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A contemporary celebration: 12 designs shaping modern Italy

Audacious, sleek, and playfully chic — we celebrate contemporary Italian design and the cutting-edge creatives behind it: pioneers of architecture, interiors and fashion who are reshaping the Italian landscape to give rustic a modern makeover.

By Julia Buckley
Published 2 May 2019, 08:35 BST, Updated 22 Jul 2021, 12:24 BST
Bosco Verticale, Milan
Bosco Verticale, Milan.
Photograph by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Organic architecture: Bosco Verticale, Milan

Milan’s ‘vertical forest’ is a ‘green’ housing development in a literal sense: two bushy apartment blocks in the futuristic Porta Nuova business with trees and plants sprouting out of them from every angle. Not just pretty, they’re also ecologically sound,  being energy-saving and carbon dioxide-absorbing.

Porto Antico, Genoa.
Photograph by Alamy

Italy’s newest old port: Porto Antico, Genoa

On completion of his ambitious Porto Antico regeneration project in 1992, Renzo Piano hailed the city of this birth, Genoa, as “one of the most beautiful cities in the world”. The architect had overseen a remarkable transformation of a previously decrepit industrial area, blighted by ugly flyovers and cut off from Europe’s largest medieval city centre, into what’s been dubbed ‘the square on the Mediterranean’. 

This chic, modern district — created to mark the 500th anniversary of Genoa-born Christopher Columbus’s first landing in the Americas — is home to the Genoa Aquarium (Europe’s largest), which sits on the harbourfront like a row of shipping containers; the Biosphere, a tropical forest inside a glass sphere floating on the water; and the glass-fronted Maritime Museum. Then there’s the Bigo, a panoramic lift, hoisted up to a height of 130ft and rotated 360 degrees on one of six monumental white arms cantilevered over the sea — like a mechanical flower that hasn’t quite bloomed (or, rather, like the port cranes it was inspired by). Along with what looks like a mini Sydney Opera House beside it, events space Piazza delle Feste, it’s become a new Genoese landmark. 

Tourists may flock to the Porto Antico for its attractions, but locals come for the passeggiata (evening stroll) or for dining with top-floor views at the Eataly Genova foodhall.

But it’s more than all that. As Piano says, Porto Antico has “re-established [Genoa’s] link to the water”, delivering the city of seafarers back to the sea and giving Genoa back its soul. Piano’s next project is to be the replacement of the city’s Morandi Bridge, which tragically collapsed last August. His elegant, steel-and-concrete design — white, minimalist, supported by tall piers at regular intervals — is expected to be complete by April 2020.

Ara Pacis, Rome.
Photograph by Alamy

Living history: Ara Pacis, Rome

Built alongside the Tiber between 13 BC and 9 BC to celebrate Emperor Augustus’s conquests abroad, the Ara Pacis is a sculpted altar with a processional frieze depicting the imperial family. Architect Richard Meier’s 2006 museum to house it — a modernist steel, glass, travertine and plaster box on the edge of the Tiber — has created a superb interplay between past and present. Visitors can take a virtual-reality tour of the site while wearing 3D headsets, and get a whole new perspective on the faces in the frieze as traffic zips past outside on the Lungotevere.

Fondazione Prada, Milan.
Photograph by Fondazione Prada, Milan

Bella Cultura: Italy’s most striking new cultural spaces

Fashionable art: Fondazione Prada, Milan

Located in Largo Isarco, in the south of Milan, Fondazione Prada is, incredibly, the city’s first contemporary art museum. The work of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, it centres around the juxtaposition of a century-old former gin distillery with three fiercely incongruous new structures. ‘Torre’, a nine-storey concrete tower, erupts from in between the older buildings, dwarfing the industrial heritage, pointing to the future, while artworks from the Prada Collection — mostly 20th and 21st century — are on permanent display in the ‘Haunted House’, an original building that Koolhaas clad in 24-carat gold foil. 

The interiors are equally startling; film director Wes Anderson designed the whimsical bar — evoking Milanese cafes of old — while the restaurant’s chairs and tables are the work of renowned Finnish architect and industrial designer Eero Saarinen.

Muse, Trento.

The art of science: MUSE, Trento

With its angular steel-and-glass panels and white stone walls, Trento’s eco-friendly science museum looks rather like the Dolomites that surround it. And if you think it also looks a little reminiscent of The Shard, in London, that’ll be because it was designed by the same architect: Renzo Piano.


OGR, Turin.

Artistically trained: OGR, Turin

For over a century, the OGR (Officine Grandi Riparazioni) was a place where the city’s trains were mended. After closing in the early 1990s, the vast complex of workshops fell into disrepair. Two years ago, it reopened as an arts and events space, with the struts, pilasters and barn-like ceilings retained from its previous incarnation. 

Outside, in one of its courtyards, stands an installation by South African artist William Kentridge. Inside one of the two hangar-sized main buildings is a mural by Venezuelan artist Arturo Herrera that nods to the site’s heritage: its intricate grid of lines recalling railway tracks.

Tenuta Castelbuono, Umbria.

Designed to stay: Art hotels and award-winning appellations

Designer vines: Tenuta Castelbuono, Umbria 

What looks like the looming presence of a giant tortoise on the horizon, behind rows of vines, is actually the work of Arnaldo Pomodoro. The winery’s owners, the Lunelli family, commissioned the sculptor to create the giant ‘carapace’ at the centre of their vineyard half an hour from Perugia, not just as a work of art but as a place where wine is stored.

The copper-plated dome is slowly turning green through exposure to the elements and is riven with fissures that echo the furrows in the surrounding vineyards. Inside, barrels are arranged in concentric circles. And the shape echoes not just the Umbrian hills, but also the undulating landscape of Pomodoro’s birthplace, the neighbouring Marche region.

Art or architecture? Pomodoro wanted to blur the lines. He also wanted to create an interface between the rolling hills outside and the chilled interior, where everything is done with precision. The structure’s distinctive shape is no accident, either, according to the architect. “I had the idea of a shape that was reminiscent of a tortoise, a symbol of stability and longevity which, with its shell, represents the union between the land and the sky,” he explained.

Casa Flora, Venice.
Photograph by Valentina Sommariva

The arty apart-hotel: Casa Flora, Venice

Apartment hotel Casa Flora is a collaboration between the local Romanelli family and New York-based Italian designer Diego Paccagnella. Everything inside is custom designed in Italy, but even better, it’s all for sale. The look is modern Venetian: Murano glass lamps and palladiana terrazzo flooring — a monochrome version of the speckled terrazzo tiling found across the city. The three bedrooms sport ‘lagoon’ colours (light pink, green, yellow and blue), while the green marble kitchen island is intended to evoke Venetian church altars.

The chic chalet: Hotel Schgaguler, Dolomites

The postcard-pretty village of Castelrotto in the Tyrolian Dolomites is home to this boutique hotel that’s seen a dramatic transformation. Built in 1986, it was overhauled last year by Milanese architect Peter Pichler, who stripped it down to its chalet-shaped bones and rebuilt it. What’s emerged is a concrete, pitched-roof chalet clad almost entirely in glass, stripped of all the traditional Alpine architectural frills of carved wood balconies and shutters. It’s a minimalist mountain retreat for the 21st century.

Via Garibaldi 12, Genoa.

Chic boutiques: concept stores and design dens

Cutting-edge concept store: Via Garibaldi 12, Genoa

Same old, same old, you think, walking along Via Garibaldi, a street within the UNESCO World Heritage Site at the heart of Genoa. A grand, 16th-century palazzo here, an even grander one there — until you get to Palazzo Campanella, at number 12. Inside this unassuming mansion is one of Italy’s most extraordinary shops, a cutting-edge furniture and design store where crisp white sofas and supermodel-skinny chairs sit beneath mottled marble columns, and sunlight floods in through gabled windows. Under stucco panelling, elegant marble tables display 21st-century vases. Each of its eight rooms is more sumptuous than the last. A futuristic golden sofa designed by Zaha Hadid reclines beneath a frescoed ceiling in a hall of mirrors that recalls Versailles. And 21st-century porcelain sits on mirrored tables in a palatial room where every surface is stuccoed and gold-leafed.  

The art department: Fondaco dei Tedeschi, Venice

This 16th-century trading hall overlooking the Rialto Bridge became a post office in the 20th century and then, in 2016, Venice’s most spectacular department store. The conversion has kept the original structure — a kind of theatre-in-the round centred on an internal courtyard. Its wares are displayed across Napoleonic-era flooring, under a concrete-beamed ceiling. On your way to the rooftop terrace (stellar Grand Canal views), you’ll pass through a new glass-roofed show space. Previous exhibitions have included a display of shoes (from a pair of 16th-century courtesan sandals to Christian Dior’s finest) and a sound and light installation by Fabrizio Plessi and Michael Nyman.

The shop that thinks it’s a gallery: Creativity Oggetti, Turin

When is a shop not a shop? The answer: when it stocks things of such quality that it doubles as a gallery. Creativity Oggetti brings together work by artists, designers and artisans, showcasing everything from jewellery to jugs. The ceramics are a highlight — from functional pieces to standalone ‘sculptures’ — and half the shop is a gallery, displaying modern jewellery from all over the world.  

Read more about contemporary Italian design: Palazzo Rhinoceros in Rome, architect Carlo Scarpa's work in Venice and a Q&A with architect Claudio Nardi

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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