One of the most interesting experiences you can have when visiting big cities is the search for what we might call ‘metropolitan exoticism’: discovering new forms of sociality and city life, where the pleasure of the discovery of new itineraries is entwined with the original phenomena of acculturation specific to the urban fabric of each city. Itineraries that, in the case of Milan, no longer move towards the centre, but rather outward, to the outskirts of the city, where we find new cathedrals of culture no longer entrenched around the cathedral square, like Fondazione Prada and Hangar Bicocca. In Milan, for example, a few peripheral quarters (‘peripheral’ in the sense of having been plagued by social hardships or lack of services) are flourishing again and proudly establishing a new post-industrial identity: districts like the one north east of the city, along the road that once led to Venice, which, in the 1920s and 30s, incorporated villages like Crescenzago in the context of the rapid industrialisation of the countryside (Magneti Marelli, Siemens, AEM, et cetera), only to then hit a slump caused by the delocalisation of production in the 1980s and 90s. It is a ‘world’ rarely visited non-residents that I recently had the good fortune of getting to know better, my curiosity fully piqued, and that I now heartily recommend to anyone looking to discover the less flashy but now more dynamic potential of endlessly changing Milan.
Let’s start with a true cultural hub: Assab One, an independent space for contemporary art and easy to spot even from far away thanks to Nathalie Du Pasquier’s brightly coloured design for the facade along via Benadir. The 2,500-square-metre industrial building was a printery for forty years, and then left vacant in the 1990s: books, art catalogues and encyclopaedias were printed here for the world’s biggest publishing houses, and now, nemesis of production metamorphoses, it is a place for creating and displaying art. It is located just a short walk from the Cimiano metro station, in one of Milan’s most multiethnic quarters, along the via del Nord Est that is slated to undergo further redevelopment in the coming years.
The street is named after an African port city, Assab, and symbolises a place for meeting and exchange between different people, worlds and cultures. The cultural association was founded by Elena Quarestani to offer artists a shared space for work and expression and to give the public an opportunity to learn more about art in a place that fosters dialogue. For the exhibition Shapes and Shades, Chung Eun-Mo presented a combination of easel and wall paintings, with the latter then becoming part of the permanent collection. The Swiss artist Zilla Leutenegger and the Italian Claudia Losi participated in the project ‘1+1+1’, a series of multidisciplinary exhibitions mixing art, architecture and interior design. Assab One also hosts the studios of Studio Mumbai, Threes Production and FormaFantasma, which designed ‘Les capsules’ for the last Venice Biennale.
The real reason I discovered this neighbourhood is that it is home to so many studios and creative labs. In particular, two of the artists I represent live and work here: the young artist Federico Tosi has a studio in via Meucci, and the Korean painter Chung Eun-Mo, who moved to Milan after living in New York and Spoleto, lives and paints in a loft a short walk away.
The area is also home to via Berra, a timeless cobblestone street lined with eighteenth-century homes with beautiful inner courtyards. This street and the Romanesque church of Santa Maria Rossa are among the few remaining vestiges of the old village of Crescenzago. It is also a pleasure to walk through the nearby Trotter park and also visit the new Quartiere Adriano, a strong example of ‘green’ planning (and the streets and park of which are named after modern stars: via Tognazzi, Via Mastroianni, via Gassman, via De Curtis “Totò”, parco Franca Rame), where you will also find the ‘Matitone’, a former air-raid shelter that even the new wave of urbanisation was unable to knock down. If you have a bike, I also recommend the Naviglio Martesana bike path, a pretty route along an astonishing fifteenth-century waterwork, up to the hydroelectric power plant of Trezzo d’Adda, a fine example of eclectic industrial architecture dating to 1906.
For a good Milanese lunch in the summer, I suggest the cool of the arbour of the restaurant San Filippo Neri at viale Monza 220. If you are visiting in the winter, I recommend Cargo, in via Meucci, a vast emporium in the former Ovomaltina factory (where Primo Levi worked as a chemist), complete with restaurant and on-site parking.