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Exploring Milano CityLife District

Exploring Milano CityLife District

Probably the most interesting thing about the three skyscrapers known as “le Tre Torre” (the three towers) of CityLife is something that you can’t see from the ground – and which you might easily never be aware of, even if you work there and travel up the lifts (or elevators) every day. If you can’t wait to find out what this mystery is, jump to the end of the article. Alternatively, read the whole thing and enjoy guessing what the secret might be – exactly like the identity of “Rosebud“, the last word uttered by Citizen Kane, or the significance of the noticeboard Kevin Spacey is interrogated in front of in The Usual Suspects, which only becomes apparent at the end of the film. (That’s the Hollywood The Usual Suspects, by the way, not the Italian movie with the same name – I soliti ignoti – starring Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman, and legendary Neapolitan comic Totò.)

Still here? Great! Let me take you round one of Milan’s newest and most iconic areas, a showcase of awe-inspiring and neck-craning architecture, as well as a cool venue for meeting up with friends, shopping, eating and hanging out

History and Background of CityLife

CityLife is built on the site of Milan’s old trade fair grounds, originally styled the Fiera Campionaria. Although its roots go back to the 1881 National Exhibition held between Porta Venezia and Porta Garibaldi, the fair was shifted to several locations, eventually settling in the new Piazza d’Armi (the current CityLife site) in 1920. A bomb attack in 1928 killed twenty people waiting for King Victor Emmanuel III, who was due to pass by to inaugurate the Fair.

For over 80 years, the city-centre Fiera hosted trade fairs that showcased Italian industrial expertise and innovation. Plastic made its first appearance there in the form of Moplen, patented by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Giulio Natta. San Pellegrino’s orange drink proved a big hit when it was invented in 1932 to slake the thirst of visitors to the fair. And vehicles that would become symbols of post-war reconstruction and icons of Italian style, such as Piaggio’s Vespa scooters, made their public debut at the Fiera in 1946.

In 2005 the new Fiera Milano, designed by architect Massimiliano Fuksas, opened its doors to the public. Located between Rho and Pero in the north-west of the city, the new fair grounds rendered the former city-centre site obsolete but also created a massive opportunity to redevelop the area.

The Iconic Architecture of CityLife

Tre Torri / Photo from CityLife

The centrepiece of the CityLife development is its three skyscrapers, each designed by a different world-famous archistar. Zaha Hadid, the late British-Iraqi architect, designed the twisting Generali tower (which she never saw completed), as well as the shopping centre at its base and one of the landscaped residential complexes that CityLife plays home to. Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind created the curved tower occupied by consultants PwC, as well as the other luxury residences that complement those of Hadid towards the south of the site. The third tower, occupied by insurers Allianz was designed by Japanese architect and urban planner Arata Isozaki, who died last year. Known as “the Straight One”, Isozaki’s slab-like design required the addition of four buttresses to prevent the top floors of the building whipping about in high winds or during earth tremors; the design jury is out on whether its golden spars enhance the tower or mar its appearance.

A fourth edifice, CityWave (currently under construction) will complete the complex. Nicknamed “Lo Sdraiato” (the reclining one), the “horizontal skyscraper” designed by Bjarke Ingels comprises two tall bookends connected by a curving roof forming a giant portico. It is scheduled for completion in 2025.

How to Reach CityLife

You can easily reach CityLife by metro on the futuristic lilac M5 line (with its driverless trains and virtually staff-free stations). As at the Porta Garibaldi metro stop serving the equally iconic Piazza Gae Aulenti and the UniCredit tower, the escalator that whisks you up to ground level at CityLife also offers a stunning view as you emerge blinking into the sunshine: the Hadid / Generali skyscraper looming over you. A sunken piazza opens out in the shadow of the three towers from which the M5 metro stop takes its name (Tre Torre). You can also head to the metro station in Via Domodossola also on line M5.

What To Do in CityLife

CityLife Shopping District / Photo by AndreVisual from Archello

The main attraction of CityLife is its sprawling shopping centre, which displays many of Zaha Hadid’s characteristic design flourishes: liquid curvilinear edges and futuristic organic forms: the highlight is a bamboo floor and columns which seem to grow into the louvered ceiling. The place feels like a sleek airport terminal without the planes: you can shop till you drop, free from that sinking feeling that you haven’t left enough time to reach your departure gate. There is a whole floor of eateries, including Antica Focacceria San Francesco, a 19th century Sicilian purveyor of scrumptious Palermo street food. (Their lemon and almond granita served with brioche will transport you instantaneously to the Mediterranean’s largest island.) Vivo, a Tuscan seafood restaurant, has a counter in the shape of a boat and daily deliveries of fish from the Tyrrhenian Sea. 

If you struggle watching a whole film in Italian, the CityLife Anteo cinema shows foreign films in the original language with Italian subtitles.

There are also ample aperitivo options, such as Feltrinelli RED (sister bar of the one in Piazza Gae Aulenti); and there’s a California Bakery if you fancy a delicious but pricey slice of cake and coffee while looking up at the collection of baskets hanging from the ceiling. There are so many places at CityLife you’re sure to find something to suit both your palate and purse.

Parco Tre Torri / Photo by Adrian Balasoiu

CityLife is great for just wandering around aimlessly. Visiting its park and walkways will also allow you to take in the architecture from all angles: the ship-like residences of Hadid (curvy and geometric) and Liebeskind (jagged and geometric) are where some of the city’s most glitzy celebs have their homes. The Ferragnez have just moved into their new 6 million euro penthouse apartment in the Libeskind 2 Residence complex. Spread over two floors, the home of Italy’s answer to the Beckhams features wall-to-wall wardrobes, a spiral staircase (“scala a chiocciola” in Italian, evoking snail shells and the @ symbol) and a swimming pool – which, however, they have to share with the neighbours, who include reality TV stars Marco Fantini and Beatrice Valli.

Rooftops at CityLife

Roofs are a big thing in CityLife: the stunning comet-like roof of the MiCo Convention Center (the largest in Europe) is a thing to behold, especially when the late afternoon Milan sunshine is glinting off it like a huge crumpled Baci Perugina wrapper. There’s also the elegant glass and iron dome of the original Pavilion 3 of the Milan Trade Fair featuring Art Nouveau motifs (known as “stilo Liberty” in Italy). Renamed the Palazzo delle Scintille (the palace of sparks) this building was formerly used for car and bike races.

But the biggest rooftop surprise (get ready, this is it) takes the form of a small statue of the Madonnina, the gilded figure of the Virgin Mary who presides over the city of Milan from the highest point of the Duomo. According to a longstanding Milanese tradition, no building must be higher than the Madonnina. However, when architect Giò Ponti designed the first skyscraper proper in Milan at the end of the 1950s, the builders faced a dilemma: the Pirelli Tower (Pirellone), orginally home to the world’s best-known tyre company, was obviously way higher than the poor Madonnina. Left far below on her cathedral spire, she was dwarfed by the brutalist 20th century tower. What to do?

Madonnina / Photo from Wikipedia

A resourceful cleric came up with an ingenious solution: he proposed placing a small replica of the Madonnina on the roof of the Pirellone: thus, Mary would still be higher than the tallest building in Milan. Cheeky but effective, like so many wily workarounds in the Bel Paese.

Since then, four of the city’s skyscrapers have followed the new tradition and placed diminutive versions of the Madonnina on their roof, all duly blessed and sanctified in solemn religious ceremonies. One of these is the Allianz Tower at CityLife. 

That was worth waiting for, wasn’t it? 

Featured Image from CityLife

Article by Robert Dennis for Easy Milano

Robert Dennis is a writer and Business English teacher based in Milan. He has been teaching for other 30 years both in the UK and in Italy. A long-time collaborator with John Peter Sloan, Robert published Business English (Gribaudo) in 2020. The book was launched with “Il Sole 24 Ore” and sold in newsstands throughout Italy. Robert has a website for people who want to learn Business English: PayAsYouLearn.com. The site features keywords and phrases, audio and exercises to help professionals improve their language skills. A graduate in English from Oxford University, Robert is a regular contributor to Easy Milano who often writes about plays staged in English in Milan and other cultural events in the city. He is also a translator and “buongustaio” who loves Italian food! robertdennis.it


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Easy Milano is the online publication for the international community of Milan. We offer practical tips, key information and essential insights about living and working in Italy. Easy Milano has been assisting English speaking expats in Milan since 1999.
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  1. Exploring Milano Portello District – Easy Milano

    […] to the north-west of Milan’s CityLife area lies the Portello district, home to Casa Milan (the headquarters of AC Milan) and the Alfa Romeo […]

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