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Narrating Milan, with its thousands of construction cranes and Saba’s poetry where “words light up”

Narrating Milan, in these times of reawakening and recovery, avoiding clichés. Trying instead to discern, between fact and fiction, the deeper meaning embodied in London mayor Sadiq Khan’s recent statement – “London and Milan, beacons of the environment” – in light of the innovative policies chosen to safeguard and enhance sustainable development (Corriere della Sera, 4 November).

Politics don’t necessarily need to be a part of this, we can turn to poetic epiphanies instead. And recall, for instance, Umberto Saba‘s verses, “Among your stones and your fogs I’m on vacation. I take a rest in Piazza del Duomo. Instead of stars, every evening words light up.”

Lines taken from Canzoniere, a collection of poems published by Einaudi in 1965, which illustrates the nature of a city whose pace of life allows for moments of stillness and reflection, and whose spirit shows a strong inclination for conversation, narration and, indeed, poetry, as well as an attitude closely informed by a readiness to do, plan, undertake, work and, as befitting the capital city of books and newspapers, by a tendency to narrate.

Milan, a city of engineers-cum-philosophers (Leonardo Sinisgalli) and intellectuals who support a “polytechnic culture” (Elio Vittorini), of theatre-loving entrepreneurs (like the Pirelli, Borletti and the Falck families, founders of the Piccolo Teatro of Paolo Grassi and Giorgio Strehler), of humanist bankers (Raffaele Mattioli, president of the Banca Commerciale Italiana) and industrialists who also act as patrons and sponsors. Even today, as Alberto Savinio said, Milan has to be lived and narrated – “I listen to your heart, city…”, he proclaimed with loving inquisitiveness during the difficult first years of the 1940s, discovering a Milan that was “learned and meditative”, “romantic”, “all stone and hard on the outside” but also “softened by gardens on the inside”.

Saba’s “stones”. Savinio’s “stones”. And now? Now we have “stones” combined with the glass and steel of the bright Porta Nuova and CityLife skyscrapers. The “stones” of the outskirts, which many are trying to “mend” under the guidance of Renzo Piano. And also the “stones” of universities, whose new sites are springing up side by side historical buildings in the Bovisa and Bicocca districts (the University of Milan on via Festa del Perdono, the Catholic University a step away from the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, the Polytechnic University on Leonardo Da Vinci square), and the Bocconi and IULM campuses in the south of the city or in the MIND (the “Milan Innovation District”) area that celebrated the international success of Expo 2015.

Past and present, memory and innovation. As becomes a metropolis hosting 200,000 university students and attracting thousands more from all over the world. Milan, educated and talented, where good teachers live. Or – and why not? – “Milan laughing and having fun…” or “Milan far away from the sky / between life and death your mystery goes on…” as in the lyrics of singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla.

Is it really a mystery? Perhaps, the key to interpret what we could term Milan’s “dynamic humanism” lies precisely in its unusual blend of classical culture, scientific knowledge and entrepreneurial vocation. And, above all, in its ability to see labour as a serious commitment that entails care for the quality of products and production processes and pride in a work well done – as part of one’s identity, of an individual who belongs to a community, of a worthy citizen. Let’s recall, once more, the key message of the decree issued by the Archbishop of Milan, Heribert of Antimiano, in 1018: “Those who know what work is come to Milan. And those who come to Milan are free people.”

In order to narrate this great tide of transformation that, even after the pandemic and recession crises, is still washing over us, let’s take a look at the large urban map of this ever-changing metropolis, and see what’s been going on lately.

Starting with the MilanoSesto project, one of the major European initiative for urban regeneration, which is progressing as fast as Hines’s work on the Foster+Partners project concerning the area that, since the 1980s, was home to the colossal Falck Steelworks: a space measuring 1.5 million square metres, on which housing, services companies and offices will rise. A “city of health” designed by Mario Cucinella with a futuristic train station designed by Renzo Piano, as well as plenty of green (10,000 new trees) and structures for social housing to provide low-income students and inhabitants with affordable accommodation. Likewise, the former Macello district is also being developed for social housing, thanks to an intervention by REDO, a “benefit company” managed by Carlo Cerami, with contributions by the Fondazione Cariplo, Cassa Depositi e Prestiti and Intesa San Paolo – “Housing with low environmental impact and at a low cost,” explains Cerami.

And that’s not all – more construction sites are opening, for the regeneration of working-class neighbourhoods like the San Siro and Gratosoglio districts. In fact, Stefano Boeri’s concept of a “vertical forest” is developing between the Lorenteggio and the Naviglio Grande districts, a future neighbourhood steeped in urban greenery, on the edge of the area where the former Porta Genova train station used to be, currently under regeneration. Moreover, renovation works on the Velasca Tower, in the middle of the city, are progressing rapidly, while the global Blackstone real estate fund has invested 1.5 billion to acquire 14 historical buildings in the fashionable “Quadrilatero della Moda”, the upscale shopping area between via Montenapoleone and via Spiga.

The list could go on, to include streets and squares, brownfield sites to be regenerated and residential areas to be enhanced. Construction sites and cranes. Celebrity architects’ projects and renovations. All is in flux, as also shown by Unioncamere data concerning the Lombardy region: in 2021, turnover has increased by 37.4% in the construction field – a veritable boom, with Milan at its heart.

And here’s something else we should consider: Milan at the heart of it. A big city. An open-minded city. A hub where ideas, initiatives, financial resources, corporate activities, as well as people, intersect. Whose strong suit is to know how to build relationships and bring together diversity; turn diversity into a value; generate values able to support widespread development trends.

Then again, this is what metropolises are: motion, transformation, and – why not? – metamorphosis.

Indeed, Milan should be conceived as a large bright rectangle, just as in the image captured by commander Luca Parmitano from the International Space Station in 2017: a network of lights, shining from the north-west of Turin and Genoa to the north-east of Padua, Venice, Udine and Trieste, bounded on the north by the Alps and, on the south, by the dynamic region of Emilia, thriving with medium-sized businesses. A metropolis forming a grid that encompasses big, medium and small cities, industrious towns and industries scattered throughout the regions, transport routes running along the great A1-A4 motorway axes (from east to west, from north to south) and the high-speed railways. High-tech infrastructures that have deeply changed the area’s economic and social geography.

This is one of the most economically and socially integrated, dynamic and developed regions in Europe. It’s a platform that connects continental Europe with the Mediterranean, a group of territories rich in positive social capital, positioned among competitiveness and solidarity, where fairly efficient public institutions collaborate with private companies that are able to retain presence on the global markets. Innovative, cohesive companies committed to environmental and social sustainability. A complex world, full of lights but also of shadows and contradictions – in both economic and social terms – and yet a world that’s changing for the best.

Milan moves forward within these boundaries: growing, innovating, and integrating. Hardly perfect but nevertheless, over time, aware of its own fragility, of its own limits.

Milan, city of enterprise and critical awareness.

The awareness we need, as people, to get ready for the coming of a new Umberto Saba in need of rest and shelter and discovering, once more, that “in Piazza del Duomo, instead of stars, every evening words light up.”