Mario Cucinella’s iceberg, the new pole for the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan

The Italian architect signs the new Surgical and Emergency Pole of the Milanese hospital, a project where the aesthetic dimension and the technological-sustainable one are welded together without contradiction.

This article was originally published on Domus 1067, April 2022.

The San Raffaele Hospital campus in Milan is being enriched with a new surgery and emergency unit designed by Mario Cucinella Architects, the first internationally recognised architect to be given such a prestigious commission by the hospital. This is a clear sign of renewal on the part of San Raffaele, which has moved beyond its controversial management of past decades and its questionable constructions – for example, the kitsch cupola of the molecular medicine department with its gilded archangel.

Cucinella’s “iceberg” aims to be a more elegant and abstract icon. The building’s base, which rises one storey from the ground, is a solid technical slab hosting highly specialised spaces in its multipurpose rooms – for surgery, ICU and ER wards – representing them with a succinct and generic idiom. Above this podium is a second volume containing patient wards, doctors’ studios and clinics, which are subject to less rigid guidelines and allow for greater spatial, material and aesthetic experimentation. In fact, the facades of the “tower”, as the architect calls it, are the conceptual and formal focus of the whole design.


The sinuous and streamlined facades are entirely glazed and follow a rhythm set by the full-height vertical blades, a solution Cucinella has already used in other projects, such as the recent rector’s office at Roma Tre University. This approach provides some rather obvious yet substantial advantages: sunlight floods the interiors, especially the communal reception areas at the corners of the building where the metal blades are spaced further apart. At the same time, the blades also act as a shield against excessive sunlight. The active nature of these elements is less predictable and more innovative: thanks to a catalytic cladding in titanium dioxide, they trap and neutralise polluting molecules in the air, as well as transforming ozone into oxygen. A similar purifying operation is also carried out by the interior claddings, particularly the antibacterial gres porcelain and ceramic tiles.

There’s beauty even if you can’t see it, under the surface, in the innovative materials that play an active role in the creative process.
Polo chirurgico e delle urgenze, Ospedale San Raffaele di Milano, Mario Cucinella Architects. Foto Duccio Malagamba
Surgery and emergency unit, San Raffaele Hospital, Milan, Mario Cucinella Architects. Photo Duccio Malagamba

For Cucinella, the aesthetic and technological-sustainable dimensions must blend together seamlessly. “There’s beauty even if you can’t see it, under the surface, in the innovative materials that play an active role in the creative process.” The facade of the surgery and emergency unit at San Raffaele exemplifies their virtuous union, which in this case gives new meaning to the hospital spaces.

Now viewed as a “place of healing”, Cucinella’s sustainable hospital is a structure that strives to care not only for its users, but also for its ecosystem – not only of individuals, but also of the planet. A contemporary building with many qualities, it is also the epiphenomenon of a theme that now dominates the conversation regarding built environments and their transformation: that of salvific architecture, a hybrid originating from the pandemic and the climate crisis, and which aims to contribute to resolving both problems. This story of responsibility and sustainability is also ambiguous, too often limited to being a gimmick that requires earnest testing in reality.

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