Adrian J. Boas
On an Eyesore with Medieval Roots
Modern architecture has its successes and failures. The Torre Velasca in Milan, certainly in my eyes, falls into the latter category. This skyscraper was built in the 1950s, but somehow I do not recall having seen it when I visited Milan four decades ago, which is odd – I find it hard to believe that I would not remember what seems to me to be an entirely unforgettable building - and I do not mean that in a positive way. Nor, it appears, am I alone in this view. On one internet travel site it has been variously described as "an eyesore", "an alien building", "one of the most strange buildings in Milan", " a carbuncle building", "repulsive" and "ugly as sin".
But whether or not you like it, Torre Velasca certainly does make an impression. And as out of place as it appears in this generally pleasing city, it is not in fact entirely "alien". It imitates in its form the typical design of the medieval Italian tower with the upper stories protruding. That form was due to the use of machicolation – the stone or brick equivalent of wooden hoarding that extended out from the line of the tower in its upper part. The machicolation, supported on stone corbels, enabled the defenders to prevent enemies from approaching the otherwise blind area at the base of the walls. From here they could drop rocks or pour boiling water, heated sand or other materials on an attacker below. The idea appears to have originated in the Umayyad desert palaces of Syria, and it was adopted by the Franks in the crusader states who employed this technique extensively in their castles. In the Latin East it mainly was used above gates but also occasionally appears in the form of galleries below the battlements of curtain walls, and it is these perhaps that influenced the medieval Italian towers, that in turn influenced this grotesque "carbuncle" that rises over the otherwise pleasing Milan skyline.