The Last Grand Tour
Contemporary phenomena and strategies of living in Italy

© 2023

Text by Maik Novotny

What words will architectural history find to describe the urbanisations of the 2010s and early 2020s when it looks back from a distance of a few decades? The upsurge after the crash of 2008. High-rise residential buildings as cash cows, in the centre and on the edges of town. Prime location, unique panoramas, optimal transport links, sure-fire investments.
Assets with highway access. Portfolio Urbanism. Suburbs made of concrete gold. Lehman Brothers landscapes.
The images Paul Sebesta captured on his forays through Milan’s urban development areas suggest a no-man’s-land. But nothing belongs to no-one, especially not here and not now. This land previously belonged to somebody, or perhaps many people – or even everyone. Now it is a someone’s-land, but the someone is a no-one. A mailbox in Luxembourg, an account in the Cayman Islands, an investment fund in Seoul.
And yet this architecture cannot cast off the specificity of its material and geographical situation. It may be generic, but in this case, it stands not in the milky dust of Hangzhou or the clear morning air of London, but in the soft golden light of a hot northern Italian summer. What am I doing here, it seems to ask itself, nonplussed. Apparently, it has overshot its intended destination. But only by a fraction – it’s almost in the right place. Because the high-rise is a Milanese tradition, a more or less well-regulated exception. Out here, though, between the blurred lines of the periphery, at once densified and dispersed, has become something like a shunting station for high-rises, a storage area for scores of exceptions whose rules and regulations are unreadable.
Who lives out here, between the tracks of the Airport Express, the car showrooms, the air-conditioned mega-restaurants next to underground parking garages? Who are the citizens of the Euro-Banana, this multinational zone of affluence that extends northwards from Milan, curving along the Rhine and up to London? Who pays for Portfolio Urbanism, and who profits from it?
In 2008, the year of the financial crash, the Milan-based artist collective Alterazioni Video began their Incompiutoproject, a photographic documentation of the unfinished landscapes of Italy: highway bridges in a field without a highway, massive sports facilities far from any city, post-human ruined landscapes. Even if the unfinished takes on particularly dramatic forms here, this is not a purely Italian phenomenon, but a political and economic one. Will the city of the 2010s ever be finished; come to that, does it even know what it wants its final form to be?
Perhaps one day it will indeed become a real city, a different kind of city, whose form we cannot envision today. The prognosis is for change from the early 2020s. Sand is getting into the gears of the global construction industry. Interest rates are rising, new buildings are getting shorter. Will the concrete gold in the suburbs become the flotsam of transformation or the emblem of a future city beyond the growth imperative? The urban fringe of today is already the waiting room of post-Portfolio Urbanism.