Stand in a new park taking shape northwest of downtown Milan and allow your eyes to be overstimulated by two startling apartment complexes on either side. On one side, a crenellation of cockeyed penthouses tops five slab buildings. Bulging terraces crease their surfaces into stiff drapes. Turn the other way and take in curvaceous structures that evoke departing cruise ships with sleekly undulating white balconies.
This sounds like a stylistic fistfight amid the genteel apartment buildings and dignified red-tile-roof villas of the affluent surrounding neighborhood. Though the assertive architecture demands attention, the 600 units of luxury housing—the first phase of an ambitious mixed-use megaproject called CityLife—stir together elements of both traditional and modernist urbanism. A brave new world? It’s more of a well-bred mutt—delivering the lifestyle expected of high-end, market-rate housing, while taking calculated risks in both design and urbanism.
Moving the Fiera di Milano—the giant complex of trade-fair pavilions that annually plays host to shows like the Salone Internazionale del Mobile—to a Massimiliano Fuksas, Hon. FAIA–designed compound on the outskirts of the city in 2005 freed up a 90-acre tract with transformative potential just 3 kilometers from the famous Duomo. A decade ago, two large insurance companies, Generali and Allianz (which formed a development corporation also called CityLife) won the right to develop the site in a competition, thanks in part to a master plan by New York’s Studio Daniel Libeskind, London’s Zaha Hadid Architects, and Tokyo’s Arata Isozaki & Associates. The plan turns most of the site into curving bands of lawn alternating with forest (42 acres of it public), with groups of commercial and residential structures floating like “archipelagos” amid the greenery, as Daniel Libeskind, AIA, put it on a recent tour.
The strong desire for a parklike setting in densely built-up central Milan meant that the surrounding gridded and diagonal streets extend into the site only as pedestrian paths. They get swept into the curving swaths of lawn and forest designed by the London-based landscape architecture firm Gustafson Porter. Vehicles dive underground to below-grade levels accessible at the site’s edges so that cars are all but invisible at CityLife, even though the development will ultimately park 7,000. “We exceeded the minimum requirement for open space by about 15 to 20 percent,” says Studio Daniel Libeskind principal Yama Karim. “We saw that as shaping a better environment for the development.”
The greenery flows into a vast plaza in the middle of the site that fluidly unites three showpiece office towers: a 50-story slab by Arata Isozaki, Hon. FAIA, with gently undulating glass walls; a twisting 43-story tower by Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, that will rise out of a winglike shopping-galleria base; and a curving 30-story tower by Libeskind. A stop on a new subway line (under construction) feeds the development from beneath the plaza.
The towers don’t acknowledge each other, even though they rise high above the city’s predominantly low-rise fabric. The assemblage may be ambivalently iconic, but Libeskind sees it as representing Milan’s polycentric nature. The towers form gateways along the axis of boulevards that head toward the site from several directions. The commercial center won’t be complete until 2016 or later.
A swath of forest intended to restore a native Lombardian ecology will divide the commercial archipelago from the two residential groupings completed last fall. Here, both Hadid and Libeskind arranged several apartment buildings (condo units for sale, with a few rentals) loosely around a large green courtyard, leaving gaps between the buildings to frame views to the neighborhood or park. This scale is common in suburban European developments. In American terms, it falls between Miami-style tower developments and suburban garden apartments. Walkways feed bi-level lobbies through the generous courtyard greenery.
The ensembles by the two architects share an underlying DNA, which is why they play well urbanistically. The deeply modeled façades and the layering of materials form a richly textured street wall at the southern end of the site where the shortest buildings (five and six stories) face the neighborhood’s low-rise residential mélange. Apartments as tall as 13 and 14 stories face toward the development’s interior, where their size is large enough to engage the office towers.
Libeskind’s 308 apartments in eight buildings stand around the courtyard like the monoliths at Stonehenge. Though each building arcs gently in plan, Libeskind’s team achieved the richly sculpted effect by dramatically shaping the balconies, which form vertical creases that wander back and forth as they rise, overlaid by trellises made of a wood-polymer composite. “Outdoor living in an urban environment is so precious and sought after,” Karim says. Many of the balconies are big enough for a family dining table. The crisp corners and surgical flatness of the surfaces come from large ceramic panels, striated to evoke travertine, that are glued and hooked to the concrete and masonry walls.
The plans are generous but conventional, mostly with the separate kitchens Italians prefer, rather than the combination of living, dining, and shiny trophy kitchens often found in high-end American developments. Layouts idiosyncratically reconcile the buildings’ exterior gyrations, and many apartments are floor-through and access two balconies. Double-height living rooms open up city panoramas in duplex penthouses.
The seven buildings and 300 units designed by Hadid wrap one large funnel-shaped courtyard sliced by a diagonal public passage. The undulations of the balcony faces play off varied ribbon windows with their sloping jambs and alluring (and expensive) radiused corners. Some surfaces get an overlay of wood-plank insets, inkblots that have spread across the white-painted metal panels in 1970s supergraphic shapes. They domesticate the courtyard-facing sides of the building, according to Maurizio Meossi, the project manager at Zaha Hadid Architects.
Though the buildings kink here and there, Hadid sticks to a conventional slab form that encloses disciplined, functional floor plans, where many rooms align their long sides to the windows and balconies. Living rooms typically open to city or park views; bedrooms and other private spaces face the courtyard. The rounded-corner sinuosity of the lobby promises sculptural drama, but that’s saved for units shaped by the exterior’s curves and for duplex penthouses, where setbacks in the building carve bullet-shaped bays and prowlike balconies.
CityLife may feel artificial for a while with its isolated building groupings strangely suspended between “walkable urbanism”—though here you stroll to a mall rather than a corner store—and lush, modernist tower-in-the-park suburbanism, a type Americans often find impersonal but which Europeans appreciate in contrast to the dark and noisy historic city.
The generosity of the balconies seamlessly extends the interiors
outdoors, which you rarely feel in today’s U.S. projects. The buildings
themselves create extra value by deserving to be part of the view. In
contrast to the asphalted surroundings and vinyl-windowed cheapness of
even high-end American developments, these assemblages dynamically
engage the greenery and kaleidoscopically choreograph sun and shadow
through the day. CityLife courtyards are worthy amenities, not
parking-lot leftovers. American residential developers should take note:
They could learn a thing or two from CityLife. —James Russell