Pirellone: A brief history of Milan's Pirelli skyscraper

This symbol of Milan and of the Italian economic boom, it competed for the title of “tallest building” with the "Madonnina" (the golden Madonna on Milan's Duomo Cathedral)

The Pirelli skyscraper, which the Milanese, with great affection, call "the Pirellone", for 35 years was Italy's tallest building. To this day, it still remains one of the world's tallest reinforced concrete skyscrapers. The “Pirellone” reaches 127 in height. Of its 31 storeys, 2 are below ground. Since it was first built, it became one of Milan's symbols and, more generally speaking, of Italy's economic renaissance. The building was designed in 1950, and built between 1956 and 1961. It crowned one of Italy's best economic periods of growth. The Pirelli skyscraper stands in a very central area of Milan, just in front of Milan's Central Railway station (Milano Centrale). It's impossible to miss.

For almost 50 years, the Pirelli building was Milan's tallest skyscraper. Its record was beaten only in 2010, by the Lombardy Building (Palazzo Lombardia), with its 161 metres (a record then beaten in 2011 by the UniCredit Tower, which is Italy’s tallest building with its 231 metres). The history of Milan's “Pirellone” is really fascinating, and for many reasons too: the project is certainly ambitious, greatly impacting Milan, while also influencing world architecture. It is also remembered for the strange and unfortunate crash that occurred in 2002.

The Pirelli Skyscraper Project

The Pirelli Group commissioned the construction of this very tall building (hence the name). More specifically, Piero and Alberto Pirelli decided that it was time to raise Pirelli's new headquarters buildings right where their factories had already been built, although they were destroyed during the Second World War. The Project was appointed to Gio Ponti, Giuseppe Valtolina, Pier Luigi Nervi, Antonio Fornaroli, Alberto Rosselli, Giuseppe Rinardi and Egidio Dell’Orto.

Gio Ponti followed the design phases, while Giuseppe Valtolina focused on the project's more structural aspect, collaborating with Pier Luigi Nervi, Arturo Danusso, Piero Locatelli and Guglielmo Meardi. The numerous engineers and architects were necessary, due to the particular features of this building. Its reduced height-width ratio, in fact, greatly exposed the structure to the wind’s force. A scheme made of four large central pillars and seven triangles placed at the extreme sides was therefore built. The structure was then made with reinforced concrete, with the benefits and limits of this material always in mind. This self-evident example of Italian rationalism was emulated by the architects Schwebes and Schoszberger, when they built their Telefunken skyscraper in Berlin. Among the other skyscrapers inspired by Milan's Pirellone, there's New York's MetLife Building, Basel's Lonza Group skyscraper, and Barcellona's Banco Atlantico tower.

Gio Ponti imagined the project as a luminous crystal, reflecting the sun's light onto the nearby streets. As he, himself, declared, «my idea is that the actual buildings radiate light, lighting up the nearby roads, while characterizing the nighttime, luminously».

It was already quite evident, during the design phase, that the Pirelli tower would have easily overwhelmed Milan's Madonnina (located at 108.5 metres a.s.l.). A Milanese tradition that goes back a long time wanted the Madonnina of Milan's Duomo Cathedral to be Milan’s highest point. This is why very tall buildings, like the Branca Tower and the Velasca one, respectively stopped at 108 and 106 metres. The first actual building to exceed the Duomo's spire was the Breda Tower, in Piazza Repubblica, with its 117 metres. The "Pirellone", and its 127 metres, towered over the Madonnina, even more. This is why Giovanni Battista Montini – the future Pope Paul VI – decided to place a copy of the Madonnina on the Pirellone. The copy only measured 85 cm while the original Madonnina reached 4 metres in height, though. This tradition also continued with Milan’s other tallest skyscrapers, also with a copy of the Madonnina, like the Lombardy Building (Palazzo Lombardia), the UniCredit Tower and the Isozaki one.

The Construction

The project design phase ended in 1950. The construction phase was appointed to the Bonomi firm, which also collaborated with the Comolli and Silce firms. On July 12, 1956, the building's foundation stone was laid in the area already owned by Pirelli, but bombed during the war. It was It took only 4 years to complete, and on April 4, 1960, Milan's "Pirellone" was finally inaugurated. Overall, 20 thousand cubic metres of concrete and 4,000 tonnes of steel were used for the project. The 31 storeys have 710 steps, with 24 thousand square metres of internal area, and a weight of 60 thousand tonnes. The structure can oppose the force created by the wind. This is possible because the Pirelli skyscraper has central pillars that are 2 metres wide at the bottom of the building, which gradually reduce in width gradually reaching 50 cm, at the very top of the building. The facade was built with simple materials, which give the idea of Ponti crystal being used. These materials include glass, aluminum and steel. The reinforced concrete structure is covered with ceramic tiles.

The airplane crash and the memorial

During the 70's, the costs to manage the skyscraper began to overwhelm the Pirelli Group. Therefore, in 1978, the Group decided to sell the building to the Lombardy Region body, which transformed it into its Regional Council headquarters, after works carried out by the architect Bod Noorda. April 19, 2002 is one of the dates to remember in the building’s history. At 5.47 p.m., a small private airplane crashed into the building, smashing against the 26th floor. The crash caused three victims: the pilot and two Lombardy Region employees, Anna Maria Rapetti and Alessandra Santonocito died. Since the facade was restored, the 26th floor hosts a memorial of the crash.