The city that until recently Italians would dismiss as ‘grey’ is becoming ever more verdant thanks to the creative minds of designers and architects.
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New look for an old city
Italy’s second biggest city is reinventing itself, with a shining horizon of brand-new skyscrapers dramatically changing the face of Milan. This architectural makeover is not just about urban sprawl, though – it involves plant-covered buildings, rooftop gardens and innovative parks.
The heart of this renovation is the Isola (Island) district – an apt name considering that the area has long been isolated from the rest of the city, bordered by the train tracks of the Garibaldi station to the south and the Viale Zara tramway to the north. Today, pastel-coloured palazzi stand side by side with the skyscrapers of Porta Nuova, the city’s new business district adjacent to Isola, which is towered over by the gleaming pinnacle of the Unicredit Tower, Italy’s tallest building.
A forest among the skyscrapers
The two plant-covered towers of the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) by starchitect Stefano Boeri stand out in this new Manhattan-like skyline. The idea behind this skyward forest is as simple as it is innovative: giving back to nature the space urbanisation is taking from it. Hosting about 800 trees and 15,000 plants, the vegetation covering both towers is equivalent to a 20,000sqm forest.
The sustainable residential buildings contribute to the construction of a microclimate, producing humidity, absorbing CO2 and dust particles and giving oxygen in return. It’s also home to a variety of birds, butterflies and other insects, and has become a natural magnet for a spontaneous recolonisation of the city.
When the project was completed in 2014, Boeri’s visionary idea still seemed a radical one. Three years on, Studio Boeri has commissions around the world, currently working on different woodland projects in China, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Plants for everyone
The path at the foot of the Vertical Forest is lined with communal fruit and vegetable beds, where passers-by pluck lavender from large, unruly shrubs and kitchen workers from nearby restaurant Ratanà gather sage and other herbs. From here the trail continues to a ‘circular forest’ of trees, a unique idea that is taking the concept of a park to a whole new level.
A park made of rooms
This circle of trees is the start of what will be Milan’s third largest green lung, the Biblioteca degli Alberi (Trees Library). Covering an area of 95,000sqm when it opens in 2018, circular forests will be scattered all over the site, eventually growing into spectacular natural rooms of different coloured foliage.
“They represent ‘vegetal pavillions’,” explained Petra Blaise, the Dutch designer behind the Biblioteca degli Alberi project. “They define specific areas, rooms that can be used for different purposes such as sports or cultural events.”
Once the project is complete, the Trees Library will become Milan’s largest pedestrian area. Aside from the circular forests, the park will also feature a pond with aquatic plants, a flower garden and a labyrinth.
A shorter food chain
When the Biblioteca degli Alberi is completed, Cesare Battisti’s restaurant, Ratanà, will find itself at its very heart. A remarkable coincidence, considering that Battisti has long been at the forefront of the urban farming and food sustainability movement. He’s both chef-ed and lectured at most of the country’s major food and wine events, giving speeches on anything from the sustainability of urban gardens to the importance of raw materials in Italy.
“Ruralisation. I hope it can be like a virus and spread out as much as possible,” said Battisti.
An ever-changing garden
The seeds of Milan’s green revolution have spread to other parts of the city as well, reaching the elegant Brera district where a well-known group of architects and engineers have turned the rooftop of their studio into Orto fra I Cortili, a beautiful garden.
“This is my favourite time of the year!” exclaimed landscape architect Cornelius Gavril looking at the explosion of wild flowers and sunflowers around him. “This is when everything is in full bloom. It won’t stay like that for long. As everything is seasonal here, this place will look quite different in a few weeks.”
Orto fra i Cortili, Gavril’s brainchild, is built on a pallet system, so is very easy to assemble and move around. “Every time we plant new seeds we change its structure as well as its aspect,” Gavril said. “It’s a bit like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw.” The pallets are used both as a walking structure and, upside-down, as containers for plants and flowers – an inspiring idea that’s repeatable on a large scale and perfect for redeveloping unused areas.
When Orto fra i Cortili was inaugurated during the 2015 Fuorisalone, part of Milan’s annual design week, it caused quite a stir. “Originally it was a vegetable garden and an ‘open-air pharmacy’ dedicated to the rediscovery of plants with a long medicinal usage. It looked completely different from the way it is now,” Gavril explained. “Being a private space that is open to the public only on certain days, we decided to let the 15cm of soil rest from November to February, and sow new seeds every year in time for spring. We not only change the garden’s structure, we change the types of plants as well.”
Eat what you sow
Among the wilderness of blooms are tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables, grown to be consumed by the architects downstairs and any visitors to the garden.
Orto fra i Cortili also focuses on teaching, with frequent workshops for children to get their hands dirty and learn how the food on their plates is grown.
“It is simply a return to the way things used to be. People in the city have become more sensitive to what they always used to do in the past,” said Gavril.
Back to the roots
Milan’s recent rage for environmental sustainability doesn’t come out of nowhere, however. The old farms and green belt of Parco Agricolo Sud (pictured) that surround the city have long borne witness to its agricultural heritage, and are now supported by a new generation of urban farmers who supply the city with locally sourced, ethically produced organic ingredients. They represent the roots – quite literally – that Milan is going back to.
The city is at the heart of the countryside, and the countryside is at the heart of the city. The future of Milan has never looked greener than this.