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Milan’s Railyards: interview with Lorenzo Degli Esposti

Lorenzo Degli Esposti was interviewed as part of a discussion between three architects on the theme of the Milan’s railway yards.
Degli Esposti Architetti is a leading partnership in the design of architecture, urban planning and infrastructure. Founded in 2006 by Lorenzo Degli Esposti and Paolo Lazza, based in Milan. Degli Esposti Architetti’s exclusive approach to design is the result of continuous research and practice, from the first works in collaboration with the main figures of 20th century architecture to current projects.
In 2015, Lorenzo Degli Esposti was appointed curator of the Padiglione Architettura for the EXPO 2015 Belle Arti, planned by the Lombardy Region in collaboration with the Triennale di Milano.
Degli Esposti Architetti regularly participates in international calls for tenders and design competitions, has received over thirty invitations and awards for masterplan projects, waterfronts, public buildings, restoration and reuse of prestigious buildings. Degli Esposti Architetti’s projects, the cultural and research activities (also in collaboration with institutions such as the Lombardy Region, the Polytechnic of Milan, the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera, etc.) are published in important architectural magazines and periodicals and have been exhibited in prestigious locations such as: Triennale di Milano; Biennale di Venezia; Secessione, Vienna; Reggia di Caserta; Isola Art Center, Milan; SpazioFMG, Milan; Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia; MoCa – Museum of Contemporary Art, Skopje.
He teaches at the Polytechnic of Milan and has taught at the Polytechnic of Genoa.
Lorenzo Degli Esposti through a “combination of lines” connects the pieces that make up the mosaic of Milan, brings together the railway yards.

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

The railway yards occupy a relatively small territory, but of a city that has very little territory. The city of Milan is a metropolitan area that reaches 4 million inhabitants, which represents a considerable size. However, about 1.3 million inhabitants live in the municipal area, this means that there are more people outside the Municipality of Milan than inside. Four million, and a much larger territory, are the true horizon. And compared to this, the million square meters of the railway yards, which is even smaller, is actually central. It is absolutely strategic since the iron belt, in fact, contains the consolidated city and connects it with everything else. So, whatever you do on the railway yards, either allows you to rethink Milan in a metropolitan key or denies it. This operation will affect the structure of the city in the coming centuries. Consequently, the “game” of the railway yards represents a mortgage or, on the contrary, a launch pad for the metropolitan area. I see the railway yards in this way.

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

What to do in the railway yards is secondary at this stage, in the sense that one could safely say what should not be done. It is useless to think how the single railway yard can be urbanized and therefore transformed from a disused station to a piece of city. It is completely useless, because doing so would lose an overall vision which is instead necessary to put in place the foundations of a future and real metropolitan city. Before deciding what to do with the railway yards, it is necessary to decide how these areas, which are no longer functional for railway operation, can be conceived with a view to infrastructure for mobility purposes.

Today we should ask ourselves: why make all these areas volumetric, giving a few billion euros to the Ferrovie dello Stato (Italian State Railways) and therefore doing them a huge favor? Why should we do it? It is the Municipality that decides whether there are certain cubic meters on an area, it is the urban planning. And in what hypothesis should the City of Milan decide that those areas are volumetric? I would do it not only from the perspective of Milanese citizens, but also of the citizens of the entire metropolitan area and of the Region. I would do it by putting something interesting on the plate, such as for example the second railway link, meaning the closure of the “circle line”, this was already decided during the Moratti junta. Giorgio Goggi, at the time Councilor for Transport of the Municipality of Milan, had a very intelligent negotiation with Ferrovie dello Stato, in which volumes were granted to them in exchange for the second railway link, that is the section that closes the railway ring from Porta Genova to above the Fair. Today, in fact, the trains arriving from Turin must go all the way around and go down to Mortara. If the railway ring with the second loop was closed, the potential for access to the city would be multiplied. However, current administrators have decided not to do this thing, which, by the way, had already been abandoned by the previous Pisapia junta.

Therefore, what does the City of Milan gain from the transformation of the railway yards? Nothing! 130 million for the works is ridiculous. The wise administrator should make sure that Ferrovie dello Stato‘s appetites are fully exploited, giving them the volumes they need, but also obliging them to invest on rails, which by the way is their job.

3 – What do you think of the FS’s approach in managing the redevelopment of the former railway yards?

Those of the railway yard were private land that were expropriated and then granted to various companies and railway companies that over the years have become the Ferrovie dello Stato and which in turn, by the State, are now managed under private law. Once Ferrovie dello Stato enters the stock exchange, these areas will no longer be owned by the State. The problem is not what is build, this is a secondary problem. The main problem is what the Ferrovie dello Stato proposes to do for the city in terms of infrastructure, which is independent of those lands. What is the purpose of the Ferrovie dello Stato? To get the trains going, and not to make finance or real estate developments. So, let the Ferrovie dello Stato tell us what their rails investment plan is and, if some changes in use should be instrumental to this, they are welcome.

One thing that should have been done, precisely because we are talking about a mortgage or a launch pad to the future, would have been to discuss it in the Municipal and Regional Council. This issue has a great impact on the relationship between the Municipality and the area of Milan, it is the main part of the new PGT (Territorial Governance Plan). So, the new PGT was not meant to be a further ratification of this thing. Before this discussion, it would have been appropriate to do a great competition like that of the Grand Paris, inviting 10 large groups, in order to get to have proposals to be debated in an assembly. The PGT is the urban planning tool, so when you have these incredible opportunities you need to treat them politically and in a shared way. Instead, the political vision of the City has been disinterested on this issue. We let Ferrovie dello Stato handle everything.

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

It’s difficult to say, the railway yards themselves do not refer to any kind of architecture. Today when you realize an architecture that is 500m x 500m, it is already a massive intervention. It seems that the market favors certain morphologies such as those of Porta Garibaldi or CityLife. For example, the CityLife project designed by Renzo Piano, which divided half of the lot diagonally creating half of the built area and half of the park, many did not appreciate it from an entrepreneurial point of view, even though it still seems the right idea to me. It is difficult to say anything about the railway yards. The problem is not to frame modernity and tradition with respect to the railway yards, but with respect to contemporary architecture in Milan and other parts of the world.

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

Expo served to save the Fair, as well as CityLife. This is because the Fair is an economic hole and if one has to do urban planning in Milan to plug the holes of the Fair we are in very bad shape. This is what happened with both CityLife and Expo. Porta Garibaldi, on the other hand, is a different story. It’s a terrible place, but it strangely works compared to the other two. CityLife is quite hideous, Expo is desolate, instead Porta Nuova although it is irritating is not hideous. It is lived, just as all the areas that surround it are lived. It’s wise from a usage point of view, and I must say that apart from some architectures, such as that of César Pelli, which is inadmissible to me, after all if you’re not easily irritable you can walk through it. So, despite everything, it works somehow. In all of this, Porta Garibaldi and CityLife are two very different scenarios. Garibaldi wanted to create a sort of small Downtown, CityLife instead is a kind of park where objects float. It might work in America, but it’s not working here.

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

What is missing in Milan is an idea of transformation into a metropolitan city. I would like to talk about such a thing, because if we start talking about it sooner or later it becomes a political agenda. In addition, there are many other areas that are being transformed: the former barracks, the railway yards, the Porto di Mare, Sesto San Giovanni with the Falck, Porta Vittoria, etc. … In particular in Porta Vittoria, the residential part was almost finished, while in the neighboring part, where the BEIC (European Library of Information and Culture n.d.r.) was supposed to rise, nothing happens. With the same investment, today we talk about absurdities such as reopening the Navigli. Nonsense that embarrasses. Another piece of city for tourists trying to copy ourselves. They do it in Las Vegas, why shouldn’t we do it?

There’s an idea that I and other firms are developing. The city cannot be treated neither on the municipal border nor within the metropolitan border. If we did, it would be a partial vision. The Po Valley is an already created city, it has been written since the 70s. A particular type of city that develops along certain auctions, certain locations and within which there are large urbanized or agricultural areas. An idea, on which we are working, is based on a triangular principle consisting of three layers that innervate the Po Valley within which a triangular mesh network develops along which the development of volumes could be concentrated. If we could admit the existence of this principle, we would avoid carrying out a random and widespread urbanization in a non-homogeneous manner. If we could concentrate the volumes along the rods and at the nodes (which are the cities) preserving agriculture and the landscape within the meshes, we would get a long-range and very wide-ranging idea. In some way Gigi Mazza had produced a document that was not binding, but was still an idea behind Milanese urban planning. An inverted “T”, which started from the Via Emilia and went to Sempione and then developed towards Brianza. However, in doing so, the implant was set at a 90 degree angle. Using a triangular mesh principle, three angles would be obtained which inside the mesh would constitute six. If there had been a competition for the railway yards as for Grand Paris, one could have said: the railway yards intercept these six lines, so why not go in this way?

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

I didn’t decide it, my father, who was an architect, decided it. The strange thing is that at a certain point I could have thought that the decision had been wrong and therefore changed. But no! The father’s decision was resumed and absolutely welcome. I attended his studio since I was a child, so making this choice was a bit normal and I had nothing against it, in short, it is the most beautiful job in the world. Why go against this? The maturation of this thing, however, was not easy. There has always been some kind of internal sabotage. Other than that, there have been cathartic moments that have marked my road, and people, my teachers, who in the course of continuing have enlightened me and made me realize that this choice was not simply an adherence to the legacy. It was not just a follow in the father’s footsteps, it was something more.

8 – What is your definition of Architecture today?

It’s a combination of lines. A combination of full things, elements and empty things. It is not space, rather it is empty volumes. Full elements, empty spaces, empty recesses. A room, someone might say it’s made up of four walls and two slabs, no! It is an air thing of a certain magnitude. And with the lines, through the drawing, it is represented. Because the lines represent full and empty things. And they are all things. I don’t believe in space, I’m not a Cartesian. I can’t be. It seems to me that they are all things, both material and empty.

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

What I would say, to a student who is learning, is to quickly identify the things that interest him and deepen them. If one deals with magazines, online news but also with biennials, one loses oneself. Any issue that has to come out of anything has to be the effect number. This is not possible; it is not a good thing. I would recommend a student to identify what he or she is really interested in and to circumscribe it. In a geographical and temporal chaos, begin to circumscribe things that can anchor it. My advice is to circumscribe, to see in depth a few things compared to what happens and what you see. Differentiate things to be explored. Search for a trajectory that goes from point A to point B. Trajectory that can also include multiple disciplines. Then maybe something else will come up in the future, but for the moment trace a trajectory. Today as yesterday, go deep.

Translated into English by Marco Grattarola.

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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.
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