Looking down from on high could be one the pleasures of life: a way to admire the view, a discreet glance at the neighbour’s courtyard, and, for Very Important People, even a symbol of their social elevation.
In the Middle Ages, towers provided an indispensable tool for anticipating the arrival from afar of a friend or foe, and being the owner of a building taller than the neighbour’s was a way to show off family wealth and power. A clear example is still visible in Tuscany, where the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the historic centre of San Gimignano, is famous for its architecture and is unique in its preservation of about a dozen high tower-houses.
In Milan the importance given to the height of a tower can be understood through the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio. On one side, the monks built a bell-tower. However, not to be outdone, this was then exceeded by the canons who built another tower on the other side, but much higher.
Eventually Milan’s tower-building rivalry was quashed with the introduction of the tradition, which became a ruling, that the statue of the Madonna, which stands on top of the Cathedral at 108.5 meters above the road level, should be the highest point in the city, not to be exceeded by other buildings. A law was even passed in the 1930’s, when two famous architects were designing the Branca and Velasca towers, effectively limiting their height to no higher than the Duomo’s Madonna. Religious reasons aside, the problem was structural, too. The water table is just a few metres below ground level, which exerts heavy pressure on the rocky layers of the subsoil, meaning that taller buildings built traditionally could be unstable.
After the Second World War, modern engineering techniques were able to solve these structural problems. At around the same time in Manhattan, skyscrapers showed a way to solve housing density troubles, particularly in areas of high commercial value.
Those skyscrapers sparked European interest in using the same solution in the expensive and rare areas available in city centres.
Electrified by the idea of building like the New Yorkers – and since every law has a loophole – in 1958 Milanese engineers found a way to return the Madonna to the highest point above the city by placing a copy of the statue on top of the Pirelli skyscraper. At 113 metres above the ground, the Pirelli skyscraper held the record as the highest building in Europe at the time (Central Station stop on the Green metro Line2).
It didn’t stop there; Milan began to ascend skywards, together with the statue.
In 2010 the copy of the statue was moved to “Palazzo Lombardia” at 43 floors or 161 metres high. (headquarters of the Lombardy Region, in Piazza Città di Lombardia, near the Gioia stop on the Green metro Line 2). This date marked the start of a true race for the sky.
The new CityLife project includes plans for a new piazza called Tre Torri (Three Towers) which will host three new skyscrapers, nicknamed “The Straight”, “The Curved” and “The Twisted”.
The Straight, designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki together with the Italian studio Andrea Maffei Architects, was inaugurated on 2015. It is now host to the Madonna statue at the top of its 50 floors, at 202 metres height. Nearby there is also a 37 metre-high Italian radio television antenna on top of the building. (Isozaki Tower, Tre Torri stop, on the Lilla metro Line5)
Perhaps this added antenna gave the Argentinean architect Cesar Pelli (US naturalized) the inspiration to win the height race, with a structure in another Milanese piazza. The Unicredit Tower has only 35 floors, reaching the height of just 146 metres, but on top there is an 85 metre-high spire, recalling an ultra-modern version of the Duomo’s main spire. It has thus taken the title of the highest skyscraper in Italy. On the top of this long needle, the copy of the Cathedral’s Madonna statue has now risen to 231 metres above the ground.
This extremely tall spire, so different from the Cathedral’s original in marble, is completely covered with LED bulbs providing constant night lighting, which may be in different colours. One of the usual combinations is the Italian flag, but during the Christmas season it was lit green to represent a Christmas tree; on the night between 14 and 15 June 2014 it was red to celebrate the 150 years of the Italian Red Cross; on 14 November 2015, it had the colours of the French flag in recognition of the victims of the attack at “Stade de France” and at the “Bataclan” theatre in Paris; and on 13 June 2016 it was illuminated with the colours of the rainbow flag to recall the 49 victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting in Florida (Unicredit Tower, Piazza Gae Aulenti, near Stazione Garibaldi stop on the Green Line2).
Now, the people of Milan are waiting for the inauguration of the two other skyscrapers -“The Curved” and “The Twisted”- which are still under construction, completing the City Life project.
The Curved, called the Libeskind Tower, from the name of its American architect Daniel Libeskind, has 28 twisting floors that will host offices and reaches just 173 metres in height, and so it is out of the running in the elevation race.
At the end of November, The Twisted, alias the Hadid Tower, projected by the Iraqi (naturalized British) designer and architect Zaha Hadid, will be inaugurated.
This truly exceptional spiral structure, for the first time ever, has been built following new construction procedures to give the impression of the entire building spinning on itself.
Its overall figures are not exceptional, 44 floors and 186 metres high, but the commissioning company Generali Spa has requested that its name and logo must be clearly visible from all angles, with an additional supporting structure about 20 metres high (Libeskind Tower and Hadid Tower, Tre Torri stop, on the Lilla metro Line5).
Even though the Hadid Tower will therefore exceed 200 metres in height, we are fairly sure that the Madonna statue will not be transferred to the top, principally because the Unicredit Tower spire will still be a few metres higher, but also because on the Hadid Tower, Mary would be face to face with terrestrial concerns…