In Milan, David Kohn finds live-work buildings are a microcosm of the city where the urban world that one understands in the public realm is replicated at a smaller scale in the private, he writes.


Portrait: Julian Anderson, Milan doorway: Mario Gabualdi

Coming to the city from northern Europe, Milan is similar in feel to Vienna, but warmer. Italians often refer to it as Germanic – both in terms of its urban fabric and in the outlook of its people: more disciplined, colder, less Dionysian than those in the south. As such it is a city between two poles.

The overriding impression of Milan is of its streets – tall-sided, reverberant and continuous. The city is like a block of tufa into which the streets have been chased, a Chillida sculpture or a limestone valley where walls are peppered with carved windows of former homes and tombs. One might conclude that this riverine landscape is possessed of an homogeneity that verges on the oppressive. Yet its banks are home to the most diverse, heterogeneous worlds, teeming with life.

In Milan it is still possible to live and work in the same place. Not in a live-work unit, but in a building with separate rooms for each. I know a fashion designer who lives with her family in an apartment on the second floor of an imposing eight-storey courtyard block. Her shop is by the block entrance, before the gates that separate the street from the courtyard. It is small in plan, but double-height with a mezzanine she has built herself. Once inside the courtyard, the ground floor is taken up with garages, entrances to back buildings and her workshop, where the clothes she designs are made. In this way, the building is a microcosm of the city – the urban world that one understands in the public realm is replicated at a smaller scale in the private. There is a richness, as though the thick street walls are a growing medium, a nutrient-rich clay, in which life is able to take root.

The Milanese, like Italians in general, prefer doing business with people they know. And by business I am referring to having shoes repaired, new lenses made for glasses, buying socks, ham, umbrellas – everyday stuff. But rather than seeing the cobbler as part of an economy that is separate from one’s social life, the feeling is of a continuous cycle of exchange. The shoe repairer has his glasses repaired by the optician who buys her ham from the delicatessen who buys his socks from the hosier who has her shoes repaired by the cobbler. And there is a great expectation of quality from each participant in the loop, as it guarantees their continued place at the table. The Milanese talk of quality much more often than I have been aware of elsewhere; the commodity value of products is much more closely related to issues of materials, manufacture, care and understanding of traditional methods. Ironically the brand awareness that one associates with Italian products abroad – particularly in the fashion industry, where a name alone is enough to establish value – is less superficial in Milan. If a label is respected, that respect is still related to the making of the object and not simply to its perceived market position and social cachet.

The city is both the facilitator and metaphor of this form of solidarity. An extraordinary ecosystem that, like all ecosystems, is in competition with others. In a print shop this summer the owner admitted glumly that the Italian way of doing business was no longer working. The city was rich in the 1970s but, like much of Europe, is suffering today. At the same time, across town a new development nearly three times the size of Hyde Park is being built. The residential towers and office blocks of ‘City Life’ are for legions of busy bees who may or may not arrive. Manufacturing has generally been outsourced to the Far East and Milanese workshops now assemble rather than make things.

I have asked myself if an appreciation of a world made of rooms – shops, workshops, apartments, offices, ice cream parlours, garages – is nostalgic, a dead-end. But then I think I should get my shoes repaired properly and not throw them away, that I want to go downstairs and take advice from the printer, that a walk will inspire me, that I want to be surrounded by a city I can participate in. And I return to Milan.

Founder of David Kohn Architects, whose current projects include a community arts centre and A Room for London, a temporary installation on the roof of the Southbank Centre, designed in collaboration with artist Fiona Banner.

First published in AT224, January 2012