The Swedish Housing Model in Milan

Silvio Berlusconi as an Urban Planner

Summary of lecture held at the KTH Urban Lab 1

The compulsory Stockholm trip for architects in the 60's and early 70's was made also by an Italian group headed by a business lawyer - a certain Silvio Berlusconi. When he and his team gets back to Milan, they initiate a grand scheme housing project, ”exactly according to plan”. It adheres faithfully to the modernist diagram: no defined front, no defined back - the integration of all space: all part of one single ”anläggning” (Sw.), ”Anlage” (Ger.), ”plant”, ”establishment”, (Eng.) - or ”estate” as the actual British term goes. But there are also interesting and decisive points of difference: Behind the project stand no political programmes, but a developer. On the inside of the houses there is a wider range of flat sizes - a lot bigger flats than one would expect, sometimes with a wine cellar.

Going back to the Milanese projects today, one finds them astonishingly well preserved, unlike many of the Northern European prototypes/models. The various degrees of decay in the North are feeding a long standing debate and activity about ”what to do”, where different approaches are tried: changes of the buildings, new directions etc, all intended to generate ”life” and make them more ”citylike”. That is: the existing structures are to be attacked. That is: not complying with given conditions. In understanding what these ”conditions” are about, the Milanese projects can have a peculiar interest and generate illuminating discussion.

n. 1 a property consisting of an extensive area of land usu. with a large house. 2 Brit. a modern residential area with integrated design or purpose.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English
Oxford 1995


”...era d’obbligo visitare la Svezia, Stoccolma in particolare. – It was compulsory to visit Sweden and Stockholm in particular – L’influenza svedese sull’urbanistica europea era enorme. Visitare Stoccolma era allora soprattutto visitare le due città satelliti di Vällingby e Farsta: i loro centri commerciali e sociali, la separazione del traffico veicolare e pedonale, gli elevati standards urbanistici ed abitativi.”

”Planning in Scandinavia was very much on architects minds in the 1960’s and 1970’s. As you all know, they went on journeys to see that model, in real life. What followed after all this has been much debated, maybe too much debated.”

”This is the extreme, Paris banlieue a few years ago, extreme in terms of turn of events and of media coverage. Words of warning were spoken in Sweden, and this year this reality has actually come closer. Housing degradation to blame to some extent, yes. But what were they upset about, really?” [Picture from riots in Aulnay-sous-Bois]

”But if that was the extreme, this is the rule in Sweden [picture from Landskrona], in spite of some attempts to dramatize the situation: just dull, a feeling of a lack of something, poor environments.”

”And, as we all know, we find sometimes (like here in Landskrona) a certain concentration of unemployment and of social problems.”

”For some reason, there has always been strong focus on the architectural perspectives here. The debate in Sweden and elsewhere tends to get to the same conclusion: the built structure is a great problem.”

”This generates the typical reaction, which is: counterstrategies.”

”The earliest counterstrategy was to conceal structure, or, if you will, divert focus from structure.” [Picture of art in Gladsaxe Estate, Copenhagen]

”The more recent and today still current counterstrategy is to contradict or attack structure, or, if you will, conquer and tame structure, executed in many various ways.” [Picture of OMA’s Bijlmermeer project]

”All the time: something with the physical structures, with the houses, something that they (supposedly) do to people. With the constant underlying discontent towards these structures: They should deliver something else!”

”The most current angle is a focus on people. A concept that has spread and established itself in the last 10 years in Sweden is ’utanförskap’, literally ’outsideship’, ’excludedness’, which in the end points at individuals – but, interestingly enough, at the same time, lump these individuals together with all their neighbours and the housing areas, the (built) structures they live in, and that in turn with income brackets (low), school results (poor) and crime rates (high). The idea suggested by this narrative is a counterstrategy that is heroic, thought to be driven by individuals who in spite of the structure and circumstances find their strength to overcome the hardships and obstacles, on their own, free and strong.” [Picture of little crofter man with his sole horse]

”Though, as the economic historian Nathan Rosenberg has pointed out, the (economic) progress of our society has got very little to do with ’individual achievements’: our greatest achievements are the opposite of individual, they are about technologies, about structures, about relieving us from having to rely on individuals. (That is the pattern of the last five hundred years.)”

”Professor Bernardo Secchi, the famous Italian town planning researcher of the Venice school wrote the lines about visiting Stockholm fourty years ago. What he writes also reflects a peculiar fascination and admiration that the many visiting Italian architects felt, about the whole idea, the whole societal, social democratic, concept, turned into planning and actual projects.”

”We have to imagine a group of architects coming to Stockholm, one of these many groups of architects, probably several groups on the same flight, coming out of Arlanda, Sthlm Airport in 1970.”

”A typical group. With one exception: the leader of this particular group is not an architect, but a business lawyer.”
”He and his group have some building experience, from chaotic Milan, where they’ve been involved in some typical piecemeal speculations. Now they want more, they want big.”

”Stockholm planning and projects impress them: Skärholmen, Farsta, Täby. Vällingby. A model of how to do it – their admiration is no different from any of their colleagues.”
”Back to Milan they go!”

”Five years later: a project is rising east of Milan.
2600 units for 10 000 inhabitants. High rise blocks of flats right through.” [Lay-out of new estate]

”Everything is the way it should be:
Flats in blocks (slabs) (i.e. what Italians expect, too).
Green: 85 % of total surface.
Pathways – anyone can move about! (NOT gated anywhere, of course!)
Neighbourhood units
Traffic separation (also between pedestrian and bike)
Shopping centre
Community centre, with church”

”So if you know your Swedish post-war planning schemes by now, you can tell that: this is it!”

”The green and the car-free neighbourhood has its point in safety for the children. They can play and develop in collective interaction with other children. Away from noisy city!” [Picture of children in the surroundings of the new estate]

”But: there are differences, compared with the original Scandinavian models...”

”No-one is forced out here. The flats are offered on the open market. By a developer, and no other.”

”The developer happens to be this bloke: the Italian entrepreneur turned Prime minister turned...”. [Picture of Mr Berlusconi at the piano]

”But back to his project in the early 1970’s: No political instance is involved in the scheme or project itself. The bloke is still just a developer.”

”50 % of the flats are let, 50 % are sold – which, by the way, has a social mix as an outcome.”

”The good environment, the safe and collective upbringing of children: not a political programme, but an offer.”

”All in all, it looks the same as the studied model.
But there are differences, if you look closer.” [Picture of estate milieu]

”Appearances: could be something like Råcksta or Blackeberg – but somewhat bourgeois?”

”Flats are big... with interesting features...” [Plan of typical flat, which is maybe not so typical: more bathrooms than bedrooms, walk-in closet the size of a bedroom, huge balconies, separate kitchen entrance]

”And in some flats, some very special features...” [Picture of terrace with swimming-pool, sun-bathers and servant]

”Management perfection – from inside throughout to outside.” [Picture of lawns, pathways and designed litter bin]

”And: even design management for the estate as a whole: of course, it is a whole, but it is also understood and treated as a whole.” [Plan of Milano 2 estate]

”The developer gives this model a commercial identity: Milano Due – a second, alternative, better Milan. Una città per vivere.” [Cover of marketing book]

”More interesting features:
The compulsory Community Centre (the British contribution to the model: for democratic education) is slightly different here: it’s called Sporting Club. And its programmes are slightly different.”

”Swimming, sun-bathing...”

”Tennis, anyone?”

”Or if you prefer bridge?”

”Or would you fancy some good food and good wine and a nice chat?”

”That is: organizing the social, or better, organizing the socializing. Without any overt political or organizational dimension – and with less of chance. The Sporting Club as a tool for an ensured social quality.”

”The developer Mr B. sees (seizes) in the Northern European political model for suburbs a fundamental quality: Duplicability. Multipliability. Because it is a complete model, with defined and specified content. With those eyes, it is of course a commodity.”

”Why not go further and sell more of it?
Why not a Torino 2, or a Roma 2? Or a Milano 3?”

”A few years later: Milano 3 rises to the south of Milan.” [Plan of Milano 3 estate]

”The same model, duplicated in a different spot.”

”Different plan pattern, one might say – yes, different on one level, maybe, but on another level: completely the same.”

”The same – but with some adjustments... In the Sporting Club: more tennis lawns; more swimmingpools – and...:”

”Horseback riding...”

”Bigger flats and bigger balconies, your own wine cellar.”

”Even more green, more relaxed.”

”If we go back to ponder upon this model as such.
One of the fundamental qualities with the estate type of suburb is its character of just that: an estate, an establishment of some sort, ’anläggning’, a plant, if you wish (with the double meaning of organism).” [Plan of Milano 2 networks: electricity, telephone, TV-cable etc]

”An important feature of that model is its tree structure. That means: a hierarchic structure or plan, for all its infrastructure.”

”It has to be so – and it gives certain possibilities.”

”It allows a certain rationality in management: it becomes manageable, just because the model is confined in its extent, and defined in its content.”

”So if you have management, you can seize its opportunities.”

”One of which is security: using the cable nets also for an alarm system, and the parallel pathway network for response by car, both tied together in a central point of control, the cervello centrale. – Nothing but a new application to the same ’operative system’, one could say.” [Picture of ”central brain” control room]

”Another application was television: a first test case for a cable television network, with a studio and a station in the middle of the estate.” [Picture of Telemilano studio in action]

”To conclude, one might say: It’s just like the model, the Scandinavian model, but there’s more of everthing possible in these units, and even some further features, never thought of in the Scandinavian original editions, but nevertheless deduced from the model itself.”

”Ok, one would say, this is what it was like when it was all new, of course...”
”But: If you go there today, what will strike you is how well preserved it is. It simply works. That makes you think – maybe.”

”While as the original executions (versions) of the model up in Northern Europe range from plain to poor to, in a few cases, downright degradation and decay. (The better ones seldom reach higher than plain.)”

”We can generally observe physical facts as (in various degrees):
Poor environments
Poor facades
(And no use of any kind of security applications)”

”This is, as we’ve seen, sometimes countered with projects that consciously work against the structure of the place:
Adding things that physically contradict. (If you remember Bijlmermeer.)”

”What would you be doing here?” [Picture of dull, typical Swedish estate of the 60’s/early 70’s]

”You would probably be...
...trying to attack the structure by forcing in so called ’new directions’ or ’connections’...
...or squeezing in shops, in order to make it more city-like.”

”With the supposition: it has failed to be a city.”

”With the supposition: the structure is the problem.”

”The model is resisting proper functioning as a city! Therefore, the structure must be attacked! – That’s the idea...”

”Might be legitimate wishes – if they worked...”

”Do we ask something from the structure (of the model) that it can not deliver? – Not by any means...?”

”Are we asking the impossible, instead of coming to terms with the conditions?”

”So – what are the conditions?”

”Is there after all something to learn from Milan?”

”Milano 2 and Milano 3 are among the wealthiest communities in Italy. Does it mean that they are extremely productive, by themselves? No. It means that resources are transferred every day into the area.”

”Well functioning lives outside are a prerequisite for functioning life inside.”

”Resources and social balance are generated outside.”
”That has got nothing to do with the housing estate.”

”What kind of life develops on the inside is just a reflection of the productive lives on the outside – nothing else. (It has got nothing to do with this or that architecture.)”

”There is scarce reason to believe that resources (to any viable degree) could be created inside the area (of the model).”

”The model is not conceived that way, that’s the basic thing with it, we should know that – so why do we still tend to forget that? That’s exactly what we forget if we think of the model-and-its-inhabitants as one undivided primary unit, to ’do something about’ (when we se troubling signs of some sort).”

”If something changes or fall apart in this end of the line, that does not mean that the ’estate model of housing’ suddenly could perform differently from the way it’s conceived and designed.” [Picture of old closed-down factory]

”Any individual part can go on playing its limited role, blocks of flats doing their work as blocks of flats, irrespective of if the surrounding society is 18th century pre-industrial, 19th century high-industrial or 20th century post-industrial or 21st century whatever...” [Plan of Milano 3 estate]

”One thing needed, though: a resource flow, established in life outside. Meaning: some degree of social and economic strength is a prerequisite to manage living in a residential suburb (on an estate) like this. The inhabitants have an obligation to transfer resources on a daily basis.”

”If connections of this kind – outside to inside – are fragile or even missing, we have a matching problem: a mismatch consisting of people to weak to live on an estate of this kind.”

”Exiling people weakly connected to economic life out here, to an estate that will forever stay secluded from economic life, is simply unjust.”

”The estate, the model, i.e. the buildings themselves, can’t do anything about its people. The houses’ only competence is being best possible housing for people with sufficiently well-functioning lives. These are the conditions.”

”If you can agree to come to terms with conditions, nothing, really, will stop ensembles of houses like this from working just fine.”

”If we happen to have some sort of trouble with the functioning of the economy and the labour market, that has got nothing to do with this.” [Plan of Milano 3 estate]

”So the way that is perhaps hardest to see is the least dramatic, and least violent way, namely: to just stick with the model, with what’s there, only using more of the possibilities that lie in what it already is. But asking it to do what it can do.”


”What the estate/commodity demands is compliance. It says: ’Come to terms with me. Don’t squeeze me. Don’t perforate me. Because I’m just a choice from the shelf anyway, for a very limited and defined use.” [Picture of a Tetra Pak, from a 50’s advertisement]

”(The developer takes care of it all, in his project. All you have to do is to come to terms with the model you’re being offered, to comply with it.)”