Italy's tallest skyscraper

As Milan approaches EXPO 2015, architect Arata Isozaki talks about his new building in the CityLife area, which at 202 metres height is a record-breaker for Italy.

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01 December 2014

Normally the smells that I associate with Milan are the delicious scents of croissants from the bakers, the intriguing, unmistakable smell of roasting beans coffee from the local ‘torrefazione,’ and, in December, the smell of chestnuts being gently charred on streetside carts. But there is a dominant note that you can perceive just about everywhere in the city: fresh concrete. There are building sites everywhere as Milan enters the last lap in preparing for the mammoth event planned for 2015, Expo. Everyone is hoping that it doesn’t snow because this could cause havoc to plans already pushed for time.

One of the architectural projects nearing completion is not linked to Expo, but nonetheless symbolises the construction work sweeping across the city. The Isozaki Tower is part of the CityLife redevelopment project on what used to be the trade fair showground, and it is on course to be finished by April 2015. It will be part of a new business district comprising three towers, by Arata Isozaki, Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid. We spoke to Arata Isozaki during a meeting on the 35th floor of what has become the tallest building in Italy at 202 metres, with a total of 50 floors. 

Mr Arata Isozaki

“The tower is on a significantly large scale for Milan and for Italy,” said Isozaki. “The view of the city from the tower, and of the tower from the city, provide an important form of interaction and create a powerfully symbolic image. When I was a student in Milan, soon after 1960 which was when I first visited the city, there were just two towers, Torre Velasca, and the Pirelli tower. Architects have to look at these two towers when confronting a new design here. I have made many buildings all over the world, but this is for me the largest.”

The building is beautiful in its simplicity, six modules with curving façades, a rectangle forging up into the sky. There are references to Milan’s other two signature towers, those that Isozaki mentioned: Torre Velasca has a series of diagonal struts helping support the cantilevered top section, while in Isozaki’s building, there are four gigantic struts at the base of the building, to improve its rigidity in high winds. The external struts made it possible to avoid having to increase the interior space dedicated to structure.

The Pirelli tower was highly original at its time, and one of the Gio Ponti’s design features was the deep groove at either end, on the skyscraper’s short sides. He wanted this to be continuous, but his engineer Luigi Nervi insisted on a series of balconies for structural reasons. Ponti had to accept it but never liked this solution, comparing the horizontal bands of the balconies to “striped pyjamas.” Isozaki also gave the short ends of his building special significance, with panoramic lifts that will be spectacular both inside and from the ground, above all in the evening. The building has two cores, one at either end, and this means that all the floors have a large open-space arrangement, which can be adapted as desired by the occupants.

Torre Velasca and its diagonal struts © Phillip Wong

View of the Isozaki tower, with one of the braces visible at the bottom, © Matteo Mazziotti

The Pirelli tower © photo courtesy of Metro Centric Milan

 a view of one of the short sides of the Isozaki tower, where panoramic lifts will become a highlight:

The engineering involved in the Isozaki tower is exceptional. One component, a steel truss on the 20th floor, was made in Friuli, Italy, and is 36 metres long, weighing 225 tonnes. It was transported 350 km to Milan over a 5-day journey, travelling only by night. The building has 90,000 cubic metres of concrete, 14,000 tonnes of steel, 16 lifts, and 800 kilometres of cabling.

Torre Isozaki e piazza alba PH Alberto Fanelli

During the presentation, journalists asked Isozaki a question that most people in Milan are asking. Will the city be ready for Expo 2015? “My architectural practice has been operating for 50 years, and I have seen many Expo events, as well as the Olympics. For a city, it is complicated. When Tokyo was preparing for its Expo, virtually the whole city was under construction half a year before the opening, just like now in Milan. I think that next year, things will be almost complete. And a city continues into the future: Expo is just one step in a 21st century situation.”

He also commented on another frequent question: the identity of a very modern building and its relation with a historic city. “Every century from the 15th century, new buildings have been added to the city. I’m fairly sure that people in Milan are concerned with maintaining history and also introducing innovation, creating more life on the street. Milan is the most advanced Italian city in this respect.”

There is a final curiosity about this skyscraper that illustrates Milan’s approach to traditions. When tall buildings began to appear during the years of Fascism, a municipal law was introduced decreeing that no building could be higher than the Madonnina, a gilded statue of Mary on top of the Cathedral, at 108.5 metres. When the Pirelli tower was built (1956-61), reaching 127 metres, the tradition was perpetuated, at least in part, with the installation of a smaller version of the Cathedral’s Madonnina right at the top. Antonio Colombo, president of Colombo Costruzioni, the contractor that is building the Isozaki tower, said that the archbishop of Milan is looking into whether another model Madonnina should be installed on the new building.

Tthe Madonnina on Milan Cathedral, © photo courtesy of Evgueni Tchijevsky