Milan’s Railyards: interview with Emilio Battisti

Milan’s Railyards: interview with Emilio Battisti

Emilio Battisti was interviewed as part of a discussion between three architects on the theme of the Milan’s railway yards.
Former professor of Architectural Composition at the Polytechnic of Milan as well as founder and former director, in his early years, of the International Relations Centre (CRIFA); visiting professor at the Mendrisio Academy of Architecture, Pratt Institute, Syracuse University and Columbia University where he was also professor of the master’s degree “Housing and Urban Design“. He has been a member of the Board of Teacher of the Doctorate in Architectural Composition at the IUAV 1981-93 and subsequently of the Doctorate in Architectural and Urban Design at the Polytechnic of Milan.
He organizes numerous meetings within his space-studio, where he experiments the interaction between different disciplines: in particular Architecture and Art.
He has carried out numerous projects and has qualified in various competitions. He writes and paints.
Emilio Battisti defines himself as a “repentant architect”, refusing to carry out that type of design that is harmful to the environment, to society and that disregard the content without committing itself.

1 – What are the railway yards for you and what opportunities do tou think these can lead to the city of Milan?

The railway yards represent part of an historical infrastructure of the city of Milan that had its maximum use in the industrialization phase of the city, when raw materials arrived, and manufactured artifacts left, via the railways. That is what railway yards have been like in the past.

Today they have lost their original functionality, therefore they are partially unused. This particular condition allows to recover part of their areas, creating settlements that integrate with the city that was built around.

The railway yards have an important peculiarity from the urbanistic-localization point of view: they constitute a necklace around the consolidated city, the most structured one from the morphological point of view of settlement, in practice they are a threshold of passage between the historical city and the suburbs. Therefore, they represent a very significant passage within the radiocentric urban system of Milan: an incomplete ring that surrounds the historic city.

The recovery of these railway yards, also because of their disposition, represents an extraordinary opportunity for Milan. The central theme on which I and several colleagues are working is the management of this opportunity, as we believe that the Municipality of Milan, Ferrovie dello Stato (Italian State Railways), the Lombardy Region and Coima Sgr (private company leader in the asset management of real estate investment funds n.d.r.), have moved without adequately taking into account the public interest.

2 – What is your design vision for these urban spaces?

I’ve been studying the subject in depth for years. In 2009, on the occasion of a workshop promoted by the University of Architecture of Milan, various working groups developed design proposals for the railway yards. All the groups considered one station and drew up a morphological, settlement and typological proposal for it. However, my group and I have taken into consideration not a single station but the whole system and have decided to refer to the overall scenario which is represented by the seven railway yards that are part of it.

Within this work, we never reached a complete project level, but we examined the overall situations and the specific situations, station by station. We wanted to understand what the approach in conceptual terms could be.

In addition, my group has compared certain situations concerning the recovery of London railway yards, with specific situations in Milan.

All the material developed was collected in a volume and then deposited in the Municipality at the time of the launch of the PGT (Territorial Governance Plan) in Milan, which, by law, is carried out through a public consultation, in which citizens are asked to make available their ideas on general interest issues. The volume we delivered was not developed in terms of design, so it is absolutely not a “vision” like that expressed by the five professional studios commissioned by the Ferrovie dello Stato. However, the work we have done has a significant methodological value.

The salient aspect of our approach is to have taken into consideration the entire system of the railway yards, projecting it to a scale that goes beyond the municipal dimension. Finally, we have developed methodological studies also on the individual stations.

3 – What do you think about the Ferrovie dello Stato approach in the management of the requalification of the former railway yards?

The Ferrovie dello Stato approach is characterized by private interests. Although this organism is an entity owned by the Ministry of Transport, therefore it is essentially a public entity, on this occasion it behaves as any other private society.

FS Sistemi Urbani (State Railways Urban Systems) has been set up, which is a component of the FS holding company intended for the real estate development of disused areas owned by the Ferrovie dello Stato. The latter is trying to speculate on disused public heritage, which includes areas that are no longer functional to public transport with a totally private approach.

Ferrovie dello Stato got these areas under concession a century ago to run the rail service. Concessions free of charge, implemented by means of expropriations in the public interest. When railway use ends, Ferrovie dello Stato should return these areas to the State, which, in turn, should assign them to the original owners, as areas expropriated for a public interest that no longer exists. Instead, public-private appropriation prevails, rather than expropriation for public interest there is expropriation for private interest, so just the opposite of what it should be.

It seems that the Municipality of Milan is trying to favor Ferrovie dello Stato in this appropriation. Before the Program Agreement, which was signed and approved about a year ago, there was not even a single cubic meter available for building use inside the railway yards. Today, instead, almost 700 thousand square meters of gross surface area have been assigned by the Municipality of Milan. Therefore, the disused areas of the railway yards, which were previously worth zero, or perhaps less than zero because of remediation, safety and accessibility charges, have now acquired a value that fluctuates around 2 billion Euros. Of this figure, the majority remains in favor of the Ferrovie dello Stato, while a very limited portion returns to the Municipality of Milan. It is clear that there is a great disproportion between the advantages of Ferrovie dello Stato and those of the Municipality, which should represent the public interest, but in fact it does not.

4 – How would you allow Milanese tradition and modernity to dialogue with these spaces?

At a territorial level, the recovery of railway yards could be an opportunity to overcome some of the limitations that traditionally have conditioned the development of Milan. By intervening adequately on the railway system and the railway connection facility, we could shift from a traditional transport infrastructure to a much more advanced one. This operation would allow the historical city to project more structured and better organized morphological settlement onto the peripheral areas. From an urban point of view, we could therefore move from a scenario strongly conditioned by the railway infrastructure, to an urban system where the regeneration of the railway structure starts the formation of a more dynamic and evolved scenario.

From an architectural point of view, there is a very controversial issue. Milan is a city that has had a past related to Modern Architecture, which has been considered exemplary worldwide. In the 60s and 70s many architects from Spain and other European countries came to Milan to confront the “school” of architecture that had been created. The Velasca Tower, the Moretti complex in Corso Italia, the Pirelli skyscraper, the Gardella’s house on the edge of Parco Sempione and other buildings were considered architectural masterpieces. The “Milanese school”, at a certain point, has no longer manifested qualitative prerogatives and the international interest has diminished. At the same time, the scenario around which these interventions had taken shape has changed radically. Foreign funds have come to light that have brought foreign architects, so the qualitative characteristics linked to the tradition of Milanese Modernism have been lost. So much so that today, Milan is better known for what happens around Piazza Gae Aulenti rather than for its architectural tradition.

In my opinion it would be interesting if the railway yards could be an opportunity to reflect, experimenting with the recovery of the values of the Milanese Modern tradition. However, an open and explicit debate between designers and entrepreneurs would be needed. Today, more than in the past, entrepreneurs influence architects and the quality of their work. Because of these subjects, there is often a tendency to go along with a building-industrial production process, rather than an architectural one.

5 – What do you think of the great urban transformations (Porta Garibaldi, CityLife, Expo, etc..) that have characterized Milan in recent years?

These urban transformations have conditioned the perception of the citizen on what was the tradition of the Milanese Modern. The problem is that Milan of Modernity has been a worldwide model, marked by some architectures defined by specific characteristics, but today’s Milan is a standardized city like many others in the world. We can go into some aspects, but the trend towards homologation is evident. Libeskind’s skyscraper, which had a particular “banana” shape, could be considered improper but had its own characteristics. When a lift tower is built behind this body, the skyscraper totally loses its only characteristic, which, although paradoxical, constituted a character. This character gets lost and becomes an absurdity. We will see if this kind of situation can give other meanings.

Major urban transformations are inevitable, so I’m not saying that they shouldn’t have been done, but I’m thinking about the qualitative elements that have been introduced, trying to understand if they can be values or if they simply represent a homologation that does not convey any meaning. The Velasca Tower can be considered ugly, as it is defined by some American newspapers, but the request for content is there. The pinnacle of Piazza Gae Aulenti that you can see from every point of the city to what alludes? For me it is an architecturally very backward symbol. It refers to some iconographies of the historical architectural avant-garde, to the idea of wanting to reach particularly high altitudes through thinning elements. This element is part of an iconographic ideology that has now made its time. When I see it, I don’t think about the future, but about the past. The Velasca Tower brings us back to a historical past that had a particular value, but the spire of the Unicredit skyscraper does not transmit any content except for the fact that it goes up. But height itself is not a value.

6 – What other transformation do you imagine for the Milan of the future?

There are various themes: in addition to the railway yards there are Piazza d’Armi, the barracks, the Expo Area, Vittoria Park etc.. We will have to see how the market will move. I don’t know when new construction projects will be put on the market. There would be a very substantial demand for social housing at reasonable and affordable prices. At this moment, the major building promoters are pursuing a discourse that is not of service to the city, but essentially speculative and financial. Buildings with a high real estate value constitute balance sheet items, even if they remain empty, therefore construction is no longer treated as a social service but rather as a purely financial investment. This completely overturns the possibility of being able to make architecture, and also conditions the opportunities that arise. I find it very difficult to imagine the future of Milan, the only ones who can do so, unfortunately, are investors and property developers.

The scenarios produced by the five professional studios commissioned by the Ferrovie dello Stato do not aim to create interest in what the railway yards could offer. It was regrettable that these assignments were awarded without a public competition, moreover the use that was made of the debates and exhibitions at Porta Genova was intended to create public acceptance. They enabled citizens to simulate an apparent form of participation, but it was done only to create consensus. This is confirmed by the fact that these scenarios have ended up in a drawer and are no longer being discussed.

In my opinion, we should put in place a real and shared scenario, which aims to imagine the Milan of the future, and also the railway yards should be part of this scenario. The area in which to develop this discourse is not only the PGT (Government Plan of the Territory), but also concerns the Metropolitan City (the group of 134 municipalities of which Milan is a part), up to the regional scale. Coordination is needed between the different levels of urban planning: the PGT, the metropolitan territorial plan and the regional territorial plan. These three planning levels are currently managed independently of each other. It is unacceptable for Milan to make its territorial plan without knowing how this affects the metropolitan scale, just as it is not conceivable for the Metropolitan City to make its territorial plan without knowing how this affects the regional level. We need to create the basis for decisions, we need coordination between the three levels of participation. Only then, when a strategic plan has been drawn up, will be possible to pursue the related issues and bring out the various “scenarios”.

7 – When, how and why did you decide that Architecture would be your way?

I started studying architecture thanks to a friend who was already an architecture student. I used to live in Novara, where the associated architects Gregotti, Meneghetti and Stoppino were based. When I asked my friend what the Faculty of Architecture was like, he described a catastrophic scenario to me: building speculation was taught rather than architectural discipline and the teachers were rather poor. To the description of such a tragic scenario he added that to become an architect it was necessary to attend an architecture studio rather than university.

So, I showed up at Gregotti’s studio even before I enrolled in university. I remember that he gave me a pack of transparencies related to a project carried out in Stradella, and asked me to study them in order to understand how they were related to each other. Later he gave me an architecture manual and told me to study it. After a couple of days, he made me a sort of examination and then asked me to make myself available to the surveyor Lualdi; the studio was starting an architecture competition and there would be work to be done. My “baptism” was the participation in that contest. It was the period just before Christmas and I received as a gift a book by Philip Johnson on Mies Van der Rhoe that I still keep. Inside there was a piece of paper written by Meneghetti who wished me luck and thanked me. Throughout my university career, I have always attended architectural studies. After graduating I went to Rome quite frequently to take part in competitions with Franco Purini; let’s say it was a pretty dynamic situation.

8 – What is your definition of Architecture today?

The definition that I have always shared with Gregotti is that Architecture is what transforms material reality, trying to improve its quality. Both by improving the use that is made of space reality, and regarding the provision of values, contents and meanings of a socio-cultural nature. I grew up in the tradition of the Modern Movement, therefore with a strong reference to the social role of Architecture. I continue to view the housing issue as a social topic. I have never denied my adhesion to the Marxist categories, so I try to conceive Architecture as the result of a structural base that acts on material reality and transforms it, in relation to a superstructural reality in which the contents are expressed and we try to make them socially shared and participated.

I realize that this set of references has been lost, yet I have the impression that we are reflecting on the loss of these values and trying to propose them again. Nevertheless, I think that it is not easy to return to this system of content, but I do not give up.

I love to call myself a “repentant architect”: I don’t give up on design, but I refuse to carry out that type of design that is harmful to the environment, to society and that ignores content without committing itself. I realize that it is little more than a joke to define yourself as a “repentant architect”, but for what it is needed it helps me to define who I am.

9 – What advice would you like to give to future architects?

Based on my academic experience, the fact that it is evident is the positive experience that students have abroad. I myself, when Erasmus didn’t exist yet, went to England to do an internship. It is precisely in relation to this experience that I have always encouraged my students to pursue a university period abroad. I have also promoted academic relations with the University of Perth in Australia. Thanks to a teacher who had been my assistant, I established exchange relationships between the students.

These experiences are always positive, because students are given the opportunity to access high learning standards. In Italy there is a tendency to keep students engaged on the same project for a whole year, while abroad there are 4-5 projects per year. It is a more dynamic environment, which allows the student a better disciplinary and psychological growth.

Translated into English by Marco Grattarola.

  • Articles
Duccio Prassoli Administrator
Graduated at the Department of Architecture in Genoa, he is currently pursuing his Master’s degree at the Polytechnic of Milan. He is interested in the architecture of the 20th century and the influence that this is having on society and contemporary architectural thought.
follow me