Working in collaboration with Arup e Gad, Rome practice Labics conceived this project as a glass and concrete half-pyramid that incorporates a forest of holm oaks. Yes, it’s another tower in Milan, but one that will become a living and breathing part of the city. Selected by Reale Immobili after an invitation-only tender, the project will be built on the corner between Via Tito Speri and Via Massimo D’Azeglio, near Milan’s Porta Nuova business district.
When I read about this project, I wondered what the sense was of building another tower in Milan and how Torre Womb would be different from the others. I spoke to Maria Claudia Clemente and Francesco Isidori, founders of Labics, who explained how the tower got its name and why they’ve chosen holm oak for the building’s green spaces.
I’ve read that Womb is an acronym of Wellness Over Milan Bureaus, but why choose the word womb?
Actually, we didn’t choose it. It was the name of the competition held by Reale Immobili. They chose it for its meaning as a place that contains, protects, and generates growth. But also, and in particular, as a place that’s safe and pleasant.
When it came to interpreting this into reality, we imagined a structure that could radically change the way we experience the office space. A structure in which the natural elements of greenery, air, and light are among the building blocks of the project. On each level, the building will have a livable outdoor space – a terrace where people can spend time resetting between meetings or, weather permitting, working. To do this, to incorporate air, light, and greenery into the design, the load-bearing structure of the building is separate from its envelope and from the physical limits of the internal spaces.
A lot of towers have been built in Milan over recent years. What’s the point of them in 2021? In your opinion, what’s changing in cities nowadays?
There are a lot of arguments for building vertically. First of all, from the point of view of sustainability, the tower is an intelligent building in that it doesn’t use a lot of land, it’s self-contained and therefore wastes little energy, and it makes it possible to optimize installations and use renewable sources, such as solar.
If we look at towers from the urban point of view, it’s not possible to categorically state that they’re a good or bad thing. There are contexts in which towers are an intrinsic part of the urban fabric – Manhattan’s a perfect example – while there are others where they just don’t fit in with the genetic makeup of the city, such as Rome. Towers have long been a part of Milan’s skyline, however. It seems to us, therefore, that a new tower can only enrich the cityscape.
I should also mention a couple of things regarding the post-Covid working world and the changes brought about in terms of office tower design – an issue that’s certainly an important part of the Womb project. Covid has made it necessary to rethink workspaces, not so much in terms of efficiency but in terms of the quality of the environment in which people work as well as live.
If I’m not mistaken, this is the first tower you’ve designed. Is there anything different in the way you approached this iconic building type?
Going back to the previous point, rather than focusing on the tower as an icon, our initial focus, which formed the foundation of the project, were the concepts of identity and the specifics of this location.
Over the last decade, there’s been a dramatic shift in how Milan has developed, with a lot more tall buildings radically changing its skyline. In most cases, the raison d’être behind these buildings was the quest for formal originality – at any cost – with the aim of surprising people and triggering discussion. The result has been a generic style of architecture that, really, could be found anywhere in the world. Given the task of designing a tower in Milan, we believed it was both necessary and correct to focus on the identity and nature of Milanese architecture so as to ensure that the new tower would fit into its setting not as a foreign object but as an ideal continuation of a history and a story that’s come down to us from across the years.
Then, to further reinforce this concept from the perspective of the local building stock, it was decided that the new tower should be built up to the two building lines on the streets that mark off the site. This ideally restores the shape of the block and heals the interruption created by the previous building, whose design had no regard for the shape of the site. Although from a morphological point of view, towers are, by definition, difficult to trace back to any sort of organic element in the urban fabric (seen as a structured set of buildings and open spaces), in the case of Womb, we deliberately set out to create a strong geometric and spatial relationship between the new building and its setting.
I was intrigued by the “forest” of holm oaks that will be growing right up to the roof at 290 feet, that is, the full height of the building. Is there any particular significance in the choice of holm oak?
The holm oak is a tribute to the Torre Guinigi in Lucca, the first tower – and perhaps the only one – in the history of architecture that has trees on its roof. It’s a very poetic image that’s always stayed with us, and this was an opportunity to reuse it.
>>> Another interview with Labics appears in Viaggio in Italia, architetture e città, in which the studio discusses its design philosophy and the Fondazione MAST in Bologna.
Steel and concrete (reinforced on site and precast) will be the main materials. What’s the reason for this choice, which – on paper, at least – doesn’t seem particularly green?
The structure of Womb doesn’t just play a load-bearing function but is part of the architectural language and expression of the building itself. From this perspective, it was important for us that the building materials reflected the identity of those used in many of Milan’s tall buildings, from Duomo to Torre Velasca. We couldn’t have used timber, for example, even though it’s very fashionable today.
Beyond the materials, though, the structure of Torre Womb plays an important bioclimatic function in the way it provides shade for glass surfaces. Its shape and size are defined by the percentage of opaque surfaces necessary to achieve the required values. If we’d used a steel structure, for example, we would have had to have covered it with GRC or Aquapanel cladding to achieve the right shape from a bioclimatic point of view. And that seemed completely wrong to us both in terms of sustainability – using two different elements instead of one – and the relationship between form and structure, which is a central element of our work.
Sustainability is a complex issue that can’t be reduced to the slogans we often hear. The advantages and disadvantages must always be weighed up for every project.
With Pantheon House in Rome, you created an environment that brings the outside in. What will happen with the tower? Will the interior dialogue with Milan and the surroundings?
Although it’s a private undertaking, Torre Womb will play a public role, becoming a standard bearer for that idea of “urban generosity” that distinguishes many Italian buildings. On the ground floor, beneath the structural ribbing, there’s a garden café – a place that’s open to the whole city for an outdoor lunch or a drink after a day at work. Inside, the large triple-height atrium houses various functions, some of which are open to the public as well as the office workers.
>>> Do you know Pantheon House? Read this article published in The Plan 131: Pantheon House: The philosophy of furnishing
A curiosity about the tower?
The unusual shape of the building is the result of a long process of analyzing the constraints and opportunities presented by its setting. In particular, since we wanted to follow the lines of the block, but needed to move back from the street relative to the building opposite, the structure of the building retracts inwards from the street frontages that mark off the site on Via Tito Speri and Via D’Azeglio, bending and developing into the depths of the lot.
Courtesy of Labics