Baukuh’s House of Memory archive building in Porta Nuova, Milan captures a violent past in a building for the future
Stretching across 71 acres of former industrial land on the edge of central Milan, the Porta Nuova business district is one of the largest mixed-use developments currently being built in Europe. César Pelli’s supremely bland Unicredit Tower (2012) – the tallest building in Italy – forms the focus of what will ultimately be a cluster of 20 towers: an urban proposition, at polar odds with the urbane atmosphere of the city centre’s long, masonry-faced boulevards. The scheme has proven particularly controversial with the residents of Isola, a working-class district that borders it to the north. However, where the two neighbourhoods meet, some effort has at least been made to mitigate the abruptness of their encounter through the introduction of a pocket park.
To one side of this area Stefano Boeri has realised the new district’s flagship project – a pair of residential towers, dubbed the Bosco Verticale, which are distinguished by the use of deep balconies supporting trees. On the other he was also set to build a small community archive building but was forced to abandon the public commission in 2010 after embarking on a parallel career in local politics. His replacement was the young Milanese practice, Baukuh, whose competition-winning design employs a markedly dissimilar expression to the heavily fenestrated language of the Boeri proposal.
‘While asserting the need to remember, the building also seems to acknowledge the ultimate impossibility of that task’
Delivered by Porta Nuova’s developer as one of a number of public facilities required under the terms of its planning permission, The House of Memory, as the building has been evocatively christened, is home to five associations that maintain archives devoted to different aspects of Italy’s violent mid-20th-century history. One records the work of the Second World War partisans – a movement that was particularly active in Isola – while others are focused on the stories of the Italians who were deported to concentration camps and on the events surrounding the end of the war. They also include two groups devoted to the memory of the victims of post-war terrorism, including the more than 100 people who were killed or injured on 12 December 1969 when a bomb – variously attributed to anarchist and far-right groups – exploded at Milan’s Piazza Fontana.
Located at the end of a long 19th-century street that extends north from Porta Nuova into Isola, the building marks the border of these two very different urban conditions. Its allegiance to the older fabric is communicated through its facing in brick and correspondence to the street line, but its reduced scale serves to differentiate it too, giving it a pavilion-like reading when seen across the park.
The work of the artist Gerhard Richter served as a key reference in the development of the building’s architectural expression. In 1988, Richter produced a 15-canvas cycle of paintings, collectively known as October 18, 1977, which he based on news photographs relating to the activities, and ultimately the deaths, of the members of the German terrorist group, the Red Army Faction. Depicting scenes of often conspicuous banality at a scale and in a format that draws association with 19th-century history painting, these images maintain a foothold in both a quotidian and mythic reality. As representations of representations they show their subjects at a double remove, as if at the point where lived experience had been subsumed into the collective memory.
Baukuh’s facades are also based on super-scaled representations of historic photographs, in this case 27 images drawn from the archive. Constructed in six shades of brick, each elevation is divided up by a frame of slightly projecting pilasters and architraves, bringing to mind the shallow trabeations that articulate many of the facades of the Milanese architect, Giovanni Muzio. The resultant panels are distributed in three tiers that expand in size as they rise. The lowest – which extends only to door-height – presents a series of abstract patterns, while the middle range is given over to portraits of individuals and the one on top to collective scenes. The effect is monumental but fragile too, not least because the size to which the images have been inflated robs them of settled definition. Scenes that register across the park become increasingly illegible as we approach them, finally dissolving into a morass of pixellation. The loose distribution of variously sized windows provides a further layer of disruption. While asserting the need to remember, the building also seems to acknowledge the ultimate impossibility of that task.
An exceptionally tight budget of 2200 euros/m2, required Baukuh to make some hard-nosed decisions about where to allocate funds. The treatment of the interior is little more refined than that of a car park, its in-situ concrete construction exposed throughout. A largely open ground floor accommodates exhibitions and lectures and is due to be fitted with a brass panel and a set of overscaled books identifying the scenes featured on the building’s facades. At one end, the space opens onto an atrium that rises over the larger part of the section. It is framed to one side by part of the archive which has been distributed behind a quasi-urban elevation of wide concrete piers and to the other by the more generously dimensioned floors which accommodate the associations’ offices. The one element that asserts a powerful figurative presence stands within the void: a wide corkscrew stair, painted yellow, which tracks a stately circuit around a central lift. The architect cites the expressed stairs of Milan’s San Siro Football Stadium as a model but memories are also conjured of older precedents such as the helical stair of the Ducal Palace at Urbino.
This startlingly monumental device was originally envisaged as the approach to a top-floor reading room that would open onto a terrace where visitors could enjoy a prospect of the city. Unfortunately, that arrangement was predicated on accommodating part of the archive in a basement that ultimately proved unaffordable. While the reading room remains, the terrace has been lost to storage space, partly robbing the stair of its formal raison d’etre. As a surreally fragmentary element it retains a strong resonance nonetheless, reading like a three-dimensional corollary of the fragmented images presented outside.
For its competition submission, Baukuh photographed a model of the scheme against the backdrop of Milan’s medieval cathedral. While not entirely made in earnest, the choice of location served to imply a kinship between the two buildings based on their shared attitude to the wider city. Certainly both are structures of explicitly representational function that detach themselves from the contingencies of their immediate contexts in order to speak to Milan as a whole. Yet the House of Memory’s actual location on the edge of Porta Nuova inevitably brings other meanings into play. The historian Eric Hobsbawm once described the function of history as ‘a protest against forgetting’. As it surveys the urban tabula rasa of the new business district, this obdurate little building states its allegiance to that same cause.
House of Memory
Structural engineer: Arup Italia
HVAC: Deerns Italia
Photographs: Sergio Pirrone