Short tales of the Tower
Only ten years had passed when he went back to see his tower, stepping into his building again, and taking the elevator of the high-rise (something not too unusual) that he had designed and built, but nobody recognised him. In the long ascent, he stood in a corner of one of the six elevators leaning on a walking-stick, his pleasant and intense face tinged with melancholy. Depending on the floor, people came in and out of the elevator: office workers and clerks, managers, engineers, directors, all inhabitants of that famous vertical city, all of them proud to be citizens of the famous Tower. They greeted each other, smiled, and some even cracked jokes in the short pauses between floors, while standing next to the man who had designed the Tower; a mature figure with a still-proud face despite its slight melancholic air. But nobody recognised him nor greeted him; they just thought he was a visitor there by chance.
Yet, Gio Ponti was not offended, surprised nor irritated; indeed, his face conveys great depth and wisdom, and even if this was no visible I can be sure that he laughed to himself about the transience of existence and mankind’s eternal quest.
Where to see it
The Pirelli Tower is not the Empire State Building. If placed side by side, it wouldn’t be dwarfed but more of a smaller brother.
In any cases, arithmetic is useful to a certain point, relativity is important, etc.
The Pirelli Tower is undoubtedly beautiful, but apart from this – or because of this – it is a celebrity. People’s eyes in Milan are used to it, and so are mine, for I see it every day from my house in piazza della Repubblica. Nevertheless, when strolling through the nearby streets and looking up by chance – a sad and rare occurrence in cities –, I can feel for the first time the great, solemn presence of a pinnacle, a turret, a huge tower rising itself above the much-desired cement and glass residential structures. I suggest you walk along via Fabio Filzi for a few metres, to reach via Marangoni on the right, and raise your eyes; this is where he stands tall and straight, unexpected with his violent lyricism.
Or even better, do down via General Fara and at a certain point to the right you come to an opening; this is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in Milan; God only knows how stingy Milan is with beauty; they should bring tourists here in busloads on a “city tour”. There is a wonderful view from there, just like in the mountains when you see peaks huddled next to each other, each seemingly taller that the other and then, in the distance and silhouetted against the sky, the momentous peak. One of the few eye-opening views in this adorable and horrendous city.
When it shakes
And what about an earthquake? Sao Paolo in Brazil is a jungle of skyscrapers, and they tell me that if the earth started to shake, it would be an apocalypse.
When in the Pirelli Tower, there is no need to worry. Investigations and special calculations were carried out by Danusso and Nervi, then the Institute of Cement made an eleven-metre high maquette which was pummelled in every way possible using rubber bands that were repeatedly pulled and released to make the whole structure vibrate violently.
One day the president, Alberto Pirelli, was working on the top floor and he was disturbed by a strange ticking noise from the glass windows. He called the usher.
“Excuse me, but can you fasten the shutters”. It was an earthquake.
The higher the spiritual elevation, the greater mankind’s disdain for the pettiness and transience of earthly things. All that was needed was 117 metres of the Pirelli Tower.
From there the great Milan, which is rather proud of its size even though it still hasn’t reached six or seven million people, is dramatically scaled down. You would expect to see a view of roofs, of terraces and towers and chimneys extending into the sooty horizons, but no. The asphalt jungle soon ends, and if you look to one side or the other, you can see green fields ready for construction.
Having lived in Milan for over sixty-three years and considering myself a local, I was shocked.
“This is my Leger” says Gio Ponti proudly when he takes someone to see the basements. These are the heating units, the air conditioning, the water tanks, the telecommunication control centre, the refrigeration units. “I like them to have a place of honour. They bring life to the entire building”. I will not bother giving numbers of statistics which usually never mean anything to the reader. I simply advise you to see for yourselves (every Wednesday there is a guided tour). There are incredible sights to be seen, and it’s incredibly clean, as if everything had been built yesterday. Boilers, tanks, autoclaves as immense plaster hippopotamuses, intricate pipes, sluices, canopies filled with arrays of shining pipes aligned with solemn and mathematical precision, like a musical composition by Bach. Rows of machines pumping, chugging and rotating in some type of classical dance punctuated by scarlet-handled cranks. A sort of mechanical cathedral without a speck of dust, continually playing its repetitive hymn accompanied by a figurative continuo. The hum of the engines, the ticking of the clock, the howling of the air-conditioners, mysterious clicks, bells, roars and clanks.
What makes a skyscraper lucky? Perhaps the Madonnina that was raised up high (to not mortify the Duomo, just a little smaller)? A lot of effort was taken, and a lot of danger must have been encountered before reaching the height of 117 metres to raise that statue. In our case, there must be some other lucky omen. During the Tower’s three-year construction and first 10 years of activity, there was no accident nor death. This must be some type of record for a city of 2,000 people. To be exact, there was one death, but this did not involve anyone from the Tower.
Luigi Palmitessa, head of security who has worked for Pirelli for over 37 years and knows every detail of the Tower, said that every evening two postal officers come to check on the in-house post office. About a year and a half ago, one of these dropped to the ground. The doctor was still in the infirmary, but nothing more could be done. It seems as if the man’s expired his last breath on the stretcher, when he was already out of the building.
When the wind blows, can you feel the Tower move? On the top floors, just slightly. Milan doesn’t have hurricanes. In those rare occasions of really strong storms, the building does oscillate 3 to 4 cm. It would take winds of over 100 km per hour for it to oscillate more than 15 cm. These storms, however, are one of the greatest spectacles that the Pirelli Tower can offer; moments when even the most diligent workers drop their pens. But it is beautiful also in winter, with the fog. This rarely reaches heights of over 80 m and so the lucky inhabitants of the last three floors can see below their eyes a grey sea of vapour and smog enveloping the entire city of Milan. And for them, up there, only the sun.
Apart from the occasional foxes or donkeys that come in and out every day, the Tower has an idiosyncrasy for animals.
Flies: the inhabitants are proud to say that no fly has ever entered the Tower further than the first floor; and we will leave them with this illusion.
Cats: Luigi Palmitessa says that until four years or so ago, some cats managed to creep into the building, usually from nearby hotels. “I can remember a really ferocious one. It would come around here especially at night. It was so ferocious that we had to put down some poison. We never saw it again, neither alive nor dead”.
Insects: The more well-informed of the Pirelli world would have heard of a scandal last winter. A bug was found. An entomologist was called in and a general sigh of relief was heard. It was a simple plant bug, inoffensive, clean and generally likeable (migrated perhaps from the Public Gardens?). In particular: cockroaches: in the early days of the Tower – says Palmitessa – in the cafeteria you were spoilt for choice. But then, with scientific disinfestation I can bet a million to one that you won’t find even one.
Rats: “There was one rat episode. In the auditorium, one evening there was about five or six hundred people at a conference, if I remember correctly. Suddenly a rat started to run along the corridor, and honestly, I’m not exaggerating, but it was this size. Luckily at that moment the door to the projection room was half open. It ran straight in and I was quick to close the door; I mean I locked the door. The day after I went to see if there was any tell-tale noise but nothing. I was steadfast; three, four days and then I called a company specialised in disinfestation. We opened the door slowly, moved some boxes, and there it was, dead from hunger”.
Hawks: it was a nice rumour that a family of hawks nested for various years on the upper terrace. Indeed, it was said that the legendary hawks could be often seen in good weather flying around the upper floors. Mrs Teresita Camagni from Public Relations Division one day took me up there to show me. There was a watchman. – And the hawks? – What hawks? – The ones that made a nest here. – What nest? There are no nests here, let alone hawks. – But, I mean, hawks, small hawks. Don’t you see them around here? – Sir, what you want me to say? I mean, you see birds around here, but no hawks, never. (Was she telling the truth? Her voice did show some sign of uncertainty. What if she denied the existence of hawks only for corporate scruple?)
And the ghost?
Gio Ponti denies, or rather tends to deny because he is not too convincing, he denies that the prestige of a great manor castle or skyscraper demands a ghost. This is a respectable but implausible theory. Even the finest and most recent buildings in modern cities have had their ghosts. But how can there be one if no one has ever died in the Pirelli Centre? Ghosts are usually the deceased owners of the castle, or in other cases, simply the physical – albeit ethereal – incarnation of the same architecture. The reality is that sightings of spectral apparitions inside or on the Pirelli Tower are few and far between, and in general, not very credible. What a pity. But we shouldn’t be in too much of a rush. 10 years is still a short time. Living not far away in quite a high building, I will point my telescope at the highest parts of the Tower and wait.
More than the venerable Giovanni Battista Pirelli, founder of the company (his portrait hangs in the most important offices), I would like to see, balanced on top of the building and silhouetted against the sky, like a goddess of good fortune, a candid, smiling and not-blindfolded young maiden riding an ectoplasmic version of the Cinturato tyre.