Ing. Ebi Maria Grassi, Gruppo Unipol, Interview, UnipolSai,

"Today Unipol Group manages a heritage of valuable, high quality properties: it is our great ambition to re-launch and restore buildings of particular architectural and historical value, symbol of a collective memory."

I encounter Eng. Ebi Maria Grassi, responsible of UnipolSai Assicurazioni real estate and temporary rental management initiatives, and had the chance to talk about the ambitious, important redevelopment program that, limited in the range of action to the city of Milan, currently concerns Unipol’s properties of great historical, symbolic and architectural value, true icons of the city and the national panorama.

1. Talking of Milan, Unipol Group has embraced a precise program of revival of landmarks, which represent extremely significant moments of the Lombard and Italian scenario, based on a careful respect for tradition and, at the same time, open to innovative inputs. Do you believe that these two targets, respect for the past and projection towards a future of progress and innovation, can be balanced?

Today Unipol Group manages a heritage of valuable, high quality properties: it is our great ambition to re-launch and restore buildings of particular architectural and historical value, symbol of a collective memory. The approach we developed through these projects, and in particular I refer to the current renewal of Torre Galfa, pursues an idea of requalification and modernization in respect to the existing, identifying internal uses relevant for the necessities of our time. 

The old destination for office use of the late 1950s now foresees a new mix of services, which together create a multifunctional tower. Galfa will host a hotel, temporary rental residences, holiday apartments, for short stays, and on the roof-top a restaurant with a panoramic view, open to the city of Milan. At street level it will be more connected to its citizens, rethought to live 24 hours a day, thanks to the gym on the ground floor and the restaurant on the top. The idea is to enhance the historical iter, both architectural and cultural, that is linked to these important presences, maintaining their original aesthetic and formal language, updating distinguishing specific functions, in order to make them again protagonists in the urban fabric. As well for Torre Velasca, over the last few years, we have promoted numerous cultural initiatives, which embrace the world of art, music, architecture and design, aimed at enhancing the history and culture of Italy, together with the willingness to open and make accessible one of the most iconic signs of Milan to its citizens. The tower had not been inhabited for years and with the formula of Domux Home we propose a new concept of hospitality, which provides medium-short stays, for those passing through, traveling, or for residents who want to enjoy the luxury of living in this refined environment, which dominates the city’s skyline. I believe that until now we have managed to find a good balance between the demands required to respect an important past and the program of revitalization.

2.  I would like you to tell me a little about the paths and ideals, according to  which Unipol intends to re-stitch or intensify a dialogue of shared participation with the city through strong entities that over the years have lost the emblematic role they represented.

To achieve these results, we rely on valuing the past projected towards new functions adapted to a changing society. In the specific case of Torre Velasca, the highly characterizing notes of the tower, its refined engineering technology, experimentation and architectural language, were the important features which we could not ignore in a program of requalification. A similar path was tackled for Torre Galfa: the renovation took place in absolute respect of the formal lexicon adopted in 1956 by Melchiorre Bega, a compositional, geometric clarity that immediately provoked comments of admiration from one of the most influential architects in the Italian scene. For respect to the current needs, we were not able to maintain the destination as offices, which in the ‘50s had proudly hosted the flourishing entrepreneurship of Milan. The building, however, has returned full recognizable in the skyline, guaranteeing the efficiency, comfort and safety that current regulations require. It will become again milestone of Milanese architecture, catching the admiration of the cultural and artistic world, as in the past it captured the attention of the director Michelangelo Antonioni, with 'La Notte'.

3. This 'art and design laboratory', created in an emblematic container, like Torre Velasca, a tangible evidence of the courage to dare of its young architects, will be continued in another equally emblematic tower. Could it be a real encouragement for young people to express their own personality and identity?

Definitely. During this 'art and design workshop' we have created a synergetic collaboration with the main schools of Milan, NABA, Politecnico di Milano, IED, Scuola Politecnica di Design, offering the students the opportunity to learn more about the history of the Milanese architecture, in particular that of Torre Velasca. We thought that, taking into consideration the specific place and the ideals that led to its creation, the young could derive real stimuli to design objects of commercial value. The initiative has promoted, on one hand, lighting design products for the public space embraced by Torre Velasca, and on the other has allowed young creatives to get in touch with prestigious juries, receiving comments and advices on their works, helping them to have resonance in an extremely competitive context like that of contemporary design. It deserves to be emphasized that we wanted the winning lamps to be realized, developing prototypes to put into production in the near future. We understand how difficult it is for young people to start a professional activity and to be able to practice it with continuity, as the market has become more globalized and, therefore, more competitive. There is a tendency, then, very widespread to choose and punctually support the most famous and well-known names, not having the courage to risk with promising but not yet known young talents. Even if a famous designer or architect has a high cost, he remains a guarantee, a ‘brand’ for the final public, which will have to approve the project and it is not certainly easy to change this attitude, concerned only about getting a favorable response.
Organizing competitions like this, in an environment permeated by the revolutionary nature of the audacious BBPR firm, does not only mean revive the spirit inherent with Velasca but also give a support to those who don’t have yet much attention and deserve to be helped. The combination Velasca-BBPR and the incentives for worthy young students seems to me very pertinent and truly encouraging.

4. Milan is more and more protagonist on the international scene: with which agenda is Unipol Urban Up project looking at complementing this brilliant and demanding evolution?

The Unipol Group, in Milan, has a high concentration of properties and interests, and an investment plan that imposes high-level players, both in the consolidated urban fabric context, and in the secondary segments of the city. Urban Up and the real estate “brand” of Unipol Group are dedicated to redevelopment and innovation, based on the idea of sustainability, solidity, reliability, enhancement of the historical-artistic heritage, placing, side by side, concepts of evolution in the current market, trying to contextualize the projects, looking at the city’s urban and social fabric as a whole, with a vision of long or medium term regeneration or recovery. Skyscrapers, palaces, historic buildings regain the role as protagonists, through interventions that combine innovation and tradition, modernization and restoration. Urban Up has developed the enhancement of buildings as containers of inclusive community living, with an interesting calendar of cultural activities, connected with the world of art, music, and design, which support other important events envisaged by Milan, a particularly cultured demanding city that knows how to offer, with great generosity, inedited events of high quality and international standards.

5. How does your Group plan to help nationally and internationally young people in an extremely competitive sector like the architectural world?

We have launched a competition of ideas, in partnership with YAC, Young Architect Competition, open to anyone, anywhere in the world, who has not reached an age over 35, and I think it can be a good platform, to obtain visibility at an international level. We have reserved more than 27,000m2 to design a kindergarten, in the old ceramic factory of Laveno Mombello, owned by the Group, a very significant historical industrial container. The proposal allowed participants to discuss and talk about themes of re-use and enhancement of valuable abandoned buildings.
We believe that confrontation and dialogue between different cultures and experiences feed an extremely useful exchange between young people who will have to work in a world that has become increasingly globalized and that requires to understand different realities from the local environment in which they live.

6.  Culture is the basis of many projects that Unipol has promoted and is realizing. Can culture be a driver able to make the city active interlocutor and to mend an urban and social fabric, making it more compact?

Culture is a factor that can certainly help to find an intensely synergic relationship between building and city. Unipol has launched a series of inclusive cultural initiatives, with the intention of nurturing a pulsating vein in its redevelopment projects, reintegrating them into the urban fabric and encouraging a vital, stimulating exchange with the locals. Torre Velasca has hosted events, promoted with the captivating title of "Tower Tales", embracing art, sound, design and architecture, characterized by a strong historical depth for the stories they were able to tell. A collaboration with Blue Note, the legendary Milan jazz club, has given rise to numerous appointments with famous singers and musicians, such as Bill Frisell, Sarah Jane Morris and Roger Rota. The art installations, curated in the lower gallery of the tower, which provided an excellent open space for meetings and encounters with the public, involved Kaari Upson's video installation, "In Search of the Perfect Double" and the musical narrative of Will Benedict, "Men Were a Mistake", the video exhibition by Keith Sonnier, which, by concentrating clips and pieces of moving bodies, generated a sort of connection between the body and the surrounding architecture, and the debut of "Naked in the Morning” by Alexander May. The light installations of Ingo Maurer have been able to play a charismatic role, lighting the tower with strong appeal, creating a perfect moment to show to the city the rebirth of its historic landmark. A multitude of cultural narrative programs has brought life and rejuvenation to a forgotten area, reactivating it on urban and social scale.

7.  Is it crucial that the building, object of restyling, is an icon that has represented an important moment for the city or, even reusing containers of no particular value, can create moments of connective and inclusive sociality?

Moments of intense social inclusion and interaction, can be certainly created without discriminating the place chosen as an incubator. What must be considered crucial is to succeed with a recovery intervention to reactivate not only the container but possibly the neighboring area, causing a good public receptivity. As I have already said, we are inclined to support innovative cultural projects and initiatives capable of giving new life to spaces that have lost the leading role they played within the urban and social context.

8.  Someone said that building and readapting, inspired by the oxymoron 'Magical Realism', would be a necessary, appropriate approach that would help us to discover new alternative narrative paradigms and optimistic perspectives in the contemporary urban life. Do you share this opinion? 

Realism concerns the building’s constructive and rehabilitation sphere and it is an essential imperative that the technical data are solved with the utmost professionalism, in order to provide the most sustainable and liveable environment possible. If to logic and technical skills are added the ability to create moments of sharing and the capability to satisfy the needs of the final user, making him feel gratified for the environment proposed, well, then we can talk about an architecture at service of man and society.

9. A country and an example of regeneration in the international panorama that stimulates emulation.

Milan, in my opinion, has experienced in recent years a revival of its architectural heritage, which is adequate to the aspirations of a city willing to play an important role in the international scene. The city has not only dedicated itself to the restyling of its symbolic buildings, of the most significant presences, but it has also been able to support other highly valuable interventions such as the recovery of abandoned areas, moments of strategic value within a polycentric and regional geography, revitalizing the areas of concern in the respect of their characteristics and peculiarities, 


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