The Cesate Quarter and the Re-Invention of Modern Architecture in Milan, 1945-1955

Jonathan Mekinda, University of Pennsylvania


During the middle of the twentieth century, modern architecture was re-shaped as it expanded from a local phenomenon, centered in northern Europe, to an international movement. Italy was among those places where modernism was most radically re-invented. The Cesate quarter, a working-class residential project on the periphery of Milan, exemplifies this re-invention. Designed between 1950 and 1954 by a team of architects led by Franco Albini, Ignazio Gardella, and Ernesto Rogers, the quarter comprises approximately 500 single-family homes and an apartment building with 98 units. The quarter was commissioned under a plan to construct working-class housing that the newly-elected Christian Democrats initiated to solidify the democratic ideals of the new country and to reinforce traditional Italian culture. Constrained in part by official policy, the architects of the Cesate quarter used elements of the abstract formal vocabulary of prewar modernism to craft a design that evoked the landscapes of historic Italian settlements, with their winding streets and neighborhood piazzas. Because of the social aspirations of the architects and their sensitivity to local conditions the Cesate quarter, and postwar Italian architecture in general, have been characterized as Neorealist. Popularized to describe postwar Italian cinema and literature, this term was introduced into the architectural discourse in the mid-1950s. Despite the claims that Neorealist cinema and literature were the direct outgrowth of the reconstruction, recent scholarship has demonstrated that they were rooted in prewar practices. This dissertation shows that Neorealist architecture, too, was the culmination of lines of research initiated in the 1930s that gained new currency in the tumultuous political and cultural environment of postwar Italy.