A rendering of the Symbiosis project in Milan's southern area.A rendering of the Symbiosis project.

MILAN It takes a spark to light a fire.

In the case of Milan, it took a golden tower to enlighten a whole — long-forgotten — area. The impact has been even brighter considering the tower is part of a complex established by a lodestar of Milanese culture and style as Miuccia Prada.

Fondazione Prada opened in Largo Isarco in 2015Milan’s turning-point year as it hosted the Expo — and, ever since, is drawing locals and tourists in the southern part of the city, once known for being an industrial pole.

Developed by Rem Koolhaas’ Rotterdam-based architecture firm OMA, the complex itself is mainly recovered from a distillery dating back to 1916. New structures were also added to the seven existing buildings, including the last, 200-foot-high white concrete tower Torre, which was unveiled last month, marking the completion of the foundation dedicated to contemporary art.

With its intense exhibition calendar, in addition to its Instagram-favorite Bar Luce cafe and a new Torre restaurant and panoramic terrace with rooftop bar, Fondazione Prada not only has earned its place in the must-go lists of every Milan’s travel guide but contributed to the relaunch and requalification of the entire area.

Fondazione Prada's Torre restaurant and panoramic terrace with rooftop bar.

Fondazione Prada’s Torre restaurant and panoramic terrace with rooftop bar.  Courtesy Photo

Right next to the complex, an expansive real estate project is taking shape. Named Symbiosis, the 1.3 million-square-foot construction site will transform another historic industrial area into an innovative business district dedicated to smart working and coworking, also integrating environmental performance to improve the well-being of future employees.

In particular, the project is part of a wider, European program named Sharing Cities. This was launched in 2015, when Milan — along with London and Lisbon — won the European bid “Smart Cities and Communities solutions integrating energy, transport, ICT sectors through lighthouse projects” as part of the research and innovation program Horizon 2020.

The three cities will develop innovative and sustainable districts in some of their areas to build models that can satisfy some key environmental challenges – such as reducing the polluting emissions of buildings and vehicles, improving air quality, – and that can be replicated elsewhere. The entire program will receive a European investment of 25 million euros, of which 8.6 million euros are funding Milan alone.

The municipality of Milan decided to focus on the whole area of Porta Romana-Vettabbia where Fondazione Prada and the Symbiosis property are located. In particular, the latter is owned by the Beni Stabili Siiq real estate player since 2008.

In blue, a rendering of the Symbiosis project.

In blue, a rendering of the Symbiosis project.  Courtesy Photo

“We expect that the requalification of the former railway yard Scalo Romana will increase the interest in this area, which has a great potential logistically as it’s near both to the city center and to the Linate airport,” said Beni Stabili Siiq’s general manager Alexei Dal Pastro.

Beni Stabili tapped the architectural firm Antonio Citterio, Patricia Viel & Partners to develop an engineering plan combining offices, green areas and multifunctional spaces. For instance, offices will feature photovoltaic plants on the roof to exploit solar energy and LED lighting system to reduce electricity consumption and minimize maintenance costs, while common areas will be lit up with energy-saving lamps and feature benches with multimedia connections for a smart working lifestyle. Sharing mobility systems will be added, including 60 electric car sharing vehicles and 150 electric bicycles, among others. The whole Symbiosis project is due by the end of 2022, said Dal Pastro.

Meanwhile, the first lodger in the area, the Italian telecommunications company Fastweb, is expected to occupy an expansive glass building starting from October, with a lease expiring in March 2029.

A rendering of Fastweb's new headquarters.

A rendering of Fastweb’s new headquarters.  Courtesy Photo

“Our key word is innovation, and that also means investing in the quality of life at work through a deep reconsideration of spaces,” said Fastweb’s head of real estate and facilities Luca Merzi, explaining the decision to move the firm’s headquarters in a new estate that is “more modern, energy-efficient and designed to respond to the new digital needs of the company.”

Fastweb will occupy more than 172,222 square feet of offices, with an option to rent an additional 32,291-square-foot surface in the same building. Favoring an agile and dynamic approach, the location “will have the goal to [provide] a fitting set to a new way of working…with the predominance of common areas and open spaces; where the stationing won’t be permanent anymore and where there will be plenty of areas for meetings and quiet, small offices to use temporarily for a call or a moment of concentration.”

The seeds of smart working were already planted in the neighborhood in 2015, when Talent Garden, a renowned European co-working network focusing on digital technology and creative entrepreneurship, opened a new, 91,493-square-foot campus in Via Calabiana. Recovered from a former printing house, the venue was developed by the architectural studio Carlo Ratti Associati favoring open spaces that could enhance interaction, social dynamics and exchange of ideas.

Hosting 400 professionals, including freelancers, start-ups, agencies and large corporations, the campus’ appeal has quickly grown also thanks to its aperitif area, rooftop terrace with outdoor activities, swimming pool, mini cinema and its three event venues, granting a total capacity of 1,000 people. The offer is completed by the TAG Innovation School, which focuses on teaching emerging, digital-oriented skills, and TheFabLab laboratory, making high-end professional machineries — as industrial robots, 3-D printers and laser cutters — accessible to start-ups and freelancers.

Talent Garden Calabiana.

Talent Garden Calabiana  Courtesy Photo

Another industrial estate recovered in the area is the 64,583-square-foot Fabbrica Orobia 15 venue, which hosts photographic and art exhibits, fashion shows and shootings, conventions and cultural events.

“We want to maintain the quality bar of the events we host high, so the location is not open to any project. This approach penalized us at the beginning… but now we’re seeing the results,” said Riccardo Maresca, general manager of the location, who also belongs to the family owning the property since the Fifties.

Under Maresca’s intuition, at the end of 2015 the long-dismissed venue, which once served as industrial pole to distribute Mars bars in Italy, was converted into a multifunctional location. Maresca also decided to keep the original interior as the “mission is to make the structure relive in the present.”

Part of Fabbrica Orobia's setting for Annie Leibovitz's "Women: New Portraits" exhibition.

Part of Fabbrica Orobia’s setting for Annie Leibovitz’s “Women: New Portraits” exhibition.  Courtesy Photo

Among the events hosted at Fabbrica Orobia 15, the itinerary Wunder Mrkt market is becoming a hot monthly weekend appointment for the Milanese hipster population with its blend of vintage shopping, DJ sets, workshops and street food.

Wunder MRKT at Fabbrica Orobia 15.

Wunder Mrkt at Fabbrica Orobia 15  Courtesy Photo

A similar combination of elements is at the core of the Madama Hostel & Bistrot, opened in June 2015. The venue includes an association named Ohibò, which schedules cultural initiatives, theatre performances and musical events, including secret shows of international guests such as Green Day, Daddy G from Massive Attack and Vinicio Capossela.

“We had Ohibò since 2012 and when we knew the property wanted to rent the space above, we panicked about the new lodger setting new rules and retraining our freedom,” said Antonella Ciliberto, one of the founding and managing partners. “The most important thing was to save the Ohibò, so we became the new lodger.”

Previously, the location was a police station — “madama” in Milanese slang — but “considering the layout and the division of the halls, turning it into a hostel seemed appropriate.” The facility, which can accommodate around 60 guests, is embellished with art walls designed by Italian street talents and showcases art and photography exhibitions every 90 days.

Madama Hostel & Bistrot.

Madama Hostel & Bistrot  Courtesy Photo

“From now until September, most guests are foreigners aged 18 to 25 years, while during the winter we host more Italian workers and students, in town to attend classes at the Talent Garden school,” said Ciliberto, adding that people appreciate the place for its value for money, its authentic, intimate appeal and for being well-connected to the city center. Its bistrot is another key asset, also attracting employees working in the area for lunch breaks and a Milanese crowd during the weekend.

Madama Hostel & Bistrot.

Madama Hostel & Bistrot  Courtesy Photo

Another hot appointment in the district is the Social Music City. Running from the end of April to September, the initiative contributes to the requalification of the 107,639-square-foot railway yard Scalo Romana staging a range of electro music concerts featuring renowned international DJs such as Fatboy Slim, Jamie Jones, Luciano, Loco Dice, Nina Kraviz and Ricardo Villalobos, among others.

Social Music City.

Social Music City  Courtesy Photo