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Milano Skyline: the Ever-Changing Landscape

Milano Skyline: the Ever-Changing Landscape

This is the first in a series of articles about the most exciting modern architecture in Milan.

Milan’s best-known building is its statue-encrusted Gothic cathedral, the Duomo (started in 1386 and completed in 1965, which is a pretty long timeframe for a construction project, even by Italian standards). But the city is also a showcase of more recent architecture up to the present era: from the brutalist concrete of Torre Velasca, with its overhanging upper stories reminiscent of a medieval Italian castle, to Milan’s first skyscraper proper, the late 50s Pirellone, looming over Stazione Centrale, itself a grandiloquent architectural statement in stone from Italy’s fascist period. (Although, apparently, Frank Lloyd Wright considered it the most beautiful station in the world.)

Milan Central Station photo by Damiano Baschiera

In this series, I would like to take you on a tour of some of the most innovative and striking new buildings in Milan, including those of the Porta Nuova area, centered around Piazza Gae Aulenti; the three towers of CityLife on the site of the former Fiera di Milano; the headquarters of the Regione Lombardia; Bocconi University’s New Urban Campus; the Milan Innovation District (MIND), which is transforming the 2015 EXPO site; and a few others.

Along with these developments have come additional opportunities for luxury accommodation, new workspaces, shopping and places to meet friends for an aperitivo. The stunning glass and steel cliffs also make excellent subjects for photography, especially when they catch the late afternoon and evening light. So, put on your comfiest trainers and get your camera phone ready for some highly instagrammable moments.

Piazza Gae Aulenti, Porta Nuova

Piazza Gae Aulenti photo by Luca Bravo

Head to Porta Garibaldi. You can easily reach it by metro. (Both line 2, the green line, or the new “lilac” or purple line 5, with its futuristic driverless trains, will get you there). As you emerge from the metro with the escalator gliding up to street level, the fortress-like Gae Aulenti complex rears up into the sky above you. Cross the busy street and another escalator will whisk you up to the circular piazza named after designer and architect Gae Aulenti, a rare female presence in the largely male-dominated post-war Italian scene.

The piazza was designed by Argentinian architect César Pelli (who also created the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur) and developed by Hines Italia. Its main building is the imposing UniCredit tower with its sinuous, curving sides that appear to ripple and flow within their glass and steel skin; it’s as much a sculpture as it is a building. Surmounting the 231m tower is a spire, covered in LED lights which can be customised for occasions such as Christmas or Italian festivals. (They have also been used to show solidarity with France following the Bataclan attacks and with Ukraine during the ongoing war. The spire gives the building the appearance of an old-fashioned mobile phone or landline handset with an extendable antenna. In fact, “the Walkie-Talkie” (the nickname of London’s oddly-shaped Fenchurch Street skyscraper) would be much more apt for Milan’s UniCredit Tower.

Milan UniCredit Tower photo by Ouael Ben Salah

The piazza has a series of shallow pools, criss-crossed with walkways meeting at a central island with what looks like a tree made up of curving lamps, whose heads form a cluster of shining discs. Small jets of water bubble up from ground-level spouts at intervals, rising into liquid arcs and arabesques that splash onto the dark grey slate of the piazza’s pavement. If you go there at sunset, especially in the summer, when the late evening rays of the sun are slanting into the piazza, it’s got a magical feel enhanced by the light, water and dancing Shadows.

One of the best places to have an aperitivo in the piazza is Feltrinelli RED, a combined bookshop and bar belonging to the Italian publishers and national chain of book retailers. There’s also an excellent Illy Caffè bar which has an intriguing chandelier-like sculpture inside made of hundreds of coffee cups.

Illy Caffè chandelier photo by Illy Caffè

The area surrounding Piazza Gae Aulenti is perfect for wandering around aimlessly. Check out the Bosco Verticale (or “vertical forest”) designed by Boeri Studio. The building features balconies with actual trees and shrubs sprouting all over it. The nearby Biblioteca degli Alberi (literally the “Library of Trees”) is a green space featuring over 135,000 plants boasting a hundred different species and five hundred trees. Its complex of winding paths and walkways offer an excellent opportunity to commune with nature in the heart of the City.

Bosco Verticale photo by Zach Rowlandson

Other features of the area, which is a former industrial zone where polypropylene was invented, include the IBM Studios, a curved wooden structure designed by Michele De Luchi to resemble a seed (but which always reminds me of an upturned boat). The light, airy interior is a versatile space for conferences, exhibitions, concerts and events.

The area has undergone multiple transformations since its days as an industrial hub. At one point, it was home to the Varesina, the “Milanese Coney Island”, complete with a big wheel, although the district fell into neglect in the 1980s. The 1990s saw the start of its regeneration, culminating in the present chic business and shopping zone and its jewel in the crown, Piazza Gae Aulenti. The family-run property development company COIMA whose visionary CEO, Manfredi Catella, and his American-born wife Kelly Russell, have been instrumental in transforming Porta Nuova, which has also benefited from a major investment by Qatar.

The status of Gae Aulenti as one of the most fashionable areas in Milan, is confirmed by the presence of the Chiara Ferragni Collection in via Capelli, which leads off from the piazza towards Corso Como, the epicentre of Milan nightlife.

Piazza Gae Aulenti photo by Zac Wolff

If you haven’t been there already, Piazza Gae Aulenti is definitely worth a visit. And it’s just one of the exciting new places in Milan that we will be looking at in this series. Stay tuned!

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: Pay As You Learn.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

Easy Milano

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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Comments (2)

  1. What an excellent and well written article covering what has become one of the most brilliant areas of Milan. As a former fond resident of the area I witnessed many of the changes over 50 some years, i find it truly satisfying to see what has become of bombed out rubble from WWII which amazingly remained thus for 70 years. Gone is the weed-filled ‘Coney Island’ against a background of tattered billboards and where I recall riding the swooping pirate ship as is the weedy scrubland by Porta Garibaldi train station that occasionally hosted the circus and was patrolled by the viados. Gone the wide characterless boulevard now a grassy land with ponds, plants (poppies!) and friendly walkways. Nostalgia – yes, a bit. But Dennis does more than eloquent justice to this welcome resurrection.

  2. 48 Hours in Milan – Easy Milano

    […] two begins at Piazza Gae Aulenti (Porta Nuova), Milan’s trendy ‘new’ hotspot. Proceed towards Corso Como, another trendy spot, […]

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