‘Not manly enough’

Monday, 7 July 2008: ‘Not manly enough’: Berlusconi’s verdict on Libeskind work

Perhaps, when the architect Daniel Libeskind produced his grand plans for an art museum and office tower designed to inspire civic pride in the heart of Milan, he should not have been surprised when Italy’s gaffe-prone Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said the bent structure emanated a “sense of impotence” because it is not manly enough.

See also our earlier item…

Rumble in the (urban) jungle


Milan is the latest location for the on-off face-off between Daniel Libeskind and Rem Koolhaas, in the form of two rival museum projects for the city. Previous to this bout Koolhaas (the most provocative historian of New York) declined to compete for the Ground Zero competition which was awarded to Libeskind, and Libeskind, during the recent Tibet crisis, recently declared his ethical aversion to working in China (where Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing approaches completion). These leading star architects are possibly to be seen in direct confrontation in the near future, helping to raise the profile of Milan as one of the capitals of international contemporary art.

Koolhaas’s contribution (produced through OMA’s research arm AMO) for the Fondazione Prada is the rehabilitation, occupation and extension of a former industrial complex providing new cultural facilities in existing and newly created spaces (Click here for pictures). It is largely respectful of its context, and appears happy to defer the issue of overt expression to the art it is intended to house.

In contrast Libeskind’s project will be new build, part of the CityLife project to be developed on the former grounds of the Fiera di Milano. The proposed Museum of Contemporary Art expoits the frankly laughable device of a transposition of the Vitruvian man of Leonardo da Vinci. The leaden quality of this feeble plan symbolism does little to distract from the banality of the masterplan in which it sits.

Libeskind explains his project in a recent lecture here (The Fifteenth BCA Berthold Lubetkin Memorial Lecture).

For all Libeskind’s sincerity and Koolhaas’s cynicism, at the weigh-in for this bout it looks like Koolhaas on points.

Muzio v Ponti

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Giovanni Muzio’s Ca Brutta (1923) faces Gio Ponti’s Palazzo Montecatini (1936) across the junction of Via Fillipo Turati and Via Moscova in Milan. The buildings were completed within fifteen years of each other and display different approaches to to a similar problem: how do you make a facade which forms a thin sheath on a modern structural frame? Muzio in the Ca Brutta (‘Ugly House’) chooses to ignore the structural concrete frame beneath and emphasise the individuality of the residences and homeliness of the building. This was an explicit rejection of the ‘renaissance palazzo’ type as a model for urban housing in which the individual apartments would be dominated by the overall composition. The sense of bricolage in the Ca Brutta was implicit in the client’s brief – Muzio was required to incorporate windows that had been purchased before the scheme was designed. The Palazzo Montecatini is of course a different building type: a headquarters building. The central entrance is emphasised and the window frames are pushed to the face of the cladding. The central block in the composition includes vestigial acroteria perhaps indicating a root for Ponti’s style in the clasically derived rational architecture of Vienna at the turn of the century.

Ca Brutta

Furnishing the urban interior

This short film documents a study of the mediation between urban and interior space, historic fabric and the contemporary city. This research through design was produced by Year 5 students in Continuity in Architecture, and was intended to remember, to reveal and to construct. Adjacent to Piazza Duomo, the locus of the exploration, the fourteen bays of the loggia of the Broletto, presents an ambiguous but potent site. Raised from street level, but open to the public realm, it is a civic memorial to the dead of the resistance as well as a survival of Milan’s medieval commerce. In a heavily constrained response to this context, the students created a new narrative for the site, using their theoretical narrative for an interpretative project within the protected urban environment of central Milan. They proposed ephemeral structures to embody their speculative positions, and judged how their intervention will lead to a new reading of the historic civic realm. Each student specified the issue for which they designed a temporary pavilion, including spaces and surfaces for storage and display, for the dissemination of information and advertising, but above all for the re – reading of the city.

Yesteryear in Milan

The small Archaeological Museum on Corso Magenta in Milan hosts a new model of the ancient city of Mediolanum which helps explain the spider’s web of the present urban form.

A general view of the model, with north to the right

The ancient forum, situated in the vicinity of the present day Biblioteca Ambrosiana

The city from the south with the amphitheatre and the basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore

The city from the south east, with to the left the outline of the present Duomo and Piazza Duomo, and to the right the Baths of Hercules situated adjacent to the present Corso Europa

Ten Years After


September 2007 marks ten years since the death of Aldo Rossi.

The continuous process of urban history was a theme which was developed in Rossi’s The Architecture of the City. Published in Italian in 1966 and translated into English in 1982, the book presented a tough critique of the modernist city, but used marxism to argue for an almost fatalistic adherence to the zeitgeist. Rossi proposed that architecture stood outside the fluid tide of history, dependent for its power on the qualities of its geometry and accumulation of patina through its survival over time. This placed great emphasis on the collective experience of the city, and consequently reduced the individualising tendencies of the unique monument, creating a significant focus in this analysis on the issue of permanence in architectural typology. Rossi’s text distinguished surface appearance from context, the atmosphere of a city being apparently replicable without any comprehension of the typology from which it was built, although this division would be a phenomenon which would bedevil the broader reception of his own work that was decades in the future. Mistrustful of the subjectivity of proponents of contextualism, his rationalism sought an architecture and urbanism which was less apologetic about its presence, but which acknowledged that time would transform it, that it would, as it were, domesticate the urban intervention through use. The ambiguity of this position in relation to the temporal dimension contrasts with the fixity with which contextualists appropriated a past point in history.

Illustrated is the Piazzetta Croce Rossa, completed by Rossi in 1988, is a small urban space in the centre of Milan, on the major thoroughfare of Via Manzoni, and adjacent to the opening of Via Montenapoleone, and therefore in the middle of what has become the fashion quarter of the city, and one of the most important centres in this global industry, the so called quadrilatero d’ oro, the golden block. The urban space sits above the Montenapoleone Metro station with entries and exits to and from the station disposed around the space, but the centre is focused on a symmetrically arranged space, lined with two rows of trees, benches and street lights. On the axis sits the Monument to Sandro Pertini (named for the President of the Italian Republic 1978-85), in the form of a cubic block faced in the same pink and grey Candoglia marble as is used on the duomo of Milan. Ten metres square the cube is blank on two sides, with the third featuring a bronze clad water spout in the form of an equilateral triangle, with a long horizontal slot in the facade above. The fourth side, which faces towards the opening of Via Montenapoleone, is open and consists of a set of oversized steps up to a viewing platform. The monument’s elements refer to a number of examples of Rossi’s personal iconography, and therefore to his general typological collection of forms as expressed in previous works. So the cube in Milan refers to the cubic sanctuary at the Modena cemetery, and its conjunction with steps within the form to his competition design for the Monument to the Resistance at Cuneo (1962). The triangular fountain was another familiar motif, first used in the courtyard of the De Amicis school at Broni in 1969-70. The oversized steps, as a form of auditorium had been used in the courtyard of the elementary school at Fagnano Olona of 1972. Most users of this space would be unfamiliar with these works, but would be familiar with the conventional, everyday sources in the cityscape from which Rossi himself distilled his preferred forms. The monumental flight of marble steps, however, would be familiar to most Italians as the compositional basis of the Vittorio Emanuele Monument in Rome, the national shrine but also the spectre that haunted the country’s twentieth century architecture. Its offspring sits in miniature in Milan, denuded of its iconography and its steps or seats awaiting the unfolding of a more quotidian urban drama.