Alcova, a temporary design exhibition in Milan, takes place within a wider context of real estate speculation

Letter From Italy

Alcova, a temporary design exhibition in Milan, takes place within a wider context of real estate speculation

Entrance to Alcova 2023, Viale Molise 62, Milan. April 2023.

The design world is now descending upon Milan for this year’s Design Week, an important event within the global art and design circuit. Today, the original Salone del Mobile, a trade fair founded in 1961, has been overshadowed by a profusion of collateral events around the city, which developed organically without a centralized artistic direction. By now, Alcova is a regular fixture on the lists of things not to miss. It is a “curated” mini-fair of more than one hundred independent designers organized by Joseph Grima, creative director of Design Academy Eindhoven and founder of the architecture studio Space Caviar, and Valentina Ciuffi, who runs a design consultancy called Studio Vedet. Last year’s Alcova saw more than 60,000 visitors—about 25 percent of the overall numbers for the larger Salone event.

Alcova’s success testifies to the way the city itself—rather than an out-of-the-way convention center—has become the prime stage for international design. It was first held in 2018, evolving from an earlier project called Atelier Clerici. (Disclosure: I worked with Joseph Grima in various capacities from 2014 to 2016 but we no longer have a professional relationship.) My interest here is to comment on the way Alcova seems to have become a willing instrument of financialized real estate speculation and attendant cultural erasure that is changing the city. The Design Week includes several instances of this process, but Alcova is the largest, most visible, and most problematic. Like others in Milan, I found Ciuffi and Grima’s recent claim in Dezeen that Alcova “avoids gentrification by moving around” to be misjudged and misleading.

Entrance to Alcova 2023, Viale Molise 62, Milan. April 2023.

Whereas Atelier Clerici was hosted in a functioning Baroque palazzo in the city center, Alcova’s signature move is to take over derelict buildings in the outskirts. In 2018 and 2019, it was held in an ex-pastry factory in the northeastern part of the city; in 2021 and 2022, an ex-military hospital in the west; and this year, it occupies a series of buildings within the ex-public abattoir in the eastern neighborhood of Calvairate. The sprawling complex, built at the turn of the 20th century, was owned by the municipality but had been sitting empty for decades, its facades covered in the soot from the ring road that encloses Milan; further out is a vast district of warehouses that host the wholesale food market. This was until 2012, when a group of activists, reclaiming space for independent cultural production, occupied a handsome building next to the structure where Alcova is taking place this year.

Macao, as the occupied building was christened, continued in a long and illustrious tradition of squatting in Milan, which dates back to the 1970s struggles for housing rights. (Many such squats, called centri sociali autogestiti, still exist despite the continued threats of eviction; chief among them are Leoncavallo and Cox 18.) Macao’s difference lay in being, for the better or worse, less overtly political and more open to the citizenry. Quite rapidly, it gained a reputation as the most important independent music venue in Milan. Carlos Hawthorn, writing in Resident Advisor, labelled it as “one of Europe’s most vital spaces for experimental music and art.” It hosted dozens of parties with artists like Sonic Boom, Marginal Consort, Nurse with Wound, and Hieroglyphic Being at a time when all the established clubs in Milan would only program mainstream acts. Macao maintained an open-door policy, meaning that no one would be ever turned away; the entry charge was a symbolic 5 euros. Importantly, Macao wasn’t just a “nicer” club: It was a communal endeavor run by a collective, without directors, owners, or funders. Anyone who wished to participate could join the collective’s Tuesday-night assemblies. During the ten years it was active, Macao hosted Yannis Varoufakis and became home to an important LGBTQ collective. And for many young Milanesi, it was simply a place to gather for the sake of it—a precious occurrence in a city where non-commercial venues are remarkably scarce.

The building formerly home to Macao, viale Molise 68, Milan. April 2023.

All of this couldn’t last. Over the past two decades, Milan has remade itself into a playground for international real-estate capital by selling off public assets and boasting urbanization charges much lower than its European counterparts. Journalist Gianni Barbacetto has dubbed Milan the “tax haven of real estate.” In 2018 there was an attempt on the part of the city administration to evict Macao’s users and sell the buildings for 22 million euros, which was averted at the last minute through a vote in the city assembly. But the pandemic precipitated the situation. For unstated reasons, in June 2020 the City closed down the public healthcare surgery that it had been running in one of the buildings; soon after, a group of homeless persons and asylum seekers moved in. Their extremely precarious conditions—caused by the mismanagement of immigration on the part of the Italian government—was quickly seized upon by the far right while the nominally left-wing administration stood by. In July 2021, Milan’s mayor Beppe Sala announced the winning project for the redevelopment of the entire abattoir site following an international competition. The scheme spared Macao itself and the buildings immediately next to it: They are protected by preservation laws and were broken up into a separate tender process. In September 2021, the politician Matteo Salvini held a rally on the site, denouncing its “decay” and “rife crime.” The situation for Macao became untenable, and on November 5 the activists vacated the building. Within weeks, the riot police evicted the asylum seekers who had been staying nearby. The details surrounding Macao’s departure remain opaque, and some in leftist circles feel that Macao could have handled the situation differently. Macao surely wasn’t free of contradictions, but for all the vacuous talk of “participation” these days, it was a truly communal, self-run space.

It is within this context that Alcova takes place. Ciuffi and Grima evidently saw no issue with using an “exciting new location” with such a cultural significance and a history of unresolved social conflicts. They speak about it as an Instagrammable, postindustrial space, a blank slate for international designers to show their limited-edition wares. Macao hasn’t gotten so much as a mention in the interviews, press copy, or exhibition text. Further, their claim that gentrification can be avoided by moving around doesn’t hold up: One could write a global history of temporary and pop-up spaces as the markers of gentrification.

All three Alcova locations so far are closely related to major privately funded “regeneration” plans. The ex-pastry factory has now been demolished, and a new block with 35,520 square feet (3,300 square meters) of private housing is being built; since Alcova, housing prices in the neighborhood, rebranded as “NoLo,” have grown faster than anywhere else in the city. The ex-military hospital is right across the street from a large greenfield site, nearly 100 acres (40 hectares) in size and lush with spontaneous vegetation. Developers had their eyes on the site for years, and the government tried (and failed) to sell it off in 2018; in January 2023, seven months after the Design Week ended, it initiated a new sale, advertising the possibility for investors to build up to about 1.5 million square feet (135,000 square meters) of new construction.

Ciuffi and Grima surely aren’t the gentrifiers, but Alcova appears to participate in greasing the wheels of speculative development. Inviting “young” and “independent” designers, it provides a veneer of coolness—and a lot of free advertising—for much bigger capital interests. There is a crucial difference in scale: Any profit that Alcova (a private initiative) might turn is bound to be orders of magnitude less than what the development of the abattoir will provide to its investors. Ciuffi and Grima state that what they do “is too brief for it to be of significance to [the site’s] future trajectory.” They are right, as the future trajectory was already decided years ago.

The building formerly home to Macao, viale Molise 68, Milan. April 2023.

The plan for the ex-abattoir that won the 2021 competition has been termed Aria (an auspicious name for a city with the worst air pollution in Western Europe). The masterplan is by Snøhetta, with individual buildings contracted to Cino Zucchi and other architects. According to the plan’s technical report, it involves the construction of 35 new buildings up to 8 stories tall, for a total of about 1.3 million square feet (120,000 square meters) of new built area, plus 1,400 underground parking spots. Alcova’s current spaces are at the center of it all. Of the 37 acres (15 hectares) of the total site, two thirds are being privatized; the city will retain only about 12 acres (5 hectares) of open spaces.

The plan’s main investor is Redo sgr, a real-estate fund controlled by Italian banks, though the central government maintains a 30 percent stake through its semipublic financial arm CDP. Among other investors are IED (a private, for-profit design schools conglomerate), CA Ventures (a Chicago-based investment fund) and E.ON (a German utility company). Significantly, the competition took place within the Michael Bloomberg–initiated C40 / Reinventing Cities framework, which advances neoliberal urbanism efforts. The word “gentrification,” more readily associated with quaint espresso bars, doesn’t begin to cover the scale of the looming transformation.

This situation is not new or unique. Design-washing, like its green-, art-, and rainbow- counterparts, are well documented phenomena that are found everywhere around the globe, from London to Cape Town. Milan itself is now littered with such projects. But there is something singular in the way Milan’s economic and political elite has been using temporary “events”—at the expense of a robust cultural sector—to mask the financialization of the city. There is something “colonialistic” in the way the well-subsidized Northern European design events take over venues around the city, paying rents that most local practices will never be able to afford. And there is something brazen in Ciuffi and Grima’s excusatio non petita in advance of the opening.

The back side of Macao, Milan. April 2023.

The timing of the organizers’ interview with Dezeen might perhaps be explained with the fact that, in recent months, the Italian public debate has, at long last, been turning against Milan. In March, the journalist Lucia Tozzi published L’invenzione di Milano, a sharp pamphlet that documents the financialization of Milan’s real estate sector and the proactive role of the city administration in the process. As a result, Milan has now some of the highest housing costs in Europe. At the same time, its public life has become more anesthetized, policed, and tourist-oriented, with a cultural offering that pales in comparison to many medium-sized European cities. Tozzi’s book expressed what had been brewing for a long time, and since its release there has been an outpouring of news features on the “crisis of Milan.” All of a sudden, Northern European home prices combined with Southern European salaries no longer seems to be a recipe for urban success. The housing crisis is so dire that in March Mayor Sala rushed to announce a paltry rent subsidy (wholly inadequate to the scale of the problem).

The trick at play in Alcova is that all of this contextual information—the memory of Macao, the intricacies of Milan’s urban changes, the dire poverty of so many of its inhabitants—are lost on the vast majority of visitors and, perhaps, on the exhibiting designers too. As Tozzi explains, Sala and his administration have made it clear that their vision for Milan’s future favors a transient (and non-voting) population—tourists, remote workers, wealthy students—over long-time residents. The Design Week provides just that.

Like past events, this year independent art and design practitioners in Milan will gain nothing from Alcova and the 800 other temporary events, though of course for a week some will be able to partake in the spotlight. But for the other 51 weeks, they are facing high studio costs, underpaid commissions, the utter lack of grants (private or public), and no institutional support.

The back side of Macao, Milan. April 2023.

Expecting the Design Week apparatus to change is unlikely, since it plays a major role in contemporary Milan’s success. A more intriguing suggestion comes from the Macao collective: “Let us promote the practice of squatting as one of the political tools of bottom-up reappropriation, in order to bring to light issues of public interest that are otherwise obscured. Occupying is a healthy action, which everyone should try at least once in their lifetime.”

Andrea Bagnato is a writer and researcher based in Milan working at the intersection of urban history and political ecology. He has coedited the books A Moving Border: Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change (Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2019) and Rights of Future Generations (Hatje Cantz, 2022), and co-curated the exhibition Vulnerable Beings (La Casa Encendida, 2022).  His monograph Terra Infecta is forthcoming in 2024.

Photography provided by the author.

Editor’s Note: Alcova organizers Joseph Grima and Valentina Ciuffi responded to this piece on April 24. Read their text here.

Upon publication of the response, Andrea Bagnato provided the following clarification:

The published version of this article did not mention that the Aria masterplan for Milan’s former abattoir includes 1,200 units of privately built affordable housing. Under this scheme, rents and conditions are not set by law but determined on a case-by-case basis in deals made between the city administration and private investors; such agreements are kept confidential, which makes making any oversight impossible. Developers have a lot to gain, since—thanks to a provision in Italian law—they pay no tax on this type of profit. 
As many observers have documented for a decade, private “social housing” was devised not to augment, but to replace the public housing stock. While Aria is moving forward, public housing in Milan exists in a condition of “managed decline” (12,000 units), sold off on the model of Thatcher’s right-to-buy (33,000 units over the past two decades), or torn down altogether. 
The goal appears to be the privatization of the right to housing by letting globalized finance take over what used to be a public good. The result is that poorer public-housing tenants are ejected from the city and replaced by the middle classes who—no longer able to afford market values—take up “social housing” units. Needless to say, this has a spiraling effect on the crisis. 
Yet at last, the problems with relying on financial capital are starting to show, even if they weren’t appropriately acknowledged by Alcova’s founders. In 2021, two “social housing” developments went bust before construction started, and hundreds of families lost their down payments. And, less than two weeks ago, the daily La Repubblica reported that real-estate investors are starting to pull out, since increased interest rates are threatening their profit margins. Milan’s citizens are thus shortchanged twice—public assets are sold off, and there is no “social housing” created to make up for the deficit.