The Emergence of Zona Tortona – How Milan’s trendiest district developed through the last centuries

The area of Milan that nowadays is known as the famous "ZonaTortona“ became part of Milan only in the 18th century due to administrative restructurings. With two watercourses running through it, the "Naviglio Grande“ and the 'Olona“, the area was characterised by its agricultural structure with irrigation canals and fences around the farmlands.There was also a small rural settling around the 'S.Cristoforo“ Church, that gave its name to it.

From 1865 onwards with the construction of the railway line to Vigevano and the setting up of Porta Genova Station, the area began to change from rural to urban. Instead of farmlands, trees and rural buildings, now railway lines, squares and residential buildings appeared, however, without changing the already existing outlines. In this period Corso di Porta Genova, Via Vigenvano and Via Casale were built and in most cases the elements of the agricultural landscape like farms, and the borders of the farmlands were integrated in the new network of streets. With the period of industrialization Zona Tortona has gone through a radical transformation. Within a few decades important international and Italian industries like Ansaldo, Bisleri, General Electric, Osram, Nestlé and Riva Calzoni set up their production sites around Porta Genova Station. Together with these industries, small industries settled in this area, too and were followed by artisans who set up numerous workshops.

Together with the factories, houses for the workers were built and so Zona Tortona became a worker's district with close knitted city blocks. This is when the typical Milanese “Case di Ringhiera” the picturesque condos with inner courtyard and outside staircases (“ringhiera”) emerged. In 1906 one of the most important projects of this time was built, in Via Solari 40, the “Società Umanitaria”. On initiative of its president Prospero Moisé Loria, a building complex with collective facilities like a Kindergarten, public laundry facilities, a library etc. for the workers was set up.

Life in Zona Tortona at this time was characterized by industry. Just as the architecture of the factory buildings determined the architecture of the houses for the workers, the factory determined the rhythm of the entire area. Workers who did not life at the factory arrived in the morning at Porta Genova Station and crossed the famous overpass over the railway tracks to get to Via Tortona. Before entering the factory they could have a look at the newspaper that was displayed on the factory wall, as buying one was unaffordable. At the end of the day once again down Via Tortona, across the overpass and into the trains.
At the end of the sixties due to a radical change in the production system and due to the energy crisis, the industries left the district. Ansaldo transfered most part of its production to other productions sites such as Genoa and even the other industries left. Enormous factory spaces were left behind empty without a new purpose for them.

In 1983 a new era begins for Zona Tortona. Flavio Lucchini and Fabrizio Ferri set up “Superstudio” using the spaces of the former locomotive deposit of Porta Genova Station and a former bicycle factory and dedicating them to fashion photography. 1985 also the famous photographer Carlo Orsi opens his studio in Via Tortona and Luciano Formica transforms parts of the former Bisleri factory between Via Savona and Via Solari into his retauration workshop. 1987 another important fashion photographer Giovanni Gastel moves his studio to Via Tortona and transforms an old packaging deposit into a beautiful space. 1991 art restorer Pinin Brambilla Barcillon, who did the restoration of Da Vinci’s Last Supper moves his workshop to Via Savona. Together with the movement of these well known artists, young artists begin to discover Zona Tortona, too . This process continued and was followed by bigger institutions.

1990 the City of Milan purchases the Ex-Ansaldo building complex and they become the rehearsal stage, the laboratory and workshop of the “Teatro alla Scala”. 1996 Domus Academy moves into a former factory at Via Savona 97 together with several designers, artists and international and Italian advertising agencies. The Fondazione Arnaldo Pomodoro gives another important artistic impact to the area.The old empty factory buildings became the framework for a new creative productivity. Where workers used to cross the railway tracks, now models, designers and artists walk the streets and Zona Tortona has become the new trendy district of Milan.

In the following years with the creation of Superstudio Più and the transferal of a part of the fashion fairs and runway shows to Zona Tortona the international public became aware of Milan’s new fashion and design centre. Well-known Global Brands such as Armani, Zegna, Tod’s open up showrooms and headquarters and the projects carry the names of famous architects such as Antonio Citterio , Tadao Ando or David Chipperfield. Banks and Business Consultants such as Deloitte arrive in Zona Tortona. Some see the risk that what was once a creative avantgarde oasis and a lived-in area of town with small characteristic shops and artisans might become just another town centre of Milan, a business district with the usual global players loosing its particular charm. The association “Zona Tortona” has made this concern the purpose of its activity: preserving the authentic part of the area.

Time will tell what is going to happen. New developments are in sight. There is a project to trasform the space behind Porta Genova Station into a park as the trains will all stop at St. Cristoforo Station. This surely will have its impact on Zona Tortona and the EXPO 2015 will also have its part. New districts of Milan such as the area called “Città della Moda” that is build up around Garibaldi Station and the transformation of the old fairground into “City Life” want to get their tribute as well and will become fair competitors for Zona Tortona. But still it is going to be difficult to create something similar from scratch without the historical background and the architectural particularity of an old industrial district. for the reason, until now, Zona Tortona remains Milan’s most exiting part of the city and at least once or twice a year during the Salone del Mobile or Milano Moda weeks even the most exiting part of the world.

BNF, May 08

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