Considered the most famous of Gio Ponti’s architectural work, the Pirelli Tower serves as an enduring landmark in the city of Milan. It was commissioned in by Alberto Pirelli, the head of a large rubber manufacturing company which had flourished in fascist Italy before World War II.
After the Pirelli factories were destroyed by a bombing campaign in 1943, along with many other buildings in Milan, the manufacturing facilities were subsequently rebuilt in another area of the city. However, Pirelli wanted his office building located on the site where the old factories had once stood. He also specified that the building should be a skyscraper, a modern symbol of strength. The people of Milan were enthusiastic about the idea modernizing their city with tall buildings, and so it was with great fanfare that construction on the city’s first skyscraper began in 1956. Gio Ponti, who collaborated with his partners Antonio Fornaroli and Alberto Rosselli, was hired as the project’s architect. His team also included Pier Luigi Nervi, a well known engineer who specialized in the use of reinforced concrete.
Gio Ponti believed architecture should result in a harmony of form and function. The Pirelli Tower, while beautiful to look at on the outside, was designed to specifically suit the needs of its company on the inside. Ponti designed the skyscraper, which he described as a “graphic slogan”, as a large diamond shape which was a recurring motif in his work during the 1950s and 1960s. The 33-story tower was sturdily constructed using 30,000 cubic meters of pre-stressed, reinforced concrete. Walls of thermopane windows and a roof that appeared to float above the structure added to its modern appeal.
The tower has been said to resemble a smooth, unbroken curtain wall. Others have remarked that the curved sides are reminiscent of a ship’s bow. The shape of the building provokes such thoughtful analysis because it was one of the first skyscrapers in the world created without the traditional rectangular structure commonly seen in tall buildings. It is obvious Ponti intended for the building to become, in part, a work of art that would add a sense of beauty and style to the city’s skyline. However, he refused to abandon practicality in order to accomplish this goal. On the inside the tower is as functional as it is beautiful. The layout of the building, with its centrally located corridors and elevators, lends itself perfectly to busy corporate life. Ponti also anticipated the company’s desire for flexibility in its workspace, and included moveable partitions on every floor so that offices could evolve to accommodate future needs.
Construction on the Pirelli Tower was completed in 1958, and the skyscraper quickly became a symbol of prosperity in Italy. After the brutal suffering of WWII, the building of such a landmark rejuvenated the city of Milan and ushered in a new age of economic growth. In fact, the building was so beloved by the people of Milan that it was nicknamed “The Pirellone”, or “Big Pirelli”. Architectural historian Hasan-Udin Khan called it “one of the most elegant tall buildings in the world”. The Pirelli Tower was so well received in the architecture community that it launched Gio Ponti to international fame. Upon its completion he was invited to build new projects all over the world. Other architects were so inspired by the Pirelli tower, that its design is said to have influenced the Pan Am building in New York City as well as the Alpha Tower in Birmingham, England.
In 2002 the building sustained considerable damage when a plane crashed into its 25th floor. Luckily, the iconic building survived the unfortunate accident and was repaired. Though it no longer houses the Pirelli offices, the Pirellone retains its affectionate nickname and endures to this day as a symbol of national pride.