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School of Economics in Milan by Grafton Architects: ‘an architecture of sobering power’

Grafton Architects’ building for Milan’s Bocconi university synthesises the tough yet sensuous character of the city

Originally published in March 2009

‘It’s like an oyster,’ says Yvonne Farrell, partner in Grafton Architects, describing the new building for the Luigi Bocconi university in Milan. ‘A tough grey carapace on the outside, but white, light and delicate on the inside.’ As it heaves into view along the Yiale Bligny, a nondescript thoroughfare along which antique trams still rattle and hum, you can see what she means. The building’s sharply chiselled bulk is clad in thin sheets of ceppo, a hard grey stone more usually employed for apartments, shops and offices. Ultra-fine joints between the 30mm-thick stone sheets give the appearance of a seamless, monolithic structure, clammed shut like a recalcitrant bivalve.

Prising apart the shell reveals a labyrinth of subterranean lecture halls and concourses lined with milky white bianco lasa marble that captures and reflects the light, bathing the interior in a delicate, pearly translucence. Above, the ‘offices for 1000 professors’ (a programmatic requirement that might have been scripted by Borges or Calvino) are corraled into narrow, cloistered bars and hung from a massive concrete roof structure to free up the ground plane for intensive excavation. Students and teaching staff are now acclimatising to their new home, but the building is also intended to be accessible and legible to the public, connecting with its wider surroundings and creating new pedestrian routes through its city block - so perhaps the oyster analogy is not the whole story.

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Founded in 1902, the Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi is one of Italy’s leading colleges of business, economics and law - a kind of Italian LSE or Harvard Business School. It could really only be based in Milan, that curiously dour crucible of enterprise and money making, and Bocconi is deeply meshed in the city’s physical and social fabric.

The university was endowed by Fernando Bocconi, a wealthy Milanese shop owner, in memory of his son Luigi who was killed in the Ethiopian colonial wars of the late 1890s. It currently occupies a campus just south of the historic centre, a tenminute tram ride from the Duomo di Milano, where it relocated in 1940 in order to develop and expand. That move catalysed a flourish of Italian modernism, notably Giuseppe Pagano’s headquarters on the Via Sarfatti, a heroic exercise in rationalist rigour that long outlived its ideal istic designer, a former editor of architecture magazine Casabella and decorated hero of the First World War, who joined the Resistance and died in Mauthausen concentration camp. Yet despite a history of championing Italian architects, for its latest phase of expansion the university authorities chose outsiders Dublin-based Grafton Architects, who won a limited international competition in 2001. At 68,000m2, it is by far the largest and most demanding project Farrell and her Grafton partner Shelley McNamara have tackled to date, but the challenge has been therapeutic, cultivating a fertile reciprocity between the architects, their clients and the city itself. ‘We wanted the building to feel like a piece of Milan, not an import,’ says McNamara. ‘Small observations led to big moves. We observed the stone floor of the city, the rugged solid geological walls of the city; not pretty, but challenging.’ Yet beneath this tough surface, Milan also has a social, sybaritic side. Courtyard gardens, grand piazzas and arcades act as places of exchange, animating city life. The architects cite II Broletto, a medieval structure near the Duomo which is used as a civic hall and market, as an example of this urban intercourse, and see their building as endowed with similar potential.

‘The challenge has been therapeutic, cultivating a fertile reciprocity between the architects, their clients and the city itself’

Bounded by Vi ale Bligny and Via Roentgen, the site lies near Milan’s 16th-century boundary, originally marked by walls and gates built under Spanish rule, now demarcated more prosaically by the city’s inner ring road. In a predictably exacting programme, the 80 x 160m corner plot somehow had to accommodate a conference hall, five lecture theatres, a library, meeting rooms and offices for the mille professori. As the site (a former bus park) is surrounded by mid-rise apartment blocks, planning regulations stipulated that the building could be no higher than 22m above street level. The obvious solution was to inter the lecture halls below ground, but there were concerns that this would simply end up creating a series of dingy oubliettes. Making this underground realm ‘pleasurable and habitable’ became the project’s critical impetus.

It took a year to dig and stabilise a crater 22m deep, which now contains the lecture theatres and a subterranean network of courtyards and concourses. The largest lecture hall, the 1000-seat aula magna, pivotally erupts at the corner in a great gravity-defying wedge that recalls Melnikov’s famous Rusakov workers’ club in Moscow. Here, as in other places, the ground plane is carved out and pulled away to admit light and views, through fins of clear, curtain wall glazing.

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The narrow wing of the library and meeting rooms is placed along Via Roentgen, separated from the offices by a long, top-lit Piranesian stairwell bisected by bridges, landings and breakout spaces. To provide privacy for both scholars and the occupants of surrounding flats, the facade is largely opaque at upper levels. However, slits offering oblique views along, rather than across, the street are chiselled into the carapace of stone. In many ways, the stone defines the building. the architects wanted an ordinary Milanese material that reflected the doughty character of the city, so they chose ceppo, which is quarried in Lombardy (in fact, the university bought a local quarry to ensure adequate supplies). From a distance it registers as a solid grey mass, but when you get closer, you realise that it’s more like terrazzo, with a complex, mottled texture. It even appears iridescent, but this geological nougat is also tough and highly resistant to the effects of pollution. The stone pours off the facade to coat the pavement, internal courtyards and a new piazza created in front of the building, thus unifying public and university space.

McNamara distils the essence of the project into ‘an idea about ground and sky’. The ground is carved and cut to admit light, while the sky is conceived as an inhabited roof housing the multitude of professors’ offices. Floating high above the excavated ground, suspended blocks of four to five storeys effectively act as huge roof beams. Here too, issues of privacy and light penetration are adeptly addressed, with the blocks clad in a mixture of clear and translucent glass shingles. Though offices are conventionally single- or double-banked off spinal corridors, translucent glass walls transmit a cool radiance th rough the interior.

Soft yet hard, massive yet light, impermeable yet porous - Bocconi is a deft choreography of formal, material and even constructional contradictions. The outcome is architecture of sobering power, tempered with touches of exquis ite subtlety. Milan is an uncompromising milieu, not easily accommodating to outsiders, yet Grafton Architects has managed to absorb, channel and tactfully subvert Milanese reserve with intelligence and sensitivity. Deservedly honoured with the award of World Building of the Year at last year’s World Architecture Festival (AR December 2008) and also shortlisted for the Mies van der Rohe Award, perhaps a more telling accolade came when, as McNamara recalls, ‘We presented our project and were told: “You are more Milanese than the Milanese themselves.” That was a good moment.’

School of Economics

Architect: Grafton Architects

Project Team: Yvonne Farrell, Shelley McNamara, Gerard Carty, Philippe O’Sullivan, Simona Castelli

Photographs: Frederico Brunetti