Brera: from a close-knit community to the Brera Design District

Towards the middle of the 1970s, when Gae Aulenti relocated “life and work” between Piazza San Marco and Via Fiori Oscuri, for decades the Brera zone in Milan had the appeal of a flamboyant artists’ quarter, due to the presence of the Academy of Fine Arts and the Pinacoteca, but also of galleries and cafés frequented by painters, sculptors, photographers, literati and intellectuals. They were immersed in a dense context of crafts workshops alternating with luxury boutiques, now joined by a mixture of pricy restaurants, fashionable venues and elegant showrooms, which come to life above all during the design events during the week of the Salone del Mobile. It is no coincidence that various “hybrid shops” have opened up: no longer venues with a single function, but places that combine different approaches to respond to the needs of an increasingly specialized and – in this case – sophisticated public. Bistros that combine dining with the sale of cut flowers, butcher shops with kitchens, to double as eateries. These are the primary signals of a city in constant renewal, as Edoardo Persico understood back in the 1930s, when he chose the title “The Changing City” for his column based on observation of shop windows and stores in the magazine Casabella.

It has been a transformation that happened “from the bottom up,” from a way of living in a neighborhood and its public spaces, so it is less striking in comparison with more recent architectural developments in Milan, such as the residential towers built near the center. The latter trigger a clean break with the “modern Milan” of the 1950s and 1960s, which evolved by attempting to mend the damages caused by World War II, and above all with the aim of not severing ties with the tradition and the context, in spite of a clearly modern identity.

Observing the area around the Brera Academy, we can see that even the signature projects of the 1980s and 1990s were formulated along these lines of respect for the district and its pondered transformations. The result is the impression of a cultural continuity, reinforced thanks to a persistent but tactful renewal. This is particularly clear in the immediate vicinity of the home and studio, the “life and work” of Gae Aulenti: the place of “work” – where in the past Giuseppe Verdi composed the Messa da Requiem in memory of Alessandro Manzoni – faces towards the church of San Marco, where the Requiem was performed for the first time in 1874. In that era, the façade of San Marco had recently been restored by the architect Carlo Maciachini, who studied at the Brera Academy: he had completed the design, reopening the large circular rose window and introducing small overhanging arches, double and triple mullions in terracotta.

The presence of San Marco was important for the nearby building by Vico Magistretti, as for the Casa del Cedro of Giulio Minoletti, a bit further on: the work by Magistretti occupies an entire block right in front of the church, with a ground level set aside for shops, almost entirely porticoed, clad in a reddish-brown stucco that matches the color of the earthenware façade of the church. The Casa del Cedro is a complex of luxury apartments and offices, composed of two separate blocks: this separation permits a view of San Marco and the conservation of an existing cedar that becomes the fulcrum of the garden placed between the two blocks.

While the place of “work” looks towards the church, the place of Aulenti’s “life” opens onto Via Fiori Oscuri: from this point, walking to the intersection of Via Fiori Chiari, Via Madonnina and Vicolo Fiori, one encounters two residential projects by Mario Bellini, which filed in the last partial gaps left behind by the bombs of World War II. Architect Bellini himself recalls that these projects were the result of reflection on construction in Milan, and on the context: the two buildings adapt to the proportions of the block, and the building facing Via Madonnina links back to the theme of the courtyard and balcony access, recurring features of the local tradition. Above all, the setback of the façade at ground level reveals a clear comprehension of the spirit of the neighborhood: the tiny public plaza thus formed allows passers-by to linger, and offers space for the tables of a bistro, fostering the vitality of the Brera district.

The layering of memories, the artistic aura and the interaction between shopping and design are still addressed in the gradual changes of the Brera zone, which adapts to the transformations of the society while conserving its unique identity. This is borne out by the creation of the “Brera Design District” brand, which offers the resources of the area (history, places, commercial spaces, image, etc.) as a setting to promote events and products, local and international. The brand dates back to 2009, following the creation of the Urban Commerce Districts on the part of the Lombardy Region, the City of Milan and the Chamber of Commerce, when the tradesmen of the Solferino/San Marco zone turned to Studiolabo to create an identity at the time of the FuoriSalone 2010, the off-site urban festival that takes place during the famous Salone del Mobile trade fair. Since then, Brera has become the most visited and exciting district of the FuoriSalone.

Works of architecture in the vicinity of the home-studio of Gae Aulenti:

Casa del Cedro (1951-52)
Via Fatebenefratelli 3
Project: Giulio Minoletti

Building for apartments, shops and offices (1969-71)
Piazza San Marco 1
Project: Vico Magistretti

Apartment buildings (1988-96)
Via Fiori Chiari 9 and 24
Project: Mario Bellini

Residential complex (1960-71)
Via dei Cavalieri del Santo Sepolcro 10-12
Project: BBPR – Gian Luigi Banfi, Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, Enrico Peressutti, Ernesto Nathan Rogers

Casa Pirelli (1962-64)
Via Cavalieri del Santo Sepolcro 6
Project: Luigi Caccia Dominioni

Building for apartments, shops and offices (1986-89)
Via Pontaccio 16-18
Project: Silvano Tintori, Maurizio Calzavara