Peter Eisenman does not build often, but—often—when he does, it’s worth taking note. Now 87 years old, the influential architect, scholar, theorist, and teacher has an unusual portfolio of completed projects that runs the gamut from his radical early houses of the 1960s and ’70s to an Arizona football stadium that’s hosted the Super Bowl (2006) and the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. His latest, a condominum building, may not be as groundbreaking or large or moving as others, but, as his first completed project in Italy—a country in which he’s spent countless sojourns studying its architecture, from Palladio to Piacentini—it has significant meaning attached to it nonetheless.
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Among the most important architects whose work he explored was Giuseppe Terragni, the Rationalist who built under the Fascists. “Eisenman reintroduced Terragni to a generation of Italian architects,” says Lorenzo Degli Esposti. The Milan-based Degli Esposti did his thesis on Eisenman and worked for a brief period in his New York office. In late 2009, when a Milan developer, with whom he’s collaborated on smaller housing projects, asked him to bring in a “big name” architect for a statement building in the city, the young architect suggested his mentor.
The Residenze Carlo Erba condominium project is emerging at the same time that Milan has seen a rash of brazen new residential and commercial buildings by international architects—Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, and Arata Isozaki at the CityLife district northwest of the center where the fairgrounds once stood, and Pelli Clark Pelli, KPF, and Stefano Boeri at Porta Nuova due north of the Duomo. Unlike those architects, who introduced ultrathin or spiraling glass towers and vertical forests to the city, Eisenman and Degli Esposti, an architectural historian in his own right, along with New York–based architect Guido Zuliani, a third partner on the project, drew upon Milan’s unrivaled stock of exquisite but eclectic palazzi in designing Carlo Erba.
That’s not to say their new building slips quietly into the background. “Eisenman mines the physical and cultural archaeology of a place,” states London-based Matteo Cainer, another former employee and devoted acolyte. That process of analysis results in multilayered and often highly complex assemblies.
Yet the Milan project stands out among his buildings—simpler in some respects, more daring in others. Eisenman calls it a “mature” work. Rather than conform to the street wall, the audaciuosly curving structure snakes 492 feet through its one-acre triangular site, where an office building once stood, disrupting the angular grid of this quiet residential neighborhood on the border of the Città Studi, Milan’s university district.
“I’ve never done a curved building before. I didn’t necessarily want to do a curved building,” admits Eisenman about his pragmatic yet bold response to the brief. “But in order to get the number of units they wanted within the setbacks and restrictions, this was the form that came out.”
The serpentine structure employs traditional construction—reinforced-concrete columns and structural slabs with bearing walls at the six cores along the length of the building. The only large steel members form the open frame atop the building. One might associate it with the frame on the Casa del Fascio in Como, Terragni’s 1936 masterwork that Eisenman spent decades analyzing, an obsessive research that culminated in the 2003 book Giuseppe Terragni: Transformations, Decompositions, Critiques. (Terragni has five buildings in Milan, designed with Pietro Lingeri, including the famous Casa Rustici  on the other side of town.) But Eisenman insists the open frame here was inspired not by Terragni—not even Le Corbusier—but by the gridded scaffold of his own Wexner Center for the Arts (1989).
But, of course, “Eisenman is interested in precedents,” says Degli Esposti. For a specific reference in the city, the architects point to another celebrated residential building, Giovanni Muzio’s Ca’ Brutta (1923), which also famously curves. Like the Ca’ Brutta, Carlo Erba has a tripartite division of its facade, starting with a travertine base. Midway up the building, at the fourth level, the piano nobile—originally intended to be entirely glass but now a mix of solid and transparent walls behind a glass balustrade—recedes slightly, forming a continuous balcony. The top portion, or attico, is Carrara marble. “Milan has a layered look,” says Eisenman. At Carlo Erba, the transition from the warm, rough travertine to the cool, smooth marble is subtle but significant.
Throughout the building, there is a play between structure and volume, solid and void. But it is a series of straight lines—even within this curving form—that unites everything, extending also to the landscape: on the long, bulging, east face of the building, the windows are pushed forward; on the opposite, mainly concave face, they recede. “On one side the grid prevails, on the other it is excavated,” explains Degli Esposti. The southern end of the building adeptly incorporates the exterior walls of an earlier structure that faces the historic Piazza Carlo Erba, from which the project gets its name.
The snaking form comprises four blocks distributed between the six cores that reach as high as nine stories and step down several floors to create two- or three-story “urban villas,” as Degli Esposti calls them, within the open steel framework at the top. Elevators and stairs within the cores service just one to three apartments per floor, eliminating corridors within the 80-unit building, which includes a basement and additional sub-levels for parking and mechanicals. Like Alvar Aalto’s similarly undulating Baker House dormitory at MIT, many of the units at Carlo Erba, though obviously much bigger, are wedge-shaped. Here, however, without long corridors, the sense of the curve is only somewhat palpable from the interiors (left completely bare for occupants to fit out). It becomes intense once you step onto the balconies or upper terraces.
The form of the curve developed in part as a gesture to connect the public garden across the street to this building, creating a nontraditional open courtyard. But city officials had other ideas. “The urban landscape commission understood why our building didn’t conform to the street, but it insisted there be walls on the street,” recalls Eisenman. An early requirement of the commission for two-story walls around the property eventually got reduced to a 10-foot-high fence.
Eisenman’s long-awaited Italian project faced other obstacles, notably the construction halt from 2013 to 2016 when the original contractor went bankrupt. Now over 70 percent sold, move-ins began in July. A stark contrast with the glitzy towers of CityLife and Porta Nuova—those new districts built almost entirely from scratch—the Carlo Erba building is the perfect insertion into this Novecento neighborhood and Eisenman just the right “big name” architect to design it. The completed building is a testament that architecture can be highly contextual and still extremely exciting. For Eisenman, long a polemical thought leader less known for building than for analyzing and debating architectural issues, it indicates an evolution. Says the architect, ironically or not, “I’m a traditionalist.”
Eisenman Architects, 41 West 25th Street, New York, New York 10010 USA; T. (1) 212.6451400
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Structural: Studio d’Ingegneria Associato Ardolino, Bolzano;
Mechanical and electrical: Sistema Group Engineering, Montichiari (BS) (preliminary phase); A.T. Advanced Tecnologies, Rome (execution phase); Studio MGM, Gallarate (execution phase)
Italiana Costruzioni (Rome): phase 2 and construction completion; CLE - Cooperativa Lavoratori Edili (Bolzano): phase 1
Maurizio Montagna, Milan www.mauriziomontagna.com
Underground waterproof retaining walls by Zementol, Bressanone BZ
Manufacturer of any structural components unique to this project: Frame structure: steel frame by MAP s.p.a., Corsico MI
Masonry: Alveolater P800 brick blocks (perimeter walls, all the floors)
Metal panels: White metal sheets (4th floor - piano nobile; kitchens of 5th and 6th floors) by Lilli Systems, Giano dell’Umbria PG
Rainscreen: Marmi Conti di Del Vescovo e Leoni s.n.c., Rome:
EIFS, ACM, or other: Rigid panels Rockwool, Ventirock Duo, 10 cm
Built-up roofing: Vapor barrier
Elastomeric: Waterproofing elastomeric membrane Flexo S6 by Polyglass s.p.a. Mapei Group, Ponte di Piave TV (terraces, loggias, balconies)
Tile/shingles: Multiquartz by Marazzi Group s.r.l., Sassuolo MO (terraces, loggias, balconies)
Wood frame: Professionale 68 by Falegnameria Aresi, Treviglio BG (Units windows)
Metal frame: Metal frame windows by Lilli Systems, Giano dell’Umbria PG (Common spaces windows)
Glass: 5/5.1 glass pane + 15 mm Gas Argon + 4/4.1 acoustic low emission glass pane
Other: Greenhouses in metal frame and glass by Lilli Systems, Giano dell’Umbria PG
Entrances: Renovation of the existing historical metal door (Main entrance door);
Metal doors: Security doors Cilinder.70 by Gasperotti s.r.l., Rovereto TN (Units access doors)
Wood doors: Reversa by Bertolotto s.p.a., Torre San Giorgio CN (Units interior doors)
Sliding doors: Scorrevole a scomparsa TR by Bertolotto s.p.a., Torre San Giorgio CN (Units interior doors)
Fire-control doors, security grilles: Fire-control doors by Puertas Padillas S.L., El Albujon, Cartagena, Murica, Espana
Special doors: Magnum by Novoferm Schievano s.r.l., Camposampiero PD
Upswinging doors, other: Pratic by De Nardi s.r.l., San Fior TV
Locksets: Biblo Tecno Design by Comit Maniglie s.r.l., Lumezzane BS
Closers: Biblo Tecno Design by Comit Maniglie s.r.l., Lumezzane BS
Exit devices: Biblo Tecno Design by Comit Maniglie s.r.l., Lumezzane BS
Pulls: Biblo Tecno Design by Comit Maniglie s.r.l., Lumezzane BS
Acoustical ceilings: Plasterboard panels
Suspension grid: Metal frame
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Boiserie, counterceiling and inspection compartments doors: custom wood panels by Allestimenti Portanuova s.r.l., Milan (common spaces)
Paints and stains: CSN Impresa di finiture edili, Alessandria
Wall coverings: Plaster
Floor and wall tile: Listone 140 Listone Giordano, natural oak finishing, by Margaritelli, Miralduolo di Torgiano PG (all the rooms but the bathrooms)
Special interior finishes unique to this project: Boiserie, counterceiling and inspection compartments doors: custom wood panels by Allestimenti Portanuova s.r.l., Milan (common spaces)
Interior ambient lighting: Continous LED Osram Linear Light Flex 800 Warm White by Simes, Corte Franca BS
Exterior: by Simes, Corte Franca BS:
Dimming system or other lighting controls: ZIP80 by Sunbreak s.r.l., Cusignana di Giavera del Montello TV
Elevators/escalators: MonoSpace 500 by Kone, Pero MI
sink, wc, bidet: Sfera54 by Ceramica Catalano s.p.a., Fabrica di Roma VT;
Energy management or building automation system: Heating/cooling radiant floor powered by heat pumps;
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability: Geothermal energy system.
Add any additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project: Electrical sub-contractor: Pierre s.r.l., Martinengo BG