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The Architecture of Milan: Top 10 Buildings to See

Milan has an ancient history of architecture, combined with some incredible and innovative contemporary buildings. The city’s urban landscape, therefore, is a unique mixture of styles that makes Milan very worth a visit!

The fashion capital of Italy, Milan is home to an incredible number of architectural riches that range over a thousand years of history. From the glories of the Roman Empire to the middle ages, and early modernism, it’s a city rich in culture and iconic landmarks. But what makes Milan so amazing is that it’s not stuck in its past. There is a vibrancy and an ethos that speaks to the future that can be felt on its streets and contemporary architecture. The destiny of Milan, like that of many of the world’s great cities, remains something of a historical paradox. There are powerful factors supporting the argument that Milan should have become the capital of a unified Italy, and this is the belief of many Milanese, in spite of the fact that the unity of Italy was actually born in Turin, rather than in Milan, in 1870. Milan, nevertheless, is the most industrious and vital city to have achieved prominence since the ancient land of Italy became aware of itself as a modern nation-state.

The History of Milan

The earliest settlement on the site of Milan was founded by the Gauls about 600 BC, and in ensuing centuries it became the capital of a Celtic tribe known as the Insubres. At the time of the Roman conquest in 222 BC, Mediolanum, as it was then called, was already one of the most powerful cities of the region known as Cisalpine Gaul (on the Roman side of the Alps). Under the emperor Augustus, it became a part of the 11th region of Italy and acquired increasing prestige and economic power until it became the second city of the Western Roman Empire, behind Rome itself. In the 3rd century AD, following the partition of the empire instituted by the emperor Diocletian, it was assigned as residence and main administrative centre for the emperor in the West. The emperor Constantine I (the Great) declared it the seat of the vicar of Italy. In the year 452 Attila the Hun devastated the city, and in 539 the Goths destroyed it. The city, however, did not entirely perish as a result of these barbarian incursions, and by the second half of the 10th century city life was surging with renewed vigour. Under the Carolingians (the region was incorporated into the dominions of Charlemagne in 774), life in Milan showed increased vitality, particularly through the efforts of the archbishop Ansperto da Biassono, who rebuilt and strengthened the fallen walls of the city in the late 9th century. Under Ariberto da Antimiano(1018–45), the political power of the archbishopric reached its apogee. This assumption of temporal power by the archbishops, dating from about 1000, can be considered as the origin of the subsequent greatness of Milan.

In 1045, however, as a result of tensions engendered by the authority of the archbishops and because of the increasing growth and stability of the city as a whole, Milan constituted itself as a commune (comune), with permanent and autonomous governmental structures. In the resultant struggle for primacy among the cities of Lombardy, Milan became involved in a series of long battles against its less prosperous neighbours—Pavia, Cremona, Como, and Lodi. A following war with the Roman Empire caused such destruction of the city  that the Milanese were forced to seek refuge in the surrounding countryside. The war blazed on until 1183, the year of the Peace of Constance, and Milan was rebuilt in 1167 under the auspices of the newly founded Lombard League. Its privileges rewon, the city attained a splendid economic florescence over the next 100 years.

In the early years of the 12th century, the new industrial classes, in particular the guilds of the woolens and armaments workers, had increased constantly in power and influence. The feudal nature of the relationship between the archbishop of Milan and his allies meant that the archbishop had to make enormous concessions to the emergent social and political forces among the citizenry in order to reinforce his own party, diminishing thereby the financial privileges of the church. In the early 13th century, following the worsening of their relationship with Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, the Milanese proclaimed Pagano della Torre—a member of a family emerging as a leader of the less feudal of the city’s power groupings—as their protector. The city forces were nevertheless defeated by the emperor in the Battle of Cortenuova (1237). Meanwhile, the Milanese were drawn further into the international struggle between papal sympathizers (the Guelfs) and supporters of the Holy Roman Empire (the Ghibellines). The della Torre family (or Torriani), leaders of the popular forces, took on the name of Guelf; the Visconti, another powerful Milanese family, headed the Ghibelline faction, which was backed by the aristocracy.

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The emperor Charles V in 1540 invested his son—the future Philip II of Spain—with the duchy of Milan. Under Spanish rule—which was to last until 1706—the political and artistic elite of Milan rapidly succumbed. The dramatic period of dynastic struggle, which was also a period of economic growth, was replaced by a long period of economic stagnation and political decline associated with unimaginative foreign rule. In 1630 the city was struck by the plague. The end of the desolation of the period of Spanish domination began with the outbreak, in 1701, of the War of the Spanish Succession, following the death of Charles II of Spain. In September 1706 Prince Eugene of Savoy entered Milan as its first Austrian governor, and the city passed thus from Spanish to Austrian rule. Although the first half of the 18th century was marked by neglect and oppression, after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), the new rulers, in collaboration with the wealthy commercial classes of Milan, were able to foster a half-century of enlightened, if despotic, growth and a flowering of Milanese culture. It is during this period that such figures as Cesare Beccaria, the outstanding criminologist and economist, and Pietro Verri, the gifted administrator and man of letters, were active. These and other members of a Milanese group known as the Società dei Pugni (Society of Fists) accepted the innovations of the theoreticians of the French Revolution, despite Austrian censorship. Neoclassical architecture also flourished.

In 1805 Milan became the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy, under Napoleon, who was crowned Italian king in the city. During this time the city prospered from its domination of most of the Italian Peninsula. Milan’s sense of prominence was dashed, however, by the invasion and reestablishment of Austrian authority, which followed the collapse of the Napoleonic empire in 1814 and the settlement made by the Congress of Vienna the following year. A new Austrian-controlled kingdom, that of Lombardy-Venetia, was proclaimed—though the two regions actually remained separate—and Milan lost its role as a capital. In what has become one of the most celebrated episodes of the city’s history, Milan was liberated from the Austrians for several months until the rebellion was finally brought under control. In spite of the fact that by Aug. 6, 1848, the brutal occupation forces of the aging Austrian commander Joseph, Count Radetzky, were once more in firm control of Milan, resistance forces of the city decided to continue their opposition to the invaders. A second war with Austria finally liberated Milan from foreign control; a few days after the Battle of Magenta (June 4, 1859), the people of Milan witnessed the triumphant entry of the anti-Austrian allies. The city—by now in the throes of an industrial revolution emphasizing metal products—was thenceforth linked with the fate of the new, unified Italian state, maintaining itself in a position of prime importance in the national economy.

Milan was the capital of Italy’s socialist reform movement in the late 19th century, when workers managed to construct an impressive network of cooperative organizations, mutual-aid societies, trade unions, and coordinating institutions such as the city’s Chamber of Labour.

Milanese Architecture

Being one of the main and renowned cities of Northern Italy, Milan is not only the house for various Fashion trendsetters like how it is popularly seen; it is also known as the design Mecca. The history dates back to 600BC, with a small period as the capital of the Italian Empire, under Napoleon.

After the city was besieged in the Second World War, the city saw new instances of Milan’s changed structural and plan history. The Duomo with its gothic towers and flying supports and Liberty-style apartments that weave together Art Nouveau twist with traditional components are some notable examples. After the Second World War is when Milan acquired an identification for its architectural style, the style Milano, which was thanks to the work of people like Giuseppe Terragni, Gio Ponti, BBPR, Caccia Dominioniand Aldo Rossi.

The past decade saw the development of two major urban regeneration projects – Porta Nuova and City Life and some other specific interventions like the Vertical Forest, Feltrinelli, Mudec, etc. Today, Milan is booming with new additions to the skyline with tall high rises, such as Bosco Verticale and organisations like Fondazione Prada are supporting the development of social spaces specked with bars, eateries, exhibitions and a lot of shops.

The city is more like a book of History, developments, art and culture and people’s lifestyles along with fashion, cheese and wine. Tourists flank Milan throughout the year and there are a few places that no tourist will want to miss. One of these is the Opera La Scala, an opera house in Milan where most of Italy’s greatest operatic artists, and many of the finest singers from around the world, have appeared. The theatre has undergone renovations, enhancing the sound quality and improving the structure. 

Milan’s famous Duomo,  the ancient and modern Italian Renaissance begins to meet, is hard to miss as it can be accessed through multiple paths. The glass vaulted arcades of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is one such path that is enclosed by an iron and glass roof and is flanked on both sides by shops and galleries. It acts as a connection between the Duomo and the La Scala theatre. There is so much beauty and so many interesting layers to the architecture in Milan. Just taking a simple walk through the downtown will be a thrilling and enriching experience. 

11 of the Most Important Buildings in Milan 

1.Duomo Di Milano 

The Duomo of Milan tells a story of faith and art spanning over six centuries. Construction work on the Duomo of Milan probably began in 1386. Work for the construction of Milan cathedral began in 1386 when the style of Gothic cathedrals had reached its peak. It was decided that the new church should be built in the area of the ancient basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Tecla, the remains of which, together with those of the Baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti, are still visible in the Archaeological Area. The long succession of architects and engineers at the head of this innovative and original construction site makes it impossible to trace a certain authorship of the project.

At the end of the fifteenth century the greatest architects and artists of the time, including Leonardo da Vinci, tried to accomplish the difficult task of designing the tiburium. Once this phase was concluded and a unanimous decision was reached, construction work continued and a new phase started under the inspiration of the pastoral work of Carlo Borromeo. The design of the church’s façade began at the end of the sixteenth century, when the foundations for its prospetto (front) were laid, meanwhile the ancient façade of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore (which was demolished in 1683) had been rebuilt forward of its original position. As was the case for many other architectural elements of the cathedral, the façade too had to wait for long (until the end of the eighteenth century) before a definitive plan was completed. Between the seventeenth and eighteenth century the tiburium was completed with the great spire on top and the laying of the statue of the Madonnina (1774).

The nineteenth century saw great activity on the construction site. On the eve of Napoleon’s coronation as King of Italy and on his initiative, new works were undertaken to complete the façade (1807-1813). The construction and decoration works continued, most of the spires were placed on the roof and several stained glass windows with enamel-painted glass were also completed. 


2. Museo del Novecento

The Museo del Novecento, located inside the Palazzo dell’Arengario in Piazza del Duomo, hosts a collection of over four thousand works that catalyze the development of 20th century Italian art. The Museo was established on 6 December 2010 with the goal of spreading knowledge of 20th century art and offering a more comprehensive insight into the collections that the city of Milan has inherited over time. Beside its core exhibition activity, the Museum is active in the conservation, investigation and promotion of 20th century Italian cultural and artistic heritage with the final aim of reaching an ever wider audience. The Palazzo dell’Arengario is a Fascist-era complex of two symmetrical buildings in Piazza del Duomo, the central piazza of Milan, Italy. It was completed in the 1950s and currently houses the Museo del Novecento. The Arengario was designed by Piero Portaluppi, Giovanni Muzio, Pier Giulio Magistretti and Enrico Agostino Griffini. Construction began in 1936, but experienced several delays and suffered from the World War II bombings; it was eventually completed in 1956.  The façade is decorated with reliefs by Arturo Martini.


3. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is Italy’s oldest active shopping gallery and a major landmark of Milan in Italy. Housed within a four-story double arcade in the centre of town, the Galleria is named after Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of the Kingdom of Italy. It was designed in 1861 and built by architect Giuseppe Mengoni between 1865 and 1877.

The structure consists of two glass-vaulted arcades intersecting in an octagon covering the street connecting Piazza del Duomo to Piazza della Scala. The street is covered by an arching glass and cast iron roof, a popular design for 19th-century arcades, such as the Burlington Arcade in London, which was the prototype for larger glazed shopping arcades, beginning with the Saint-Hubert Gallery in Brussels (opened in 1847), the Passazh in St Petersburg (opened in 1848), the Galleria Umberto I in Naples (opened in 1890), and the Budapest Galleria. The central octagonal space is topped with a glass dome. The Milanese Galleria was larger in scale than its predecessors and was an important step in the evolution of the modern glazed and enclosed shopping mall, of which it was the direct progenitor. It has inspired the use of the term galleria for many other shopping arcades and malls. The Milan gallery and its roof have been acknowledged as an important reference on 19th-century iron-and-glass architecture by Pevsner and Hitchcock. As one can still observe today, the roof consists of four barrel vaults (approximately 14.5 m in width and 8.5 m in height) that are crowned with a huge dome. 


4. Castello Sforzesco

The Castello Sforzesco (Italian for “Sforza’s Castle”) is a medieval fortification located in Milan, northern Italy. It was built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, on the remnants of a 14th-century fortification. Later renovated and enlarged, in the 16th and 17th centuries it was one of the largest citadels in Europe. Extensively rebuilt by Luca Beltrami in 1891–1905, it now houses several of the city’s museums and art collections. The original construction was ordered by Galeazzo II Visconti, a local nobleman, in 1358 – c. 1370; this castle was known as the Castello di Porta Giova (or Porta Zubia), from the name of a gate in walls located nearby. It was built in the same area of the ancient Roman fortification of Castrum Portae Jovis, which served as castra pretoria when the city was the capital of the Roman Empire. It was enlarged by Galeazzo’s successors, Gian Galeazzo, Giovanni Maria and Filippo Maria Visconti, until it became a square-plan castle with 200 m-long sides, four towers at the corners and up to 7-metre-thick (23 ft) walls. The castle was the main residence in the city of its Visconti lords, and was destroyed by the short-lived Golden Ambrosian Republic which ousted them in 1447. Allied bombardment of Milan in 1943 during World War II severely damaged the castle. The post-war reconstruction of the building for museum purposes was undertaken by the BBPR architectural partnership. 

The castle has a quadrangular plan, on a site across the city’s walls. The wall which once faced the countryside north of Milan has square towers and an ogival gate. This was once accessed through a drawbridge. The northern tower is known as the Torre della Corte, and its counterpart to the west the Torre del Tesoro; both received wide windows during the Sforza age. The main gate leads to a large court from which several internal features can be seen. These include the Tower of Bona of Savoy (1476) and the Rocchetta, a sort of internal defensive ridotto with a gate of its own. At the right of the Porta del Carmine are the remains of two 15th-century courts. The Rocchetta, whose access gate from the main court (a modern addition) features the Sforza coat of arms, has an internal court with, on three sides, a portico with 15th-century arcades. The Corte Ducale is the wing of the castle originally used as a ducal residence; it features a court with two loggias, a smaller one on the left and a larger one at its end, called Loggiato dell’Elefante due to the presence of a fresco of an elephant.


5. Fondazione Prada

The “new” designed by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA studio, and the old one, a 1910 distillery that interacts in a complex building that houses the Foundation whose mission is the promotion of contemporary art.
The project fuses seven existing buildings and three new structures: the Museum an exhibition space for temporary exhibitions, the Cinema a multimedia auditorium and the ten-story tower with a permanent exhibition space recently opened with a rooftop bar. This 60-meter building develops on half floors on a trapezoidal base while the remaining part on a rectangular plan with a height of 2.70 meters and 8 meters on the last floor. The concrete façade is broken by large windows that illuminate the rooms in an ever-changing way. In the past 20 years, it has also promoted a rich cultural programme, such as film festivals. Co-chaired by Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli since 1995, is an institution dedicated to contemporary art and culture.  From 1993 to 2010, the Fondazione has organised 24 solo shows at its exhibition spaces in Milan, conceived as dialogues with acclaimed contemporary artists.


6. Parco della Portello

The Portello project started in year 2000 and occupies 240,000 sqm. The area once housed the Alfa Romeo and Lancia factories. This site represents the new north gate of the city, which leads to the motorway system, and interacts with the ‘great diagonal’ in the Gino Valle general masterplan. It will be the threshold and connection between the Trade Fair and the new Piazza Mercato (Market Square). The park under construction is about 70,000 sqm and can be considered a focal point marking the access to the city.

Charles Jencks together with Andreas Kipar outlined the morphological modelling of the hill, which creates a system of diagonal continuity with Monte Stella, the famous and historic hill created by Piero Bottoni after World War II.


7. Bosco Verticale

While Stefano Boeri was in Dubai, the city of glass/ ceramics/metal, he had the idea of a building covered with plants, it was born so the project of the Vertical Forest is a model of sustainable building that consists of two towers of 37 and 19 floors, hosting about 900 trees and over 20,000 plants able to mitigate noise pollution, producing oxygen, and protecting from solar radiation. The characteristic of the building is to conceive the vegetation and the living nature as constituting elements – and not just ornamental ones – of the architecture. The complex is considered one of the most beautiful skyscrapers in the world so much  that the designers, the Boeri Studio has built towers similar to Nanjing, Utrecht, Tirana, Lausanne, Paris. The Vertical Forest is an architectural concept which replaces traditional materials on urban surfaces using the changing polychromy of leaves for its walls. The biological architect relies on a screen of vegetation, needing to create a suitable microclimate and filter sunlight, and rejecting the narrow technological and mechanical approach to environmental sustainability.The Vertical Forest increases biodiversity. It promotes the formation of an urban ecosystem where various plant types create a separate vertical environment, but which works within the existing network, able to be inhabited by birds and insects (with an initial estimate of 1,600 specimens of birds and butterflies). In this way, it constitutes a spontaneous factor for repopulating the city’s flora and fauna.


8. Torre Velasca

Designed in the 1950s by the BBPR architectural partnership, this Brutalist icon, known as Torre Velasca, dominates Milan’s skyline, recalling the form of a medieval watchtower. ixed in with the Gothic Cathedrals, buildings, sculptures and domes of Milan, the Torre Velasca stands out as one of the few modern buildings in the city’s ancient center. The Torre Velasca, planned to loom over its surrounding structures at a height of nearly 1,000 meters, was to be an important addition to Milan’s skyline. For this reason, it was crucial that the architects, BBPR, find ways to blend the design of the Torre Velasca, completed in 1958, with that of the classic architectural beauties of historic Milan. The upper third of the building, which protrudes outward from the lower levels, was designed to resemble medieval watchtowers. Such defense towers were used in times of war to protect Italian castles from invasion. By using the Torre Velasca to build upon the ideas of ancient architecture, BBPR was able to connect the modern building to its historic past and keep the design of the new addition from feeling out of place.

The tower’s stone material and supporting struts that add stability to the projecting section not only further its resemblance to Italy’s medieval defense towers, but also mimic some of the Gothic features of its surrounding structures. The tower’s narrow bottom not only allowed for the creation of such plaza space, but also fit with the building’s multifunctional purposes. The narrow spaces of the lower floors held shops, offices and exhibitions, while the more spacious upper stories contained apartments with spectacular views overlooking the city. In many parts of the city, the creation of office buildings was known to push out residential structures. However, the combination of commercial and residential use in the Torre Velasca was meant to prevent the weakening of city centers that typically occurred when office buildings replaced residential ones.

9. Porta Sempoine

The Simplon Gate is located at the center of a wide round square known as “Piazza Sempione” (Simplon Square). It is adjacent to the Simplon Park, the main city park of Milan, which was designed with the explicit intent of providing panoramic views encompassing both the Arch and the nearby Sforza Castle. It is a neoclassical triumphal arch, 25 m high and 24 m wide, decorated with a number of bas-reliefs, statues, and Corinthian columns.A gate that roughly corresponds to modern Porta Sempione was already part of Roman walls of Milan. It was called Porta Giovia(“Jupiter’s Gate”) and was located at the end of modern Via San Giovanni sul Muro. At the time, the gate was meant to control an important road leading to what is now Castelseprio. Very little remains of the original Roman structure; some Roman tombstones that used to be placed by the outer side of the walls have been employed in the construction of later buildings such as the Basilica of Saint Simplician(located in Corso Garibaldi). Bas-reliefs and statues are made of a variety of materials, including marble, bronze, wood, and stucco. Many of such decorations, especially bas-reliefs, are dedicated to major events in the history of Italy and Europe, such as the Battle of Leipzig, the foundation of the Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia, the Congress of Vienna. Other decorations have classical mythology subjects such as Mars, Ceres, Minerva, Apollo, and Victoria-Nike.


10. Bocconi University

Behind the brand Grafton Architects there are two female architects Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, in 2002 they won the competition for the extension of the Bocconi University in Milan. An imposing building covered in stone that extends along viale Bligny, partly suspended and partly underground. The underground housing is considered an erupting landscape that offers support to the light filters inhabited above in continuity between the “landscape” of the city and the “made landscape”. The new Urban Campus for the Bocconi University is located on a large site close to the city center of Milan, adjacent to the existing university. The project comprises several buildings, each with its own program: the teaching and administration building (a number of interconnected cells), dormitories and a recreation center. These buildings sit in a new park that is open to both the university population and the general public.Each volume has an interior courtyard, typical in Milanese architecture and each is designed to have its own distinct character while being part of a larger system. These are lined with porticos at ground level offering peaceful environments for socializing, studying and gathering in the open air.Once inside, the architecture is permeable throughout and characterized by a sequence of columns, transparent rooms and trees.  The park presents courtyards of its own, formed by a series of porticos that shelter the garden pathways from sunshine and rain. 


11. Hadid Tower

This twisted tower, nicknamed Lo Storto it was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. The curvilinear represents the forces of the three axes of the city.  Located above the new Tre Torri station on Line 5 of the city’s metro system, CityLife opens the 90-acre site to year-round public use for the first time; providing new civic spaces, public parks and residential areas, in addition to shopping districts and corporate offices. When fully complete in 2020, CityLife will be the largest new civic space and public park created in the city since Parco Sempione opened 130 years ago; welcoming more than seven million visitors, workers and residents each year.Aligned at ground level with three of the city’s primary axes that converge within CityLife, the 170m (44-storey) Generali Tower connects with its surrounding public piazzas and park; the curvilinear geometries of its podium defined by the perceived centripetal forces generated from the staggered intersection of these three city axes at the tower’s base.

This vortex of centripetal forces at ground level is transferred vertically through the tower by realigning successive rhomboid-shaped floor plates to twist the tower about its vertical axis. This helical twist reduces incrementally with the height of each floor above street level, giving all floors a fractionally different relationship to the floors above and below.


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