a text by Stefano Boeri, on ABITARE 509 issue
Many of us have forgotten that Milano, in the Twentieth century, was a global capital. Perhaps we have been victim by a reasonable sense of cultural depression and collective amnesia.
Fragments of poetic and visionary intelligence were to be found in the medieval courtyards in the city centre, in the factories and workshops of the popular housing blocks in the city’s working-class neighbourhoods, in the class rooms of the Brera art academy and in those of the applied arts schools, and these fragments then turned up again in museums and European institutions, in laboratories and in American lofts.
These ideas and sculptural gestures – from futurism onwards, right up to the Conceptual art – created the Italian cultural history in global terms as well as important episodes of universal history of art. These ideas were not unified, but on the contrary made up of a multitude of individualities. Perhaps for this very reason, they have been difficult to bring together in one form of exhibition space. The powerful noise produced by Milan in the twentieth century was not born from a constant bass-line chorus, but rather from a frantic succession of sharp and brusque changes of tone.
Italo Rota and Fabio Fornasari’s project for the Museum of the 20th Century has the great merit of having transformed these eccentric visual ideas spatially into a real mix of environments. There are a succession of walkways, openings, small rooms and passageways which have been carved out and reconstructed in the large space of the Arengario building, which was left without a clear identity after the end of Fascism. And the design also digs deep into other urban spaces linked up to the Arengario (Palazzo Reale, the underground system) and through its contorted systems of movement and unexpected views comes up against other sights such as the Viscontean buildings which survived the competition held in the Thirties aimed at “restructuring” (it is not clear how, exactly) Piazza Duomo itself.
The museum-labyrinth designed by Rota and Fornasari and Marina Pugliese, the Director of the Museum, like an anthology of short tales has a series of different entrances and exits; alongside various settings and places, as if it had been created by a meeting of architects. This is a work of chiselling and editing, refined and detailed, which gives the visitor back a sense of having the time necessary to think about works which appear almost as if they have been recreated on site – from the walls covered in smaller works by Boccioni, to the large-scale De Chirico at the entrance to the ramp, right up to the huge Altana where Fontana’s spatial ideas are allowed to fly (but a fit of the spaces which is so linked up to the actual layout of works will perhaps make it difficult to change what is on show).
At all times, while walking through this museum, visitors are faced with a double kind of viewpoints, which alternate between the vast urban setting of the area of Piazza Duomo and that of the Twentieth Century itself through the works which are on show. But we can only see a small part of the material held in Milan’s collections.
The Museum is an architecture made of urban interiors, and its only problematic section can be found in the tiresome “rococo/neo-secessionist” layout of the expensive bar area at the end of the ramp. These areas were not designed by Rota, and are out of place with the mixed architectural form of the museum.
But this is a small quibble given the way this museum has (finally) filled a series of gaps in terms of urban identity and collective memory, and has given Milan a place packed with home-produced ideas, and given the world a Milan which is both surprising and aware of its prestige. But there are still many questions which are as yet unanswered.
The museum dedicates much of its space to works which have for years been held in private collections, and this highlights the lack of attention paid over the years by the local administration to the on-going aspects of the Twentieth century city in general, a place which is visited and studied by many of those who are interested in art and architecture on a global scale.
This long history of neglect has seen the Municipality of Milan, in recent months, the fate of the Cavour cinema, designed by Vittoriano Viganò, which has been ruined by a project which has seen this area redesigned for other kinds of “mondain” events, and accept the project of the extra floor added to an Ignazio Gardella house opposite the Castello Sforzesco, and even (and this is even more scandalous) the portici of a building by BBPR in Corso Emanuele which have been closed up in order to create space for a GAP shop. We should also mention in this context the disastrous and incomprehensible destruction of the spaces of the Line 1 of the Metropolitana Milanese designed by Franco Albini and Bob Noorda.
So what can we say, in conclusion? This museum has brought into the public sphere, finally, a huge body of work which was previously in store or hidden, and this has underlined they way in which Milan continues to fail to understand the importance of its present-day context and its role in the future. By destroying or neglecting a precious treasure-trove of Twentieth century constructions and spaces, facades and elegant constructions, the administrators of the city are wrecking the possibility of any future sense of memory for a whole generation, as well as removing important sites from world view.
This is not about nostalgia. We do not want to keep something alive which no longer exists, but we should be thinking about the future worth of these places, as resources for our sense of public imagination, the best examples of Twentieth century architecture which still can be seen in many parts of the city.
Today’s public policies have a tendency to ignore what is there today while at the same time losing opportunities for the future. Of course, it was a great achievement to have won the bid for the 2015 Expo, with its theme of food and the idea of a Parco Agricolo with products and crops from around the world. But instead of building on this form of investment, Milan can lose everything, giving the private investors the possibility of creating residential or service structures, after the Expo. A city that is now approving the PGT (Piano di Governo del Territorio), a thirty-year urban plan; a plan which fails to link up to a detailed idea of what is there now, which is based on over-estimates of population growth and economic change and which ignore the high number of empty buildings in the city. Buildings, in general, are seen in this plan as simple containers and not as places containing real lives and real people.
So, this is Milan. A city that at the same time rediscovers its Twentieth century legacy and destroys it, without reflecting about its present-day form.