A wealth of professional connections and habit to defy tradition fuels this Italian powerhouse, Matthew Barac reports from the world design capital
With 1,400 lecturers, well over 1,000 administrative staff, and a student population fast approaching 40,000, the word ‘university’ feels insufficient to describe the Politecnico di Milano, an institution that is not only the main educator of architects in Italy − more than 20 per cent of those on the national register graduated from here − but also ranks among the largest schools of architecture in the world. Founded in 1863 as an advanced technical institute for engineering, the Politecnico began teaching architecture two years later. In the 1990s, capitalising on Milan’s status as a global design hub, an industrial design programme was added; this soon expanded to form a faculty of design, offering courses including interiors, graphics and fashion.
Few alumni roll-calls are as illustrious: Giuseppe Terragni, Achille Castiglioni, Giò Ponti, Aldo Rossi, Vittorio Gregotti, Carlo Aymonino, Giorgio Grassi, Renzo Piano − the younger among them colleagues or students of Ernesto Rogers, who took up a post at the Politecnico in 1962. Rogers exerted a powerful influence over mid-century debate, not only as a teacher but through editorial roles at Quadrante, Domus and Casabella, periodicals which underpinned the emergence of a polemic connecting the strict lines of Italian Rationalism with Tendenza efforts to reconcile with history.
Among the inheritors of this critical discourse is Cino Zucchi, Chair Professor of Architectural and Urban Design at the school. Having completed his studies at the Politecnico in the late 1970s, Zucchi − and many of his peers − carry the weight of the Rogers legacy. But current students, who have a different relationship with technology, appear comparatively unencumbered by tradition: ‘this generation, born with the computer, has left behind any transition-phase embarrassment. The best of them are totally aware of the global dimension’. Globalisation has brought diversity and diversification; an increase in foreign students and ‘a relative explosion of teaching styles that cannot be led back to the weakened, but still present, humanistic Italian tradition’.
Convened with colleagues Beatrice Borasi and Silvia Beretta, and supported by a team of design tutors, Zucchi’s studio addresses the contemporary crisis of urban identity which is problematised, in studio briefing documents, as ‘the conscience of the city’. Architecture’s autonomy − a concept inherited from the Neo-Rationalist thinking of Rossi and others − is interrogated in the tension between historical artefacts and the fusion of culture and commerce that characterises most public buildings today. This tension signals an opportunity for reconciliation or, at least, for mediation. But, as in the debates during the Tendenza years, the obvious answers raise doubts. Borasi sums up the ambivalence of this dilemma: ‘the words tradition (tradizione) and betray (tradire) sound very similar in Italian’.
Mattia Cipriani’s proposals for a contemporary art museum comprise exhibition spaces and administrative, archival and educational accommodation on a Milan site defined by 15th-century Mura Spagnole fortifications. New, giant walls of concrete reassert the memory of a spacealienated from its historical urban logic, defining the building’s perimeter. Penetrating this facade, a labyrinthine promenade guides visitors through the interior, as if they were picking their way through rock formations cut by erosion, producing an architecture of episodic events.
Produced jointly by Davide Ravasio and Massimiliano Savino, a project in Tirana, Albania, for an intermodal station − a mixed-use facility for changing from one form of transport to another − adopts similar themes of excavation, sedimentation and landscape. Occupying a park-
like zone between rail and road infrastructure, housing and a hospital, the ambitious hybrid scheme distributes offices, retail units, a hotel and passenger transfer hubs in a multi-layered chain of events across the site. Geomorphic forms shape external and internal spaces for everyday commerce, alluding to the historical motif of the Ottoman marketplace (čaršije).
The Politecnico’s pedagogical model, building on a critical mass of students and academics, provides a fresh perspective on how those who take ownership of their studies learn more effectively. By contrast with the trend towards pandering to student desires − a symptom of consumer-led education − this approach returns us to a world in which the academy is a competitive talent pool. Given the high enrolment numbers, students who don’t take up the reins themselves are unlikely to benefit from what faculty members can offer. Sometimes, Zucchi drily notes, even the best students ‘get lost in the machine-gun shooting of cross-references and bizarre quotations’.
In our age of portfolio careers and uncertain prospects, ‘educational quality should be defined by the level of autonomous thought it generates in the student’.