consortium of the real-estate arms of the Generali, Fondiaria and RAS insurance companies and a prominent construction firm met requirements for green space, design and children’s museums, refurbishing an existing velodrome and road infrastructure improvements. Prices for nearby residences, which are about €7,500 per sq metre, have not yet been affected. At the project’s heart will be Europe’s largest pedestrian area and Liebeskind, Hadid, Arata Isozaki and Pier Paolo Maggiora have been brought in to collaborate on the placement of 36 buildings. Each of the first three architects created a skyscraper and a low-rise, 148,000 sq metre residential complex designed to fit in with the existing neighbourhood. “We wanted achitects from different cultures and we wanted originality,” says Citylife president Ugo Debernardi.

Both Debernardi and Manfredi Catella of Hines Italy remain confident that the residences in their developments will sell well. Given that nearly 60 per cent of housing stock in Milan dates from between 1919 and 1961, such architect-designed homes are a novelty. The adjacent open spaces and cultural institutions are another attraction.

But neither Garibaldi nor Citylife addresses what Breglia and Verga call Milan’s real challenge: serving a growing immigrant, student and elderly population by creating “housing for the poor, not poor housing”. One resident of a piazza overlooking Citylife says the project would be better for a rough area in need of transformation rather than an already “nice” neighbourhood. She worries about “towers blocking our view of the mountains”. Others are irate about widely acknowledged errors in calculating transport links. Meanwhile, in Via Savona, residents lament the rising congestion, noisy nightlife and lost proletariat solidarity.

The scale and style of the new construction is certainly foreign to Milan’s fine-grain urban texture even if architects do aim for sensitivity. As Hadid acknowledges, “it’s very difficult in a historic city like Milan to impose new projects on such a large scale”.

Citylife, tel: +39 02-7250 4220.

Hines Italia, tel: +39 02-6550 6601.

■Gruppo Cajrati Crivelli, +39 02-422 564; info@estate4.it

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.