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The rise and fall of Northern Italy’s suburbia from the perspective of a modernist masterpiece
Villa Clerici, an elaborate architectural folie from the late sixties and a masterpiece of local architect Carlo Moretti, once stood proudly along the highway leading to the regional capital. It has now been abandoned for more than four decades. Deserted by the heirs of its first inhabitants, today it cuts an obscure presence in the twilight landscape, sharply contrasting with the glittering lights of the nearby mall, multiplex and the hectic traffic on the surrounding flyovers.
At the same time, in Cusago, a huge public outcry greeted the controversial decision to pull down one of the surviving detached houses designed in the seventies by world famous architect Renzo Piano – the last Italian winner of the Pritzker Prize – to make space for some generic residential development.
But the oblivion threatening Moretti’s villa and Piano’s house is just the tip of the iceberg of a widespread phenomenon which is reshaping the suburban landscape of northern Italy. From the turn of the millennium to the economic crisis of 2008, a cycle of development has come to an end. It started in the early fifties, right after the end of post-war reconstruction, running alongside the fluctuating fortunes of a wealthy, cultivated middle-class of professionals and entrepreneurs, who fled what were then dilapidated city centres to settle in the near countryside.
It was in the same years that Levittown was constructed in the United States. Its conceptual father, William Levitt, claimed it was ‘providing families with the domestic component of the American Dream, just as General Motors provided them with the vehicular one’. While the Italian bourgeoisie preferred sporty Alfa Romeo and luxurious Lancia to copy-pasted Chevy, Pontiac and Oldsmobile, so too they yearned for a house of the same exclusiveness and peculiarity. Hence, contrary to what happened in Levittown, the new part of the city which was being born in Italy ‘expressed an assortment of individual desires more than new physical configurations, a sort of large urban continuum made unit by unit’. […]