A New View of Milan

A review by Michael Webb

Form Milan coverBerizzi is the Virgil every architectural traveler needs as a guide to the Inferno and Purgatorio of Milan (for Paradiso, you will have to look elsewhere). It’s a city that is full of treasures, but hard to love. Everyone knows the Pirelli tower, the Torre Velasca, and the Triennale, but what else is there to detain the lover of modernismo? As a hub of design, fashion and gastronomy Milan has few rivals, but it’s dragged down by the gray damp climate, seemingly endless streets lined with mediocre buildings, and a general slovenliness outside a few privileged enclaves. The Gothic cathedral facade is a 19th-century creation scrubbed to a fare-thee-well; too many other buildings are slimed with graffiti (though that’s true throughout Italy). Persist, pilgrim, and you will discover marvels from the 1930s, the two postwar decades and a few new structures of note. But only if you have this guide in hand.

Berizzi has selected 150 exceptional buildings from the past century, leading off with the aptly named Ca’Brutta of 1919, and ending with the newly opened Prada Foundation, which OMA created within a former factory. Standouts include the churches and apartment buildings of Gio Ponti, Figini & Pollini, and Luigi Caccia Dominioni, who is now 101. The choices range far beyond the center to include new developments such as the Porta Nuova, which is taking shape on the site of the old fairground. Essays sketch the historical context, every building is well described and illustrated, and keyed to schematic plans of different quarters. Each entry has a QT code to scan for a smartphone street map.

The problem with printed guides that they soon get out of date, though that is not a great problem in Italy where development occurs erratically and is slowed to a crawl by bureaucratic hurdles. It’s a big issue in Asia. DOM Guides in this series to Taiwan and Hong Kong, published in 2011 and 2013 respectively, read as historic surveys that fail to chronicle the explosion of innovative architecture over the past few years.

However, even when they are not up to the minute, these DOM guides have an authority that is entirely absent from the on-line version of the Phaidon Atlas. The print editions of 20th and 21st century world architecture were carefully researched and edited (full disclosure; I contributed some of the entries to the 21st). The online version, available by subscription, is a bad joke. I checked some of the Asian entries. Shenzen, a hub of new construction, has one entry; Guangzhou doesn’t fare much better, and only eight buildings are listed for all of Taiwan. Of the 11 buildings listed for Hong Kong, only one is actually located there. The others are in Macau, Shenzen, Seoul, Taipei, Beijing, Vietnam, Lhasa, Amsterdam, and even New York. The wooden writing and inadequate coverage suggest that Phaidon has decided to economize by relying on architects’ unpaid submissions. Caveat emptor.

Milan Architectural Guide; Carlo Berizzi, DOM Publishers, $49.95.

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