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Bicocca Once Upon a Time

The Bicocca district in Milan, where building started in 1908 in the area around Pirelli, is today radically different compared to the past. The original factory has become the location of the Università Statale and, where there were once vulcanisers and production machinery, today there are piazzas and modern office blocks. New roads have been opened and many small roads within the development are today city streets with busy traffic. Only the Borgo Pirelli, built in the 1920s as a housing estate for employees, has remained virtually intact and the starting point for a short walk between the Bicocca of yesterday and the Bicocca of today.

Borgo Pirelli is still confined within the corner between viale Sarca and via Emanueli, which in those times however was still called via Rodi. It was given the new name as late as 1971 to commemorate the death in 1959 of the engineer Luigi Emanueli who for forty years was the true brains behind research and development at Pirelli. The small houses in art nouveau style are grouped around the so-called Casone (literally “big house” or also “barn” or “barracks”), the large four-storey building which in the past housed local shops, from the grocer’s to the greengrocer’s and butcher’s. The current bar and tobacconist’s which looks out onto via Emanueli has been there for ninety years…

During our walk to the University we then proceed along via Emanueli, towards Greco railway station, passing on the right that which was once the Segnanino industrial area. The factory of Azienda Articoli Tecnici once stood there, gravitating around Fabbricato 184, which in the 1990s was the first embryo of the University. At the traffic lights we turn left into the wide and tree-lined viale Piero e Alberto Pirelli, between the shops and bars and restaurants of piazza della Trivulziana and the ultra-modern apartment block of piazza dei Daini. We are now in that which was once via n°13, among the tyre finishing departments and the tracks of the internal railway, with even a puffing locomotive…

Towering above us is the massive cooling tower, built in 1950 in order to recycle the process steam. Today it is “boxed in” and protected inside the large grey cube which we can see on the left – Headquarter 1, Pirelli group headquarters.

We’re there – here’s the last orange-coloured block with its overhead walkways which dominate the entrance, the long rows of large windows with white frames and the words in large letters “Università degli Studi di Milano Bicocca”. This is the torre (or tower) U6, built from the historic buildings 45 and 66, which in the company’s past has always represented the strategic location of Pirelli Pneumatici in Italy and overseas. The buildings at that time were obviously not orange but a very natural “pale factory yellow” and the glazing of the walkway was set in a dense forest of ivy…

Going up the ramp towards the entrance to the Faculty of Psychology, we try for a moment to imagine the monumental piazza dell’Ateneo Nuovo, crowded with factory workers and production machinery and long rows of workstations for the control and finishing of tyres. And the piazza goes back to being Fabbricato 262