Discover the city from a new side – not just shopping, the Duomo Cathedral, and the “Inter” and “Milan” derby.
Not only Milan but also Italy itself is not particularly associated with modern architecture by travelers. Everyone knows about the ancient Coliseum from the 1st century or the Leaning Tower of Pisa from the 12th century, the buildings of Venice, but few have heard about green architecture or postmodernism from the 1980s in Milan. Most people prefer to look at antiquities and study ancient heritage, while ignoring the constructions of our time. Meanwhile, many contemporary buildings have already been recognized as masterpieces and deserve attention, so you don’t have to wait a hundred years to appreciate them.
What to consider as modern architecture
Modern architecture typically refers to buildings and structures of the 21st century. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was Art Nouveau (or Art Deco), the period up to the 1960s in global architecture is called modernism, and after that postmodernism. The current period is termed contemporary.
One thing to remember: all styles, periods, and eras were named and structured by art historians and architectural critics much later. In many ways, these are artificially created trends and names. Of course, architects and artists inspired each other, and were influenced by society and politics, hence their work can be justifiably grouped under the concept of “style”. But if you ask the authors themselves, they would hardly name the “movement” in which they created.
A striking difference between current architecture and the architecture of previous eras is that there is no single style now. For instance, during the period from the 1890s to the 1910s, the distinctive Art Nouveau style prevailed. In the 21st century, everyone creates in their own way. There are lovers of classical architecture who create replicas of the Italian Renaissance and classicism. There are masters of high-tech and deconstructivism. Currently, sustainable architecture, oriented towards ecology and advanced technology, is in high demand.
The change in styles in architecture and art heavily depends on changes in society, politics, and the environmental situation. In the first half of the 20th century, the prevailing style was functionalism or modernism, in some countries, it is called the international style. This movement is characterized by minimalism, absence of unnecessary details, prioritizing function over decoration, straight lines and angles, and the use of reinforced concrete and glass. The main representatives were Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius (one of the founders of the Bauhaus), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Each had their own philosophy and followers worldwide.
After the departure of the founding fathers of the modernist direction in the 1960s, young architects split into two camps: some continued to create according to their tenets (for example, Richard Meier), while others felt a release from oppression and a new freedom. It was during these years that an important style of modernity was born worldwide – postmodernism. It was a reaction of artists to the modernism that had been dominant for 40 years and had become tiresome to many. It was during those years that the young Frank Gehry began to speak about the “emotionality” of architecture: a building, through its shapes and colors, should evoke aesthetic experiences in the viewer. He later developed his style into deconstructivism.
In one of the interviews, the extravagant French architect Odile Decq reflected on the topic of global changes in architecture. In her opinion, after the Second World War, in the era of the baby boomers, people had very positive feelings about the future, and there was a desire to create something new, bright, and large-scale. On this wave of optimism, distinctive styles emerged: postmodernism, brutalism, and deconstructivism. Now, in an era when there’s talk of global warming, microplastics, tons of waste, and the imminent end of the world, our view of the future is very pessimistic. This cannot but influence architects. In the 21st century, architecture is not about the wow factor; it’s about elegant and precise “intrusions” into the urban fabric.
Many specialists in delicate reconstruction have appeared, and typically this reconstruction is also unobtrusive, leaving the original spaces of the building or half-ruined walls untouched. Of course, skyscrapers and buildings of strange shapes continue to be built in Arab countries and Asia, but there are far fewer of them in the West. This trend of “unnoticeable, neat, not drawing unnecessary attention” architecture can be traced by looking at the laureates of the Pritzker Prize in recent years. It’s the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for architects. In 2021, it was awarded to the French duo — Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal for the reconstruction of the Tour Bois le Prêtre residential complex in Paris. Their style is ironically called “the art of doing nothing” or “architectural non-intervention” due to their utmost respect for the established urban context, materials, and history.
Origins and characteristics of contemporary Milanese architecture
Tourists often remark that, apart from the Duomo Cathedral, there’s little to see in Milan. It’s true: Milan isn’t Rome, Venice, or Florence. Therefore, it’s worth visiting for its modern architecture rather than its ancient sites. As the Italian capital of design, not to mention fashion and finance, Milan stands out against the backdrop of picturesque Italy. Here, there’s a remarkable blend of casually converted post-industrial buildings turned into art galleries, majestic apartment buildings with luxurious courtyards, and unique foundations and museums constructed by star-architects.
Renaissance. In Italy, one can find almost all the architectural styles known to us. After the Byzantine and Romanesque, Gothic cathedrals began to be built (a prominent example is the Duomo in Milan in the style of Flamboyant Gothic from 1386–1965). Italy is the birthplace of the Renaissance, and from the 15th century, the Renaissance predominated here. However, the architecture of Lombardy and its then capital Milan remained relatively conservative. Unlike Florence, where the bourgeoisie was in power, Milan was ruled by the old aristocracy. They tried their best to preserve medieval traditions. The suppression of the aspirations of the young urban culture delayed the development of new architectural trends. Milan’s Renaissance is stricter and more restrained. A bright example of Renaissance architecture in Milan is the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro. The great architect Donato Bramante reconstructed it. Inside, there is a remarkable optical illusion created by the builder. Due to the lack of space for a fourth nave, he painted a wall in the form of a perspective, creating the effect of a vast space. Another masterpiece of the Lombard school is the cathedral of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in the refectory of which “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci is kept. Bramante built it in a transitional style between Gothic and Renaissance at the end of the 15th century.
Neoclassicism. Neoclassical architecture resonated more vividly in Milan. It spans the period from 1750 to 1850. From the end of the reign of Maria Theresa of Austria to the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, Milan was on a cultural and economic rise — precisely during the period of Neoclassicism. Thus, one of the most significant constructions of this architectural direction appeared in the city — the La Scala theater.
Art Nouveau. By the end of the 19th century, the Art Nouveau style arrived, here it was called “liberty”. However, unlike French and Belgian Art Nouveau, in Italy, it was more ornamental than architectural. The Baroque style with its rich ornamentation and color, both inside and outside buildings, greatly influenced the “liberty” style. The Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio wrote in 1889, when the style was just emerging: “The ingenious decadence of the Baroque sensitivity is one of the defining variants of Italian Art Nouveau”. Bright examples of Italian “liberty” can be found in the Porta Venezia district. For instance, the Castiglioni Palace (Corso Venezia, 47/49) or the “House of Buttocks” (Ca’ de Ciapp, Via Michelangelo Buonarroti, 48). People nicknamed the building this way due to the abundance of nude figures on its facade. They embarrassed residents so much that the entrance gates were moved to the side facade.
For the Art Nouveau style, unlike most other architectural styles, there is an end year — 1914. Italian architects wrote the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, published by Antonio Sant’Elia in Milan. Inspired by US skyscrapers, Antonio created a series of works titled “New City,” where he fantasizes about the cities of the future. From this moment begins the era of stricter modernism and rationalism. Architects use modern materials and technologies, constructing buildings out of reinforced concrete, glass, and metal. Distinctive features of Italian rationalism include the scale, structure, and symmetry of ancient Roman architecture, albeit without decorative flourishes associated with classicism and neoclassicism.
Italian architects aimed to find a middle ground between classicism and industrial architecture. Closer to the 1930s, many of them joined the fascist movement, creating an entirely different style of large-scale, somewhat intimidating public buildings, combining Roman elements with innovative methods from the Bauhaus movement. Examples include the brick monastery Sant’Angelo with a blind facade and arches by Giovanni Muzio from 1942 (piazza Sant’ Angelo, 2) or the residential building Casa Lavezzari by Giuseppe Terragni from 1934 (piazza Morbegno, 3).
Postmodernism. The first signs of dissatisfaction with Italian architecture and culture as a whole appeared at the very end of the war when a major reconstruction program was undertaken, and several architects began to seek new directions in their work. Of all the architectural styles of the 20th century in Italy, postmodernism, which matured from the 1960s, particularly took root and flourished.
In the early 1960s, a new generation of architects began to offer their vision of the city and its architecture, which Massimo Scolari later termed “La Tendenza” (The Trend). A group of young architects, who formed this movement — Carlo Aymonino, Giorgio Grassi, and Aldo Rossi — began to explore the memory and glory of Italy’s past, integrating classical motifs into their projects. La Tendenza was the first and, most importantly, truly Italian movement in architecture after the end of World War II. It lasted 20 years and smoothly transitioned into mature postmodernism of the 1980s, sweeping all Western countries.
At the forefront of the movement was undoubtedly Aldo Rossi, whose originality as a theorist and designer distinguished him among his peers. In 1990, he became the first Italian to receive the Pritzker Prize.
Postmodernism and Brutalism
Address: piazza Velasca, 3/5
Architect: BBPR studio, 1950s
The architectural firm BBPR, having received a project to construct an office building, began rethinking Italian architecture. The Velasca continues the Lombard tradition of massive medieval fortresses, becoming a modern interpretation of a typical Italian medieval castle. Such fortress structures always had narrower lower parts, while the upper parts were supported by wooden or stone beams.
The shape has indeed proven to be a win for the city: shops and offices are located in the narrow part, not taking up much urban space, and above, in the more spacious part, are apartments. For many years, Velasca has topped the rankings of the ugliest Italian buildings, which attracts even more tourists.
Church of Saint Barbara
Address: piazza Santa Barbara, 1
Architect: Mario Bacchokki, 1954
Mario Bacchokki, along with Giovanni Mucio and Gio Ponti, was part of a creative association — a Lombard group of architects who were exploring new Italian architecture after the war. The Church of Saint Barbara is a result of these explorations, merging modernity and Italian traditions. The pointed facade and the riot of colors, chromatism, are references to Tuscan church architecture. It was designed in the early 1950s as part of the new Metanopoli settlement in the suburbs of Milan, founded to accommodate the headquarters of the hydrocarbon extraction company. Inside, it houses one of the largest wall mosaics in Italy.
Address: via Fabio Filzi, 22
Architects: Gio Ponti, Pier Luigi Nervi, 1960
The 127-meter tower was the tallest building in Italy from 1958 to 1995. The skyscraper is characterized by its plan that tapers towards the edges – unlike the usual rectangular volume that was predominant in the USA. This was very daring, as experimenting was not common in skyscraper construction. The tower became the quintessence of the technologies and innovations of the 1960s. For the first time in the world, architects used a span frame 25 meters in length, which gradually became finer as it approached the top. This increased the usable space. The facade is made of thermopanels: aluminum mullions, placed outside the slabs, hold the glasses together, creating a seamless curtain wall. Ponti always spoke of his work as if it were a woman, and on the day the construction was completed, he was so enchanted that he told his daughters, “She’s so beautiful that I would like to marry her.” Pirelli is considered the architect’s most significant work during the period when he was influenced by modernism. By the way, the tower’s mirrored facades reflecting Milan became a vivid image of the modern dehumanized world in the opening credits of Antonioni’s film “La Notte”, shot in 1960.
Gallaratese II District
Address: via Enrico Falck, 37
Architects: Aldo Rossi, Carlo Aymonino, 1967–1974
After World War II, there was a severe housing shortage in most European countries. In Milan, a series of plans were developed to create satellite cities, each intended to house between 50,000 and 130,000 people. For the design of the Gallaratese II district for 2,400 people, star Italian architects Aymonino and Rossi were invited, who by that time had made names for themselves in the field of urbanism. They were specifically interested in designing not standalone buildings, but urban quarters with infrastructure. Each house is connected to one another with bridges and passages. When designing the facades, the architects were inspired not by Ancient Rome, like their contemporaries, but by the modernism of the 1930s and the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.
Sandro Pertini Monument
Address: via Croce Rossa
Architect: Aldo Rossi, 1990
Another important project in Aldo Rossi’s career is located in the very center of the city — the Sandro Pertini Monument, dedicated to the president of Italy in the 1980s. The architect again refers to Italy’s legacy, creating a “small Lombard square” with a cube, leading up to which are massive steps. The eight-meter cube rests on a strict module, made up of blocks of pink-gray marble from the Candoglia quarry, the same as in the Milan Cathedral.
How “Expo” 2015 influenced changes in Milan
The World’s Fair, or “Expo”, is a symbol of industrialization and a platform for showcasing humanity’s technological achievements. It has been held since 1851. Nowadays, these exhibitions are organized every five years, each time inventing a new unifying theme.
International exhibitions have always influenced world history and left their mark on it. For instance, at the Pan-American Exhibition of 1901 in Buffalo, the X-ray machine was introduced to the public for the first time. For the World’s Fair of 1889, Gustave Eiffel designed and built the Eiffel Tower, initially as a temporary installation, which later became a symbol of France. Big events like these attract massive crowds annually. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, “Expo 2020” in Dubai (held in 2021) was visited by 10 million people. New architectural structures are always constructed for these exhibitions.
Architecture itself directly influences not only the appearance of cities, which is evident, but also their economies. There is a term called the “Bilbao effect”, associated with the Guggenheim Museum built in 1997, designed by architect Frank Gehry, in the city of Bilbao in northern Spain. Within three years of its opening, the museum was visited by four million people, making the city flourish and attracting investments. Essentially, Bilbao transformed thanks to one iconic building. Of course, a single structure can’t change an economy – a set of measures is needed, but the contribution of architecture to these changes cannot be underestimated.
The theme of the Milan “Expo” was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”. It is called the most controversial in the recent history of international exhibitions. The beginning of the “Expo” was marked by major demonstrations by Italians; thousands took to the streets in protest. While splinter aggressive groups smashed shop windows and set cars on fire. “The ‘Expo’ is a machine for burning state money,” one of the protesters told journalists with a sign that read “No to Expo”. The exhibition also claimed to champion the culture of slow food and healthy eating, while being sponsored by “Coca-Cola” and “McDonald’s”. The seven-year preparation period also saw corruption scandals and an increase in the initially planned budget – for instance, the concrete foundation for the buildings of the complex rose in price from 60 to 224 million euros.
Despite the fact that protesters were shouting about the inappropriateness of holding such large-scale exhibitions in the 21st century, one cannot underestimate their benefits. The “Expo” attracted 22 million visitors to Milan. Among investors and employers, there was increased confidence and faith in the city’s long-term development. Since 2015, a lot of new, interesting, and quality architecture has emerged: museums, offices, housing. Investments breathed new life into previously neglected districts. This influenced the expansion and growth of Milan’s business district, drawing attention to Porto Nuova and CityLife. The positive changes in the city also impact the demographic situation. More and more young people are choosing to stay in Milan, whereas before they preferred to move to other European cities.
Legacy of “Expo 2015”: Prada Foundation
Address: L.go Isarco, 2
Architect: Rem Koolhaas, OMA firm
Feltrinelli Foundation / Microsoft House
Address: viale Pasubio, 5, 20154 Milano MI
Architects: Herzog & de Meuron firm
The land on which the building stands was previously wasteland and remained untouched since World War II when Milan underwent heavy bombings. The project not only rejuvenates the Porta Vera district but also honors Milan’s past legacy by preserving the former 16th-century gates built during the Spanish occupation. The building, designed by architects from the Herzog & de Meuron firm, appears stripped down, almost skeletal. Its minimalism evokes Milan’s medieval and Gothic traditions. The long, elongated structure and repetitive window pattern resonate with the more rural architecture of the Casina region in Tuscany. A third of the building houses the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Foundation, which includes a library, cafe, exhibition spaces, and conference rooms. Unlike other offices, Microsoft has opened its doors to the public. Here, there are museum halls, a technology center, and a space for meetings between investors and startups.
House of Memory
Address: via Federico Confalonieri, 14
Architects: Baukuh firm
The House of Memory is a historical archive and the headquarters of Italian cultural associations. The simple brick walls are divided into 19 squares, displaying anonymous photos of the residents of Milan and crucial historical events of the city. In this way, the building becomes an object of collective memory of the past amidst a dynamic business district. The brickwork is a nod to, and connection with, Santa Maria delle Grazie, mentioned earlier. The three sections of the house are connected by a central feature – a bright spiral staircase, which serves as a focal point in its minimalist interiors.
Address: piazza Tre Torri, 3
Architect: Arata Isozaki
The tallest building in Italy, which the Italians call Il Dritto (the straight one). The Alliance Tower was built by another Pritzker Prize laureate — the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. The designer created a repeating module and duplicated it eight times. The concept of an endless tower can be compared to the idea of the sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, who, in 1937-1938, set up one of his endless columns in the park of the Romanian city of Târgu-Jiu, thereby creating an infinitely replicable system.
Address: via Senofonte, 2/4
Architect: Zaha Hadid
The residential complex was designed by another global star of architecture, Zaha Hadid. It’s not often that a renowned architect designs an ordinary residential complex, but Milan was quite fortunate. The residence is located in the center of the historic district of Fiera di Milano, next to the city’s largest park area. The complex is one of the largest car-free zones in Europe, with vehicles accessing garages and parking lots via underground roads. The Hadid Residence consists of seven buildings ranging from five to 13 stories, curvaceously arranged around a park. Smooth lines and flowing volumes represent Zaha’s signature parametric style.
Address: piazza Tre Torri, 1
Architect: Zaha Hadid
The elegant skyscraper near the Isozaki tower was completed after the death of architect Zaha Hadid in 2016. In 2019, the American Concrete Institute awarded the building first place for its outstanding achievements. From the upper floors, there’s a view of the city, and the elegant curve of the building aligns it to the southeast axis leading to the Santa Maria delle Grazie church by Bramante.
Museum of Culture and Arts
Address: via Tortona, 56
Architect: David Chipperfield
In 1990, city authorities bought an abandoned mechanical factory close to the historical center. Then, in 2014, British architect Chipperfield transformed the workshops into exhibition spaces. Inside are unusual minimalist spaces with installations. On the third floor, there’s a restaurant with a beautiful view, where the menu is overseen by two-star Michelin chef Enrico Bartolini.
Polytechnic School of Design
Address: via Carlo Bo, 7
Architects: 5+1AA firm
Beyond the Milan ring road lies one of the best schools of design and architecture in Italy with its unique buildings. The orange facades of one of its towers have already become a favorite backdrop for photographers and bloggers.
Old Buildings, New Meanings Rainbow Tower
Address: via Giuseppe Ferrari, 18
Architect: Original Designer 6R5 studio, renovation in 1990
The Rainbow Tower has become an exemplary instance of how to work with architectural heritage. Ahead of the World Cup, Italian authorities assigned a Milanese studio the task of cladding a nondescript water reservoir built in the 1960s on the edge of the important Porta Garibaldi railway station. The ceramic tiles were produced by the renowned Italian company Marazzi. Now, it’s a bright spot in the city’s panorama, attracting tourists and beautifying the industrial landscape.
Contemporary Art Center “Hangar Pirelli”
Address: via Chiese, 2
Architect: April Architects, renovation in 2004
The “Pirelli” Foundation has transformed a former industrial factory in the northwest of the city in the Bicocca district into the largest contemporary art center in Europe. Entrance to the hangar is free for everyone, which, according to Pirelli representatives, demonstrates the openness and accessibility of art. Upon entry, visitors are greeted by the work “Sequence” by sculptor Fausto Melotti, one of the leading figures in Italian art of the 20th century. Three exhibition halls are located on the premises: The Barn, The Nave, and The Cube. In addition to the program of exhibitions and cultural events, the foundation constantly houses one of Anselm Kiefer’s most important works, “The Seven Heavenly Palaces 2004–2015”, created specifically for the opening.
Museum of the 20th Century
Address: piazza del Duomo, 8
Architect: Italo Rota, Fabio Fornasari, renovation in 2010
The museum occupies the Palazzo Arengario, a 1937 building constructed under Benito Mussolini. At the heart of the restored palace now lies a massive contemporary staircase. The halls showcase masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, and Morandi. From the second floor, there’s a beautiful view of Milan Cathedral. By the way, every day, two hours before closing, as well as every Tuesday after 2:00 pm, entrance to the museum is free.
Green and Contemporary Architecture
Address: viale Renato Serra
Architect: Charles Jencks, 2011–2021
The park on the abandoned territory of the “Alfa Romeo” factory was designed in the 1980s and was built over 20 years. The creator of this unique landscape was the renowned American architectural theorist and landscape designer Charles Jencks. According to the master’s plan, the three large hills embody the three epochs of Milan’s culture – prehistoric times, history, and the future. A small garden illustrates the rhythms and pulsations of the city, from the heartbeat to the four seasons, and the most significant events in the Universe. The S-shaped hill also serves as a fortress wall and shields the tranquil pond from road noise.
Address: via Gaetano de Castillia, 11
Architects: Stefano Boeri, Gianandrea Barreca, and Giovanni La Varra, 2014
The “Vertical Forest” refers to two residential towers in Milan’s Porta Nuova business district. And these aren’t just concrete buildings adorned with greenery on balconies, but a real ecosystem with various species of trees and shrubs, attracting new insects and birds and filtering the air in a large city. By the way, travelers can experience the microclimate and purified air of the residential complex for themselves. Online, one can find options for daily rentals in the vertical forest.
Address: via Roberto Sarfatti, 25
Architect: Grafton Architects, 2008
In 2008, the university building was honored as the best building in the world. The idea of the project was to create two worlds, hovering one above the other, with the city’s space in between. The building itself resembles a city in miniature. The university’s unique shape, made up of four overhanging cubic spaces, creates a distinct microclimate inside, providing protection from the direct sunlight from the west and acoustic shielding from the north. The maze-like courtyard strategy ensures natural ventilation and lighting for all offices and some public spaces below.
Address: strada Statale Sempione, 2
Architects: Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas, 2004
Aiming to attract large-scale congresses and world-class exhibitions, Milan executed an ambitious plan to build a trade and exhibition complex. It truly impresses with its vastness, spanning 1 million square meters, and serves as a shining example of the architecture from the 2000s, a time when architects were captivated by scale and cutting-edge technologies. Massimiliano drew inspiration from elements of the surrounding landscape: the glass veil symbolizes mountains, hills, craters, and dunes. To this day, the venue hosts exhibitions and design weeks.