Pirellians in Milan

There are cities that are simply made to be empty (like Rome, which is so beautiful when deserted), and others that make no sense at all without any people in it, like Milan. The pandemic has proven this to us: Milan is at its best when it is busy welcoming people, rising to the occasion when queues are forming, into what in today’s social distancing times are referred to as “gatherings”.

Home life Pirellians in Milan
Pirellians in Milan

Rest assured, arriving in Milan used to be somewhat frightening. It was a grey metropolis (grey because of the fog, before global warming); and it was full of people, busy people to be exact, who came to Milan filled with hopes and dreams, people who were in quite a hurry. The “Pirellone” (the Pirelli skyscraper) towering in front of the Central Railway Station welcomed the new arrivals like an Egyptian or Assyrian-Babylonian temple and it has always been a beacon: a beacon and a landmark for the newcomers needing to find their bearings in the city of progress when it was still foggy. On 2nd July 1956, the two brothers Alberto and Piero Pirelli broke ground on the site of the existing factory. Designed by Gio Ponti and featuring a reinforced concrete core by Pierluigi Nervi, two Lombard exports. The oft-imitated skyscraper (see the Pan Am building in New York for instance) that took just four years to build, was described by Ponti in Domus as “finished form, understated elegance, representativeness, expressiveness, illusiveness, technical updating, a tribute to labour and incorruptibility”. A winning combination that constitutes an ode to Lombardy.

And it is still worth remembering the other appointments with history associated with the Pirellian beacon today. For instance, in 1970 when the Italian regions were born, Piero Bassetti was elected the first president of Lombardy (he was the region’s “President” as opposed to the current-day “Governor”, and the word “Region” took the definite article in Italian) and set out to find a building in keeping with his region, which bore more importance than any other from the get-go. With the region’s distinctive flair for design, the choice fell on a logo, a brand, that did not feature coats of arms, crowns or towers like the others, but instead bore a simple symbol, the “Camunian Rose”, that became a symbol of hard-working people, designed by a consortium of Milanese and global minds, including Bruno Munari and Bob Noorda among others, who represented the Milan of those years.

Back in 1957, construction began on Italy’s first underground in Milan: the “Red Line”, designed by Franco Albini and Franca Helg, with matching graphics and lettering by Noorda, and ingenious inventions better to transport people: an alphabet was invented for the occasion, with a matte finish to ensure maximum visibility; a continuous red band follows the entire route guiding travellers to the trains and towards the exits. The idea was copied in the subways of New York and Sao Paulo (“I was always studying underground; my co-workers nicknamed me ‘The Mole’,” explained Noorda). It was in the same year that the Milanese started shopping in Italy’s first ever supermarket, Esselunga, which had opened in Viale Regina Giovanna. Because people produce, earn and consume (as the old adage goes: “I work, I earn, I pay, I demand”). Those were the years of the Carosello TV advertising show (also ’57) that announced it was bedtime for many Italian children and Milan’s Piazza del Duomo was turned into a commercial dream by massive billboards. In Steno’s film “Susanna tutta panna”, the opening credits scrolled across Piazza del Duomo and its billboards. The film was also a tribute to Milanese humanity: an industrialist fails to sleep at night because he can’t figure out the recipe for a famous cream cake. Every city gets the dreams it deserves. The Pirellone also became a huge showcase for Pirelli products: not just tyres, but also hot water bottles, inflatable dinghies and tennis balls, among others. A beacon, a showcase and dreams: this is Milan in a nutshell.

In its shadow lie dreams for everyone, both for those born and bred in Milan as well as for outsiders, such as the young Apulian sex workers putting down roots under the skyscrapers of the yet unbuilt Porta Nuova district in Dino Risi’s 1973 film “How Funny Can Sex Be?”. And they must have unwittingly trodden on Pirelli rubber in their heels in the brand new underground as well. Indeed, the bubble-top rubber floor is another Pirelli discovery. It is still there, at every stop of the “Red Line”. It was the first case of rubber flooring used in undergrounds across Europe. As the story has it, a sample was placed in front of the entrance to the Pirelli factory to test the strength of the new compound. It was immune even to women’s heels.

Indeed, heels hold a special place in Pirelli’s albeit very manly identity. Effortless avant-garde in much less easy-going times were the red heels worn by Carl Lewis, the fastest man on earth, walking on water in Annie Leibovitz’s photographs for the famous and scandalous “Power is nothing without control” campaign in 1994. It was at least twenty years ahead of today’s identity and rights issues. Equally avant-garde was the Pirelli calendar that over the years morphed into a truly chic product for devotees. Created in 1964, the famous nudes abandoned in 2018 for a retake of Alice in Wonderland interpreted by models of colour only, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Ru Paul and Naomi Campbell.

In short, from the heights of the Pirellone to the depths of the underground, the Pirelli brand has accompanied and monitored the dimension of Milan, the city of human beings par excellence, throughout the 20th Century. After all, “Power is nothing without control” is a claim that would work just as well for all the Milanese.

Milan is no New York, but its sheer flow of human beings is quite similar, and someone may remember that when the city was advancing and enterprising before Covid, young people were rushing to go there, Rome was a little resentful and many Italians were in two minds whether to admire or envy the city which the Expo had helped to recover economically, but which appeared to be “bullying” the rest of Italy somewhat. This was also due to that particular attitude, that touch of presumptuous self-confidence that the Milanese tend to exude when everything is going well.

Then Milan was knocked out completely by the pandemic and it seemed almost like a divine punishment, the wrath of the gods. Even its development model was put into question. Fewer skyscrapers and more greenery, they say nowadays, and Pirelli’s headquarters in Bicocca look like a kind of dystopia come true, like the office of the future surrounded by plenty of greenery. I was reminded that this is solid reality and not a dream by the swab I got in a very efficient clinic before being allowed in. “What if it had been positive?”, I asked. “In that case, we would have sent you out from the other door right away,” the diligent nurse informed me. It was a trapdoor worthy of Scrooge McDuck. They told me that the clinic was open to all employees, who could be treated and tested at will, and this is something else that one wouldn’t expect. Or maybe it is what one should expect from a major Milanese-global corporation. But Milan is not Silicon Valley, although it may look like a Google and Facebook-style campus, with all that greenery, its transparent buildings, even mindfulness and yoga courses and a canteen overlooking wide pastures (but in the garden of the old and glorious Bicocca degli Arcimboldi, the Italian word for “Duty” printed throughout the canteen reminds us that this is still Milan and not Palo Alto after all).

Here, among the sparkling futuristic buildings and the Mediaeval castle, is where the Pirellians flourish. Only a handful of great business stories have given rise to a neologism and a tribe. There were “the Olivettians”, that sound like a Cistercian order, and then there are the Pirellians, perhaps less famous, but defining a certain type of humanity nonetheless, one that is Milanese yet international, linked to tradition but also to innovation, with its gaze set on foreign countries and yet firmly rooted here in their own dimension, one which is human above all. The Masters, the people who teach their experience to the younger generations, stand out in the Order of the Pirellians. And of course, in this mixed cathedral of ancient and modern, there is a library, one that is open to all employees, containing novels, art catalogues and children’s books as well as business texts.

Instead of a dog, it is guarded by an enormous rubbery cat called Meo Romeo, designed by Bruno Munari, who also invented toys while he was busy creating the emblem of Lombardy. “An artist must leave behind all romantic aspects and become an active man among men, informed on current techniques, materials and working methods”, he wrote. Munari designed a host of creations for Pirelli, including armed foam toys, the cat and the monkey “Zizi” that won the Compasso d’Oro award. In 1952, he was named the artistic director of “Pigomma” toys. The artist himself was amazed by the sheer size of Pirelli: “I would like to encourage this production but how can I, in that huge aggregation of large factories, as large as a town, where huge interests are in motion? I, Bruno Munari, weighing in at just forty-eight kilograms, do not want to interfere with all your hard work, so I will just wait here with my cat on the corner, joined by a bunch of children who are asking me whether they could have one for Christmas.”

There is a stark contrast between the technological multinational and its playful and very human side. So, in the imposing hall of the company headquarters, there is a rubber mixer on full display, as if it were a work of pop art, standing there all shiny and red like a toy, to remind us where we come from, even today that Pirelli is focusing on the future. The future is one of very special tyres for the electric cars that one day will drive themselves (by the way, it appears that one of the biggest problems of new electric cars is their excessively fast acceleration that consumes the tyre tread, proving once more that power is nothing without control).

And the mixer is right underneath something else that they don’t have in Silicon Valley: a tower, an enormous cooling tower, placed like a large objet trouvé enshrined in the complex designed by Vittorio Gregotti. And outside, in the rubber district, to sweeten the whole deal like a funny quip, stands the Haribo edible gum factory. There are so many symbols of what Pirelli once was. Just browse the legendary Pirelli magazine, in which Buzzati, Montale and Gadda wrote, and the reportage by Mulas, Roiter, Sellerio and the illustrations by Guttuso and Mendini. In the archives are three linear kilometres of documents, photos and posters, where the best Milanese minds drafted the blueprint of the economic boom. The most recent advertisement for the famous Cinturato is a work of art worthy of being exhibited at the Pirelli Hangar Bicocca (but let’s not tell its rigorous director Vicente Todolì).

Indeed, there is also a museum, and that is something they definitely don’t have in Silicon Valley. The PirelliHangar Bicocca is a gigantic cavern where trains were once made and now major exhibitions are held, all free of charge, which is quite a rarity for Milanese and Italian private museums. Between a Chinese and an African artist here are the Seven Heavenly Palaces by Anselm Kiefer. Seven watchtowers over history, standing there like little Pirellone towers and observing the goings-on below, between the city and the factory, and above all humanity: the humanity of Milan and the world.

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