Ring­ing the Changes

In 2004 Stu­dio Libe­skind, in con­junc­tion with Zaha Ha­did Ar­chi­tects and Arata Isozaki & As­so­ci­ates, won the de­sign for the re­de­vel­op­ment of an aban­doned 36-hectare plot that was once the Fiera di Mi­lano. Their master plan may be bold and avant-garde but i

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At around the turn of the mil­len­nium, the city of Mi­lan made the de­ci­sion of mov­ing Fiera di Mi­lano – the gi­ant com­plex of trade fair pavil­ions that an­nu­ally plays host to big shows like the Salone del Mo­bile – to the out­skirts of the city. The ra­tio­nale was that this would not only elim­i­nate the con­ges­tion caused by such large-scale events, it would also free up a highly valu­able 36-hectare area just three kilo­me­tres from the fa­mous Duomo. The mas­ter­plan for this new Citylife pro­ject was drawn up by New York’s Stu­dio Daniel Libe­skind, which col­lab­o­rated with Lon­don’s Zaha Ha­did Ar­chi­tects and Tokyo’s Arata Isozaki & As­so­ci­ates. Their de­sign largely turned the site into curv­ing bands of gar­dens that al­ter­nated with parks (17 hectares of it public), with groups of com­mer­cial and residential struc­tures float­ing like ar­chi­pel­a­gos amid the green­ery. “When I was do­ing the master plan we didn’t want to just re­pro­duce what was here be­fore,” said Libe­skind dur­ing our in­ter­view from a ter­race over­look­ing what are des­tined to be sig­na­ture build­ings in Mi­lan. “But it re­ally cre­ated a 21st cen­tury mo­men­tum for a great city.” Stand­ing tall at the cen­tre of Citylife is the Al­lianz Tower – a 50-floor, 207-me­tre high rec­tan­gu­lar struc­ture sup­ported by gold coloured rods – which, from afar, look like nee­dles in a pin­cush­ion. The new dis­trict com­pletes a pair of book­ends sup­port­ing an ar­chi­tec­tural re­nais­sance in the last cou­ple of years. On the other end of Mi­lan, there’s Porto Nuova and its dis­tinct apart­ment tower, the Bosco Ver­ti­cale or the ver­ti­cal for­est. That com­plex is now wholly owned by a Qatari sov­er­eign fund. In both cases, if I couldn’t see Mi­lan’s Duomo in the dis­tance, these mixed-use de­vel­op­ments could have easily fit into the sky­lines of Dubai or Doha. It struck me, as I toured the Mi­lanese com­plex, that the world of build­ing de­sign has be­come so glob­alised that even ar­chi­tec­ture seems ho­mo­ge­neous. This led to a deeper dis­cus­sion with Libe­skind, who amongst other ma­jor un­der­tak­ings, de­signed the new World Trade Cen­ter in Man­hat­tan. He dis­counted my no­tion of a glob­alised look and feel though, say­ing that build­ing de­sign is one of the main fac­tors that have helped cities of the Mid­dle East, for ex­am­ple, de­fine their par­tic­u­lar roles on the world stage. I asked him about what the Burj Khal­ifa ac­com­plished for ex­am­ple, in Dubai or the

I.M. Pei-de­signed Mu­seum of Is­lamic Art for Doha. “I think it shows the im­por­tance of ar­chi­tec­ture. They are the paradigms to show that when you build some­thing you cre­ate the con­fi­dence in the fu­ture and you also take a tra­di­tion and con­nect it to the world, ” said Libe­skind. He went a step fur­ther by sug­gest­ing, “Europe and the United States look to the Mid­dle East to see how much ar­chi­tec­ture can do for a city and for a coun­try.” So Citylife in Mi­lan could fit into the cat­e­gory of the East in­flu­enc­ing de­vel­op­ment in the West. I asked Libe­skind to look into his crys­tal ball and iden­tify key trends in de­vel­op­ment and ar­chi­tec­ture. Like yours truly, he is a firm be­liever in the con­tin­ued rise of world-class emerg­ing mar­ket cities, de­spite the se­vere eco­nomic slow­down. To­day’s ris­ing city stars can­not be de­fined as the city-states of the past be­cause they don’t self-gov­ern and in­stead are part of a na­tional gov­ern­ment or a fed­er­a­tion but they are clearly help­ing brand the coun­try or state they call home. “The com­pe­ti­tion of cities is what drives na­tions, not the other way around,” he says. Think of the great cities of an­cient civil­i­sa­tions: Alexandria, Con­stantino­ple (later Is­tan­bul) and Rome. To­day, one would likely iden­tify those in the emerg­ing mar­kets as Shang­hai, Mum­bai and Dubai. But glob­al­ists who cir­cle the world on a weekly ba­sis aren’t seek­ing a “cook­iecut­ter” ap­proach to sky­scrapers, ho­tels or city cen­tres. Libe­skind ac­knowl­edges what has been ac­com­plished here in the Mid­dle East to date but said it is time evolve to the next stage. “The de­vel­op­ment has been breath­tak­ing and ab­so­lutely amaz­ing in its bold­ness and qual­ity in in­no­va­tion. I think the next step, in my view, will be about cre­at­ing some­thing more ur­bane, the idea of con­nect­ing sec­tors of so­ci­ety to­gether.” This, he said, will in­clude mak­ing co­he­sion a pri­or­ity in a re­gion that is still sub­ject to mas­sive up­heaval in this post-arab spring en­vi­ron­ment, with sky-high youth un­em­ploy­ment that is mak­ing gov­ern­ing all the more chal­leng­ing. “The idea is that ev­ery­one should have ac­cess to good hous­ing at var­i­ous lev­els of in­come of course but also that the city should be an in­te­grated city, where we have safety, se­cu­rity, plea­sure and peo­ple from dif­fer­ent worlds work­ing; that is the def­i­ni­tion of a me­trop­o­lis,” said Libe­skind. The wealth gap, which is a din­ner time topic of con­ver­sa­tion from New York to Tokyo still in search of a so­lu­tion, is not lost on master plan­ners. One can­not, he in­sists, have suc­cess­ful cities where such wealth dis­par­ity ex­ists, care­ful not to sin­gle out any par­tic­u­lar Mid­dle Eastern des­ti­na­tion. As was ev­i­dent in my tour of Citylife and Porto Nuova, brand name ar­chi­tects are in high de­mand, es­pe­cially in to­day’s emerg­ing mar­ket cities, as­pir­ing to make their way as both tourist and in­vest­ment des­ti­na­tions. “Cities, again, are in the lead and are com­pet­ing amongst each other in terms of cre­ativ­ity, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, cul­tural de­vel­op­ment,” he con­cludes.

“Europe and the United States look to the Mid­dle East to see how much ar­chi­tec­ture can do for a city and a coun­try.”

Op­po­site: The 69-year-old Pol­ish-amer­i­can ar­chi­tect, Daniel Libe­skind. Above: Si­t­u­ated in the south­west­ern part of the Citylife area, the Libe­skind Res­i­dences on Via Spinola com­prise five build­ings of dif­fer­ing heights, of­fer­ing a wide range of flats,...

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