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Oct / Nov 2015
Ringing the Changes

WRITER: John Defterios  PHOTOGRAPHER: Stefan Ruiz, Alberto Fanelli & Hufton+Crow

In 2004 Studio Libeskind, in conjunction with Zaha Hadid Architects and Arata Isozaki & Associates, won the design for the redevelopment of an abandoned 36-hectare plot that was once the Fiera di Milano. Their master plan may be bold and avant-garde but it also seems to be affected by the Middle East. Now there’s a turn-up for the books.


At around the turn of the millennium, the city of Milan made the decision of moving Fiera di Milano – the giant complex of trade fair pavilions that annually plays host to big shows like the Salone del Mobile – to the outskirts of the city. The rationale was that this would not only eliminate the congestion caused by such large-scale events, it would also free up a highly valuable 36-hectare area just three kilometres from the famous Duomo.

The masterplan for this new CityLife project was drawn up by New York’s Studio Daniel Libeskind, which collaborated with London’s Zaha Hadid Architects and Tokyo’s Arata Isozaki & Associates. Their design largely turned the site into curving bands of gardens that alternated with parks (17 hectares of it public), with groups of commercial and residential structures floating like archipelagos amid the greenery.


Previous: The 69-year-old Polish-American architect, Daniel Libeskind. Above: Situated in the southwestern part of the CityLife area, the Libeskind Residences on Via Spinola comprise five buildings of differing heights, offering a wide range of flats, from one-bedroom units to double-height penthouses.


“When I was doing the master plan we didn’t want to just reproduce what was here before,” said Libeskind during our interview from a terrace overlooking what are destined to be signature buildings in Milan. “But it really created a 21st century momentum for a great city.”

Standing tall at the centre of CityLife is the Allianz Tower – a 50-floor, 207-metre high rectangular structure supported by gold coloured rods – which, from afar, look like needles in a pincushion.  

The new district completes a pair of bookends supporting an architectural renaissance in the last couple of years. On the other end of Milan, there’s Porto Nuova and its distinct apartment tower, the Bosco Verticale or the vertical forest.  That complex is now wholly owned by a Qatari sovereign fund.

In both cases, if I couldn’t see Milan’s Duomo in the distance, these mixed-use developments could have easily fit into the skylines of Dubai or Doha.

It struck me, as I toured the Milanese complex, that the world of building design has become so globalised that even architecture seems homogeneous. This led to a deeper discussion with Libeskind, who amongst other major undertakings, designed the new World Trade Center in Manhattan.

He discounted my notion of a globalised look and feel though, saying that building design is one of the main factors that have helped cities of the Middle East, for example, define their particular roles on the world stage.

I asked him about what the Burj Khalifa accomplished for example, in Dubai or the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art for Doha. “I think it shows the importance of architecture.  They are the paradigms to show that when you build something you create the confidence in the future and you also take a tradition and connect it to the world, ” said Libeskind.

He went a step further by suggesting, “Europe and the United States look to the Middle East to see how much architecture can do for a city and for a country.” So CityLife in Milan could fit into the category of the East influencing development in the West.

I asked Libeskind to look into his crystal ball and identify key trends in development and architecture. Like yours truly, he is a firm believer in the continued rise of world-class emerging market cities, despite the severe economic slowdown.

Today’s rising city stars cannot be defined as the city-states of the past because they don’t self-govern and instead are part of a national government or a federation but they are clearly helping brand the country or state they call home. “The competition of cities is what drives nations, not the other way around,” he says. Think of the great cities of ancient civilisations: Alexandria, Constantinople (later Istanbul) and Rome.  Today, one would likely identify those in the emerging markets as Shanghai, Mumbai and Dubai.

But globalists who circle the world on a weekly basis aren’t seeking a “cookie-cutter” approach to skyscrapers, hotels or city centres. Libeskind acknowledges what has been accomplished here in the Middle East to date but said it is time evolve to the next stage. “The development has been breathtaking and absolutely amazing in its boldness and quality in innovation. I think the next step, in my view, will be about creating something more urbane, the idea of connecting sectors of society together.”

This, he said, will include making cohesion a priority in a region that is still subject to massive upheaval in this post-Arab spring environment, with sky-high youth unemployment that is making governing all the more challenging.

“The idea is that everyone should have access to good housing at various levels of income of course but also that the city should be an integrated city, where we have safety, security, pleasure and people from different worlds working; that is the definition of a metropolis,” said Libeskind.

The wealth gap, which is a dinner time topic of conversation from New York to Tokyo still in search of a solution, is not lost on master planners. One cannot, he insists, have successful cities where such wealth disparity exists, careful not to single out any particular Middle Eastern destination.

As was evident in my tour of CityLife and Porto Nuova, brand name architects are in high demand, especially in today’s emerging market cities, aspiring to make their way as both tourist and investment destinations.

“Cities, again, are in the lead and are competing amongst each other in terms of creativity, economic development, cultural development,” he concludes.

John Defterios is CNN’s Emerging Markets editor and anchor based in Abu Dhabi.  He hosts the weekly emerging market property development segment ‘One Square Meter’ every Tuesday - 


There will be three towers at CityLife Milano: a straight one, a curved one and a twisted one. In the background, you can see the straight one, which was designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki and has been named the Allianz Tower. The twisted one, by Zaha Hadid, is under construction in the foreground.


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