Pushing upwards again

In view of Expo 2015, which will considerably alter Milan's appearance, an occasion to revisit the age-old debate on building height.

 

Op-ed / Giorgio Tartaro

In the debate on tall buildings that has seemingly resumed everywhere, even in Italy and precisely in Milan, perhaps the first issue to address concerns the observation of these towers by the individual, from below or from the city's main street axes. Having been accustomed for so many years to the Pirelli and the Velasca towers, it a real surprise to discover for the first time a new monumental presence at the end of a street.

Some time ago on Facebook I posted images of the construction site—well underway—of Italy's most recent tall building, the Pelli Clarke Pelli Garibaldi Tower, whose primacy Roberto Formigoni, president of the Lombardy region, has challenged by arguing that use is the true criterion for determining effective height. I concentrated on aesthetic aspects, on the setting sun reflected in the infinite and curved glass, far from Ponti's "cut crystal;" and I limited myself to asking the social network community what everyone thought of these new "urban crystals." Many comments, positions, discordant voices responded not to the question of constructing tall buildings again but addressed issues regarding the skin of these new additions to the skyline.

Another episode, also some time ago, led me to think briefly about towers. I was coming out of the subway at the new Milan Fair area and observing the "horizontal tower" by 5+1AA. I had a very different perception of the building in relation to the icy and crystalline wall of the new urban skyscrapers. It was a living membrane, a breathing skin. I asked Alfonso Femia, partner in the firm along with Gianluca Peluffo, to send me a few lines about the project. "[The tower] is not a question of expediency and taboos; the choice should be essential and strategic. Our sentimental education regarding the territory and the city leads us to think of architecture as a body that seeks dialogue with its context and that can become place, identity, intimacy at the same time. At the Fair, the temptation and the apparent need to pursue verticality were transformed into a 'horizontal tower' focusing on creating a device to help perceive the real…something that can converse polyphonically with its being an urban threshold, geographic location, part of a whole. Magical realism where gray universalism often prevails."

So it is not the demonization of the skyscraper typology, but a shift towards something else.

Basically, Femia espouses a Parisian philosophy, so to speak, having opened an office in the Ville Lumière and working on the other side of the Alps ("We thought of going west to the Old Continent rather than East like so many other colleagues" is one of the firm's rejoinders). This philosophy poetically envisages towers in outlying areas, almost erecting the new walls of the contemporary city, rather than in the city center. This is the case for a new project by 5+1AA for three 200-meter towers in the suburb of Rozzano.

Seen from the designer's point of view and distinguishing between the various positions, one has the impression that, regarding the skyscraper issue, character differences come to the fore; Massimiliano Fuksas thunders that he kowtows to no one regarding the 220-meter tower in Turin for the new Piedmont Region headquarters, and he gives very compelling arguments. If the skyscraper were horizontal, the land area occupied would be enormous.

Renzo Piano takes a different approach in the Banca Intesa Sanpaolo headquarters, again in Turin. He chose to reduce the building's height after much controversy among citizens and after taking into account its direct relationship with the Mole Antonelliana, Turin's tallest landmark. Piano does not consider himself a de facto defender of skyscrapers which "are often just an expression of power and strength, greedy for energy, black. They are scary. With their mirrored glass, they look like people who wear mirrored sunglasses—rather ugly." He states that this skyscraper will be an urban laboratory with a strong focus on sustainability. One-hundred-and-seventy-seven meters, "a shard of ice, transparent and photo-sensitive, that can play with the light of the city. With a large greenhouse open to everyone, an auditorium, restaurants and spaces for art."

There are many controversies including those that maintain that skyscraper sustainability is an absolute oxymoron. There have been numerous experiments in this sense and there are many new solutions (the Stairscraper—by the Italian architectural duo Alessandra Faticanti and Roberto Ferlito founder of Nàbito Arquitectura in Barcelona and winner of the 2010 Total Housing Competition—looks like a spiral staircase whose each step is an apartment with a garden; the roof of each apartment is the garden of the one above developing within a 360 degree rotation). Another step forward in the field of dynamic architecture was taken by Italian-Israeli architect David Fisher with his famous Rotating Towers (three under construction in Dubai, Moscow and New York, and many more to come).

There are other muscular examples of hypertechnological skyscrapers which "inhabit" their urban contexts. But beyond form and performance, it seems above all that shared considerations regarding context preside over the judgment and acceptance of these contemporary towers.

In this case, the opinion of Stefano Boeri—architect, magazine editor and Culture Commissioner for the City of Milan—is very important. Reaffirming that many of the world's skyscrapers, and not only in developing areas, were built in the last 10 years (about 40%), Boeri's position is equidistant. Having constructed towers and as author of the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) project, Boeri says, "there is no need to be captivated by facile enthusiasms [regarding skyscrapers], but neither can we continue to demonize them. The skyscraper is a tool that should be utilized, placed in a context, weighed in terms of its positive and negative qualities." By "densifying" vertically, the skyscraper frees land area that can be allocated for green space or social purposes. Skyscrapers also attract traffic and should be located only near infrastructure nodes. This is the case, for example, of Milan's Garibaldi Repubblica area with the "verticalization" that we have already mentioned. On the contrary, says Boeri, the city's outward sprawl must be halted to define new sustainable boundaries, something he outlined in the Metrobosco project (a model implemented by Frankfurt some years ago in the same city as the Norman Foster skyscraper, Tower Power for Commerzbank, which opened in 1997 and is considered an ecological tower, even if real data are lacking).

In short, it is stupid to rail against skyscrapers a priori but it is useful and necessary to assess both their relationships with their contexts as well as their characteristics, taking into account various aspects, implementing conscious choices. To provide some data, there are 80,000 empty apartments and 900,000 thousand square meters of unused office space in Milan. Boeri thinks that what is necessary are renovation projects that can include new building volumes that perhaps create greater densities but which focus on quality architecture; he cites the new Feltrinelli Foundation designed by Herzog & De Meuron.

So—skyscraper, horizontal tower, new densities….Above and beyond the fact that the client is a public or private one or that the designer is an archistar or a young talent, what interests criticism, as well as the general population, is the project's architectural quality and sustainability, whether it towers in height or contributes to changing the face of an urban void or creates a new urban gate.

Giorgio Tartaro has been a writer for television, (Lezioni di Design and Mosaico for RAI Educational), editor at Domus and Mode, and has served in several capacities at Leonardo TV.

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