The new headquarters of the Municipality of Milan in the Corvetto neighborhood

The new building housing the public administration offices of Italy’s fashion and design capital is located in a not-so-trendy corner of the suburbs. In its own way, it has already become iconic, but it’s crucial that it doesn’t boil down to a marketing strategy.

Since 2021, Studio FZ’s municipal office complex in Via Sile 8 has been an interesting contemporary case study for reflecting on some more general themes, such as architecture – its spatial and aesthetic qualities –, administrative management – the active role of the City Council of Milan in its troubled history – and urban marketing – the theme of neighbourhoods, which is central to Milanese policies as well as to the line-up of the Hyperlocal Festival, the event that a few weeks ago gave great visibility to the building.

The pictures of its spaces flooded with joyful crowds have spread quickly and widely – and with good reason. Organised by the City Council and Zero on 1 and 2 October 2022, the festival was the first time, at least for Milan, that administrative offices were used for entertainment purposes, even at night. By no means does Milan lack places where to host these kinds of events, quite the contrary. Nevertheless, the Hyperlocal Festival set a positive precedent. It is gratifying to note the resourcefulness of the municipal administration, which, having recently moved into the new building, understood its unexpected potential and the festival’s opportunity to bring community and urban vibes to a part of the city that sometimes suffers from isolation and rarefaction. Via Sile, in fact, is just a stone’s throw from the Corvetto neighbourhood, always-on-the-rise, ever-waiting southern suburb, a liminal zone between Corso Lodi, by now abundantly gentrified, and the compact neighbourhood of public housing around Piazzale Gabrio Rosa.

The building in Via Sile is the latest chapter in Milan’s long and often neglected history of public housing. The golden years were those between the 1940s and the end of the 1970s. As a collaborator and then as director of the Technical Office, Arrigo Arrighetti (1922-1989) designed municipally-owned buildings that were sometimes even more sophisticated and experimental than those commissioned by private clients. The extension of the Sormani Library (1947) and the Solari Swimming Pool (1963) are the best-known and most representative examples of a much larger corpus, also collected in a very recent publication by the Order of Architects (Arrigo Arrighetti in Milan, 2022).


The new headquarters of the Municipality

First things first. The complex is certainly not a masterpiece and it will not inspire glorious references from history books or the news, but it is a more than decent contemporary building – at times even powerful. From the outside it is a compact volume, imposing in its context of low heights, a little threatening despite its fully glazed facades. It was not immediately loved by its users and by the public opinion – but that happens to masterpieces too – and as Studio FZ’s architect Renato Ferrari ironically reports, “it has been called a fort, a castle, a prison, you name it”. Actually, the 70x70 metre, eight-storey high monolith is hollowed out in several places. The offices overlook a large open-air courtyard surrounded by balconies, an allusion to Milanese railing houses; at the building’s outer corners, on the other hand, there are terraces designed as resting and meeting places for municipal employees. The flat roof is partly accessible, with a running track and small green areas among machinery and the technical areas.

The building’s history is remarkable as well. The first plans for a private developer date back to 2007, and the construction works began soon afterwards but were interrupted in 2011. The building skeleton with no infill or finishes remained abandoned for a long time, and was referred to in the press as an eco-moster – an evergreen nickname whose prefix “eco” has now lost any connection with a natural context - while the municipality included it in its list of disused or badly used assets. In search of a site to buy, where to group together various departments scattered in rented buildings in central and semi-central neighbourhoods, the administration showed interest in the via Sile complex. Studio FZ re-entered the game, updated the volumes – changing ownership authorised the addition of a floor –, the finishes, the graphics, the energy performance. The eco monster was transformed into the gleaming fortress aforementioned by Ferrari, inhabited daily by officials and citizens. The urbanisation charges facilitated the redevelopment of the public spaces surrounding it, which is now underway, reverberating the quality of the new architecture in its urban context, where other strategic operations are being carried out in the meantime, such as the tactical redesigning of the area around the municipal market in Piazza Ferrara.

Can the role of the suburbs change?

“We talk a lot about the suburbs, it was high time to give a concrete signal of the interest that we, as an administration, pay to places that are far from the old city centre,” emphasises Simona Collarini, head of the Urban Regeneration Department, one of the biggest departments in the Via Sile building. The administration is demonstrating its coherence by “betting” on the Corvetto neighborhood with a new, major built volume, a programme necessarily involving the entire community, and, in the case of the Hyperlocal Festival, also with a one-off event that demystifies the institution and its venues, further broadening its audience.

But there is at least another aspect to consider. In recent years, the Milan City Council has been investing with sometimes praiseworthy results in the construction of a “15-minute” city. It is promoting policies and projects that redistribute quality, gathering spaces and functions throughout its neighbourhoods, to fix the hierarchies between the centre and the suburbs, which are still too evident in a metropolis with a radiocentric urban and social history. The activation of the Via Sile 8 complex bears witness to this.

With Zero, the municipality is organising an event where the word “hyperlocal” indicates precisely the involvement of people and activities – musicians and DJs, bars and restaurants, businesses of various kinds – from the neighbourhoods of Milan, Rome, Bologna, Munich, in a festival that is intended to attract people on a metropolitan scale and beyond. The clarity with which the areas taking part in the event are listed – “Casoretto, Centrale, Corvetto, Lambrate, Navigli, Nolo, Ortica, Porta Romana, Porta Venezia, San Siro and Sarpi” – is surprising because many of these parts of the city are rarely identified so clearly as compact actors, recognisable socio-cultural entities, providers of precise services to the public.

These urban areas, often geographically or conceptually peripheral, far from the institutional and decision-making centres, are finally being represented and even exalted in their uniqueness, but also assimilated as suppliers of “products”. 

In the age of the turistification of many European cities, of the intrusiveness of international investment funds, of the maddening rents that make ever larger swathes of the population move to other places, it is as important as ever to guard the boundaries between public and private interest.

A neighbourhood festival in municipal offices is certainly good news, but only provided that urban policies, which directly affect the local, and urban marketing, which makes it attractive on a broader scale, keep on following two communicating but clearly distinct trajectories.

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