Milan: Tomorrow's world

27 Nov 2014 by Jenny Southan
Milan is set to stage its biggest-ever event. Jenny Southan reports on how Expo 2015 will transform the city – and perhaps the planet, too Standing in a hard hat and muddied boots on a vast construction site outside Milan, it’s hard to imagine that the 2,000 sqm plot of concrete foundations I am looking at will, by the spring, be transformed into a 40-metre-long meadow of wildflowers and fruit trees, with a walkway leading to a giant beehive suspended above a plaza at the far end. I am told that the golden orb will be surrounded by delicate layers of honeycomb-shaped aluminium latticework, with buzzing sounds and LED lights pulsating in unison with the real-time movements of bees in a hive in England. Designed by British architect Wolfgang Buttress, the UK’s pavilion for Expo 2015 (expo2015.org) will cost more than £10 million to build and operate. The theme of the six-month event, which starts on May 1, is “Feeding the planet, energy for life”. Almost 150 countries will present their ideas on how to support a global population of nine billion people in 2050 (up from seven billion today). With one-third of the planet’s crops dependent on pollination, the UK has chosen to highlight the importance of the honeybee to agriculture. The Expo – historically known as the World’s Fair – is more than just another trade show. It is a consumer event that has acted as a dazzling showcase for cutting-edge inventions, innovations and ideas from around the world since the mid-1800s. The telephone, light bulbs, radio, television, public toilets, escalators and even Heinz Ketchup all made their debut at one of these exhibitions. The last World Expo was in Shanghai, in 2010. Milan won its bid in 2008. Costing Italy more than €2 billion, during a period of economic crisis, taking on this kind of project could be seen by some as unwise, possibly even reckless. Piero Galli, general manager for the event management division of Expo Milano 2015, says: “We are struggling to break even but making a profit is not our goal.” Instead, the aim is for Expo to create a legacy that everyone can benefit from. The city’s time in the spotlight will not only bring in an extra 13.5 million people (Greater Milan welcomed 6.5 million visitors in 2013) but also stimulate the economy, boost local development, and give the city and the Lombardy region global exposure. Vic Annells, consul general and director general for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Milan, says: “The world market was a very different place when Milan put in its bid. But even if Italy had the choice to do the Expo now, I still firmly believe it should. Without the Expo on its horizon, what would Italy be pinning its hopes for growth on? It has had four different prime ministers in the past four years – that constant change is not good. As a G8 nation fighting for a place on the world stage, the Expo gives modern Italy a fantastic showcase.” It was recently announced that the official airlines for Expo 2015 would be Alitalia and Etihad – the Abu Dhabi-based carrier has just bought a 49 per cent stake in the Italian flag carrier with the intention of revitalising the formerly loss-making airline. James Hogan, president and CEO of Etihad, says: “Our plan will integrate the strength of [Milan] Malpensa airport as the main gateway to northern Italy, and [Milan] Linate airport as a northern connection point between Alitalia’s vast domestic network and destinations throughout Europe. Etihad is already a frequent visitor here with daily passenger flights to and from Abu Dhabi. But the route will be better served next year when Alitalia commences daily flights between Malpensa and Abu Dhabi, connecting with Etihad flights to the Indian sub-continent, South East Asia and Africa.” At the Expo offices just off Via Dante in the city centre, Galli leads me to a conference room, where a map of the project is pinned to the wall. The 1 sq km site is in Rho, about 30 minutes’ drive north-west of Milan, towards Malpensa airport. He explains that the blueprint echoes the layout of an old Roman city, with a 1.5km-long road – the Decumano – bisected by the 350-metre-long Cardo. Of the 144 countries taking part, 54 will build their own pavilion, each competing in terms of architectural prowess (designers include Foster and Partners and Jacques Herzog) and the message they want to communicate. The Swiss pavilion, for example, will highlight the finite nature of the world’s resources by displaying huge silos full of food, which will deplete as visitors help themselves. Others will be more a celebration of what we have. The US pavilion (see our cover image) will be an edible “smart city” of vertical farms, food trucks and a boardwalk made of timber reclaimed from New York’s Coney Island. Visitors will be able to try a Thanksgiving dinner or gospel brunch, and go to talks by top chefs. Spanning five floors, the €40 million Italian pavilion will feature a dramatic tree-like exoskeleton, inside of which will be dozens of food and drink stands. “In the day you learn something and at night you drink,” Galli says. “It will be a party.” Other places to visit will include a pavilion dedicated to Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food movement, which was born in Italy; a 4,600-seat theatre with daily performances from Cirque du Soleil; and a Biodiversity Park with greenhouses and gardens. The Future Food District, created in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will have an “interactive supermarket” and a high-tech kitchen. “You would need a week to see everything,” says Galli, who predicts that on peak days, the site could see 250,000 people pass through, grazing on street food or dining in its many restaurants. The city of Milan is also getting ready. To help cope with demand, a number of new hotels will be arriving. At the top end will be the Excelsior Gallia, which is part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection and was set to open on December 1. In the spring, there will be the Me Milan Il Duca with a rooftop bar on Piazza della Repubblica (not far from the Dorchester Collection’s iconic Principe di Savoia), and the Mandarin Oriental, housed in three 19th-century buildings on Via Monte di Pieta. Marriott’s trendy Moxy hotel was unveiled next to Malpensa airport’s Terminal 2 in the autumn, while the city’s first W will open in 2016. Other parts of the city are also getting a spruce-up. Milan once had a thriving inland port linked to the Ticino and Adda rivers, and a network of canals more extensive than those in Venice. While many of these have now been filled in, the Navigli district still has a couple of lively waterside thoroughfares (Grande and Pavese) lined with busy aperitivo bars. As part of the Expo preparations, La Darsena harbour, where the two canals meet, is being redeveloped. By the spring, there will be a market, public gardens and new pedestrian areas along the north and south banks. The Expo is as much about trying to solve a major world problem as it is a chance to eat and enjoy. What’s more, Annells hopes the event will “change that old-fashioned perception of Italy”, and rid the country of the bad taste left by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s time in office. Milan has been leading the way in Italy in terms of transparency, launching public data platform Open Expo (dati.openexpo2015.it) to show how much is being spent on the project, as well as introducing a voluntary “prompt payment code” to motivate businesses to pay clients on time. The city is also expanding its free wifi network, signs for which you will see in Porta Nuova and other central areas. Cristina Tajani, Milan councillor for labour policy, economic development, university and research at government organisation Comune di Milano, says: “We have over 500 free hotspots in the city and on the site where the Expo will be hosted. By May, there will be 600, and they will be permanent – part of the digital legacy of the event.” Although it hasn’t yet been decided what will happen to the Expo site afterwards (most of the pavilions will be knocked down), there is no doubt its presence will be felt across Milan in 2015 and beyond. There will also be several thousand events taking place – from talks and workshops to Italy’s largest-ever Leonardo da Vinci exhibition (April 15-July 19). If you want to get a taste of the world of tomorrow, there’s no excuse for missing out. WORLD’S FAIR: A BRIEF HISTORY The first World’s Fair took place at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851. Conceived by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, it set the trend for showcasing technological innovations. Apart from the enormous glass structure built especially for the occasion, inventions demonstrated included the first public toilets, the Colt Navy revolver and the telegraph. In 1876, in Philadelphia, the centrepieces were a 1,500-horsepower steam engine and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. Paris showcased the Eiffel Tower in 1889, and the diesel engine and escalators in 1900. New York demoed commercial TV broadcasting for the first time in 1939, and video-conferencing in 1964. In 1970, the first mobile phone was presented in Osaka, along with a chunk of rock from the Moon. The last World Expo was in Shanghai, in 2010, with the theme “Better city, better life”. It was the most expensive and most well-attended in history. After Milan, the next fair will be in Dubai, in 2020. EXPO 2015 IN NUMBERS
  • €10-€39 - TICKET PRICES
MILAN'S NEW FINANCE ZONE In a city known for fashion and design, one would expect Milan to be more beautiful (with the exception of the magnificent Gothic cathedral). But where picture-postcard architecture is lacking, cutting-edge modernism is going up. Directly behind the Principe di Savoia hotel is the brand-new Porta Nuova financial district (porta-nuova.com), where expansive walkways, steps and pedestrian bridges take you all the way up to Porta Garibaldi station, where high-speed trains connect to Rome and beyond. Walking through the Porta Nuova Varesine zone, an exhibition of photography from the archives of Vogue Italia covers the ground-floor windows of several gleaming blocks (a gallery will be opening here next year). Here you’ll also see the 30-storey Diamond Tower by Kohn Pedersen Fox. Nearby, Porta Nuova Isola features Stefano Boeri’s two Vertical Forest residential blocks, which are built like jumbled Jenga towers with gravity-defying balconies planted with almost 1,000 trees. Danish jeweller Pandora has leased office space in another building, along with the Google Italia HQ. It’s Porta Nuova Garibaldi that really catches the eye, with its 231-metre-high curving Unicredit tower that spirals up at one corner to form a spire. It is the tallest building in the country and can be seen from almost anywhere in Milan. At its base is the circular Gae Aulenti piazza, which has a fountain in its centre and is surrounded by chairs for al fresco coffee from the Feltrinelli RED bookstore. There is also the eye-catching Solar Tree by Welsh designer Ross Lovegrove – an organic-looking cluster of streetlights that are powered by the sun – and an installation of giant, bronze “ear trumpets” by Alberto Garutti, which connect to a shopping mall below, amplifying the voices of people who speak into them. Despite it being a business district, at the weekends it is abuzz with families and locals who come to shop in its new retail outlets – Nike and Muji are already here, with more on the way. Walk past the ear trumpets, under a roof with a toilet-seat-shaped hole in it (allowing views up the side of yet another polished skyscraper), and you will be back in the Milan of old. Here you can pop into 10 Corso Como (10corsocomo.com), a boutique hotel, restaurant, concept store, art gallery and bookshop founded in the nineties by Carla Sozzani, former editor of Italian Elle and Vogue. At the end of the street is a heaven for gourmands. Eataly (eataly.com), Italy’s version of the US Whole Foods Market chain, opened its enormous flagship in March. If you aren’t going to stop by one of the pop-up branches at the Expo, you can come here instead to stock up on truffles, Parmesan and prosecco, or sample an authentic piadina, a thin, scone-like flatbread folded in half and stuffed with prosciutto and fior di latte cheese.
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