Mario Botta “Milan? It used to be the city of modernity; it will be the city of investment funds”

The architect who designed the new era of La Scala evokes Milanese modernity with Domus, and why that architecture is no longer possible today. 

by Giulia Ricci in collaboration with Walter Mariotti

Mario Botta owes a lot to the architecture of modern Milan. This inspiration can also be found in the two projects he co-designed with Emilio Pizzi for the expansion of La Scala, which has recently come into the spotlight with the inauguration of the tower on Via Verdi. Starting from a practice that has always prioritized history and the local context as a result of a progressive accumulation of memories, the new tower could only be a tribute to 20th-century Milan. Specifically, it pays homage to what the Swiss architect describes as the ‘gravity’ of the architecture of that time and the sensibility that created buildings as the Velasca Tower – of which Via Verdi recalls the cantilevered volume.  

From the Domus archive, 263 January 1951, the Casa al Parco (Casa Tognella), one of the projects with which Ignazio Gardella contributed to the image of modern Milan that Mario Botta tells Domus about.

“The rise of the towers of La Scala matches, for me, the last twentieth-century image of Milan. I am an architect of the 20th century,” Botta says. He refers to the image “created by Piero Portaluppi, Ignazio Gardella, and Ernesto Nathan Rogers, for example.” It is such a strong identity that has made Milan more relevant than many other European cities where the experience of modernity has been more fleeting and has not left a comparable imprint on the city. 

“If you go to Vienna,” says the architect, “you can see that the strength of the 20th-century design is not comparable to that of Milan, despite the fact that the city has experienced periods and figures such as Adolf Loos.” This strength developed through a broader cultural effort, involving various fields of design and the arts, and more. First and foremost was painting. “Without Mario Sironi, there probably would not have been the pervasive value that permeated 20th-century Milan. It was a graceful moment for artists, magical for Milanese culture.” It is the same image the international public attending Milan’s Fashion Weeks looks at (whether consciously or not). At the same time, it is also the image studied at the Archivio del Moderno in Mendrisio – which Botta helped found in 1996, alongside the Academy – and where you can find archives of those designers who shaped Milan’s identity, such as Ignazio Gardella, Giulio Minoletti, and Vittoriano Viganò.

When we asked him about his point of view on what is happening in Milan today – particularly the aggressive expansion beyond the established urban limits marked by road and rail infrastructure – Botta recalls that the culture that produced 20th-century Milan included the client as an integral part of the modernity project. However, today, the clients are no longer ‘the Pirelli gentlemen,’ but faceless investment funds. “Milan cannot resist the seduction (or deception) of investment funds because they are the new employers and the new masters of the city,” Botta says. This change, Botta continues, “is anthropological and structural. The result is that architects will no longer have their own ownership over their projects.”

From Domus 269, April 1952, Carlo Pagani and Vittoriano Viganò, Condominio in Viale Piave 22

Mario Botta is among the few designers to be part of the close circle of archistars who openly express such a precise and critical stance towards the system in which they work. However, if we choose to see construction as a cultural phenomenon, those who design and implement it should also play a role in relation to the broader society. It is curious that the negotiation and debate on the transformation of cities are almost absent in times when the buzzwords are ‘sustainability’ and ‘participation.’ By doing so, the possibility of creating a city tailored to its inhabitants is excluded, and instead, the choice is made to entrust a task that should be a collective effort to anonymous global operators or major events.

The rise of the towers of La Scala matches, for me, the last twentieth-century image of Milan. I am an architect of the 20th century.

Architecture can play a democratizing role, paraphrasing the response that Jean Nouvel gave when he was criticized for working in non-democratic countries. So, we ask Botta: can great architecture be a form of resistance to a certain drift of financial capitalism and real estate? “I believe that today, architects are also held accountable for what they do. They cannot trade their identity: today’s commissions are based on the economic budget only, but not everything can be reduced to cost. The soul of a building cannot be bought; it either exists or it does not”. The risk, as the Swiss master concludes, is that all those interventions carried out following this process do not become a part of the city but rather elements working against the city. “This is an observation, not a criticism. Architects need to realize that the conditions have changed.”

Opening image: Mario Botta, 2023. Photo Flavia Leuenberger Ceppi

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