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Architecture, politics and economy at the origin of modern Milan by Laura Gioeni

In the Sixties of the XIX century, the heart of the city of Milan was reshaped by Giuseppe Mengoni’s project for the new Duomo Square and the Vittorio Emanuele Gallery: a project with high political motivations which had to celebrate the victory of the Savoyard king who had freed the Lombardy from the foreign domination, establishing the first core of the new Italian state. After a public three levels contest, Giuseppe Mengoni, a young architect full of artistic and technical ambitions, is declared as winner. In this context, the architecture had to play the role of promoting the dream of the Italian unitary state through the symbolic use of elements taken from historical architectural languages, able to fully express the national values. Furthermore, that eclectic National Style, which mixed medieval and Renaissance characters, was taking shape in close connection with the advancement of the building technology: traditional brick construction is joined to cast-iron and steel structures and glass ceilings. The result was a modern architecture which had to become also the recognizable symbol of a new national political order, dominated by the liberal economic ideology. My paper aims to show how, in this case, the capitalistic power prevailed over political intentions, public interests and architectural reasons, transforming the redesign of the city center in a huge international financial speculation, which involved foreign capitals, a British limited company - the “City of Milan Improvements Company Limited” - and the controversial behavior of the city administration, leaving the architect crushed between public and private interests. Real estate speculation, disguised as patriotic intentions, conditioned planning and architectural choices and led to the destruction of the historical city center, with the expulsion of the poorest layers of the society and the rise of the soil values. The capitalist building contractor leaves its mark on the modern bourgeois city. Marx clearly described this new business. Building contractor no longer builds on the order of private individuals. Henceforth he builds entire sections of the city for the market: “to what extent capitalist production has revolutionized the building of houses in London is shown by the testimony of a builder before the banking committee of 1857. When he was young, he said, houses were generally built to order and the payments made in instalments to the contractor as certain stages of the building were being completed. Very little was built on speculation. (…) In the last forty years all that has changed. Very little is now built to order. (…) The builder no longer works for his customers but for the market”. (Marx, 1885). In sum, looking at the event from which the modern Milan center takes its origin, we can see at work the same hidden powers which shape the contemporary city: capitalistic economy, imposing itself over politics, begins to rule the management of soil and public spaces and steer the urban planning, ousting the architect from every autonomous planning decisions and responsibility.


Gioeni, L. (1995) L’Affaire Mengoni, Milano: Guerini e associati

Marx, K., Engels, F. (ed.) (1885) Capital, Volume II: The Process of Circulation of Capital

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