Oscar Niemeyer’s modernist citadel near Milan was designed for publishing giant Mondadori, a powerful Italian brand whose identity and culture has been shaped by the building for decades
Encountering the headquarters of Gruppo Mondadori, Italy’s largest publishing house, is in many ways a surreal experience. The site at Segrate, just past Milan’s Linate airport and set within a vast suburban and industrial sprawl, offers no clues on approach as to what lies within. Then suddenly the extraordinary façade, unmistakably the work of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, appears like a modernist apparition. Gleaming in the winter sun, this building harks back to a bygone age of big architects when publishers had the means and the vision to do things differently.
“We are talking about a different time, when consumption was enormous,” says Ernesto Mauri, Mondadori’s CEO, of the Italian publishing industry back in the 1970s. In 1968, Giorgio Mondadori, son of the company’s founder Arnoldo, was so taken with Niemeyer’s work in Brazil’s new capital – particularly its foreign ministry’s HQ, Palácio Itamaraty (see issue 33) – that he called on him to design the headquarters that would house the growing publisher when it moved from central Milan.
“Mondadori was unlike other industrialists,” says Mauri. “He was an innovator and he wanted to create a symbol for the company.” Oscar Niemeyer set about designing what Mondadori called “an architectural advert” that would cement, quite literally, his company’s prestige as an economic and cultural leader. On the building’s completion in 1975, and after the enlightened investment by insurance company Generali (which remains Mondadori’s landlord), the publisher moved into some of the most impressive offices in Italy.
The main building is composed of a rectangular, reinforced-concrete structure that holds a five-level steel-and-glass office block within. Twenty-three slender pillars form a series of arches that give the façade its distinctive likeness to that ministry in Brasilia. But rather than being a straight copy, here Niemeyer chose an irregular formation, giving the Palazzo Mondadori an arguably more lyrical and rhythmical dimension. The ethereal nature of the building is given yet more lift by the presence of a lake on which the whole office block appears to float.
Felice Nenna and Chiara Capuzzi are senior members of the real-estate management team for the Mondadori Group and, as trained architects, are expert tour guides of the labyrinth-like interiors of the modernist complex. At the area servizi (service area) in the shadow of the great arches of the office block above, Nenna explains: “There wasn’t anything here in Segrate so, to tempt people out of Milan, facilities had to be designed.”
Positioned around the square are a canteen, a restaurant, the switchboard (which also houses the help desk), a bar (for mandatory caffeine breaks) and below, a bookshop stocking all of Mondadori’s publications (and offering a 50 per cent discount for employees). In years past there was also a post office and a bank here. Lunchtime sees Niemeyer’s intimate piazza fill up with workers as they make their way to, from and between these services; it’s a town in miniature.
The asymmetrical layout with its surrounding low arches helps define this as a place of relaxation, says Capuzzi, who has been working for the company for nearly two decades. “The architecture in this area is more playful.” Niemeyer’s socially conscious planning of all the Palazzo Mondadori’s service areas was certainly progressive and the easy flow of workers around the different public spaces testifies to an architectural success story. But it is looking up at the main office block that allows for a full appreciation of what is a spectacular feat of engineering.
One person who can respect this more than most is architectural historian Professor Francesco Dal Co. He is a regular occupier of the building, being the director of architecture magazine Casabella, which is one of 40-odd titles in the Mondadori magazine-publishing stable. “We should remember that to create the Palazzo, the very best of Italian engineering talent was gathered,” he says with a tone of authority. “Even in the materials that were chosen, such as the steel, engineering firsts were achieved here.” But the building obviously has a personal impact too. “People like me look at architecture in its most intimate detail every day but I never tire of admiring this place.”
In his top-floor office CEO Mauri demonstrates how he values design elements of his company’s headquarters, large and small. “What I’m sitting on?” he says, grasping both arms of his Eames chair. “It has been here as long as the building.” And although the chair’s chrome is slightly tarnished and the trim leather upholstery shows signs of renovation, he says: “This is a work of art; why would we replace it?”
On Mauri’s initiative the Palazzo Mondadori’s nighttime illumination was overhauled and given the artistic treatment by renowned lighting designer Mario Nanni; in 2017 the lights were switched on at a special event for staff. “I wanted to reinforce the symbolic value of this building,” he says with conviction. “For us the Mondadori Group is the Palazzo Mondadori.” Through careful and constant investment in Niemeyer and Giorgio Mondadori’s monumental vision, this firm has not only preserved a globally important piece of heritage but has maintained its corporate identity, profiting from the most handsome of architectural assets.
Chapter and verse
Mondadori is Italy’s largest publisher of books (28 per cent of the market) and magazines (32 per cent) and in 2017 celebrated 110 years in operation. In 1991 the company was bought up by Silvio Berlusconi’s Fininvest and today Marina, his daughter, is the group’s chair. In 2016 the company expanded its books arm, Mondadori Libri, with the acquisition of rcs Libri; leading brands include Einaudi, Piemme, Rizzoli, Sperling & Kupfer, Electa and, of course, Mondadori. The firm produces some 40 magazine titles from celebrity-and-gossip-focused Chi, women’s lifestyle Grazia and Donna Moderna to architecture and design titles Casabella and Interni.
Providing both a personal connection with its staff while offering a compelling brand statement through expensive design is something Palazzo Mondadori has undoubtedly achieved. While this project might hark back to a bygone age of monumental commissions for wealthy publishers, the idea behind it bears a striking resemblance to some more modern HQs rising up on the edges of cities, particularly on the US west coast. Big name architects, open-plan communal areas for staff, free amenities, a quiet location away from the prying eyes of competitors: we could be talking about Norman Foster’s Apple campus, or Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick’s upcoming Google campus. There’s an independence and a significance to the “campus” model that enables these companies to both show their might through architecture and form worlds that benefit the staff and the business. Done smartly, the campus model can also help regenerate an unloved corner of a city as a bright young crop of talent moves in.
The case of Mondadori could be seen as proof that the model works. While some built elements are showing their wear, there’s still a vibrancy within the company culture and a pride among staff to work here. This the HQ of a publisher of books and magazines, of course – a slower model than that of digital publishers. When a media group needing to provide a more immediate take on the world around them ships out to a quiet corner of the city and starts to isolate itself, the effects can be detrimental. In London, where high rents pushed news-media brands out of their traditional homes on central Fleet Street in the 1980s, it made it much tougher for journalists to do their jobs properly. Being able to duck out and discreetly meet a disgruntled politician in a Westminster wine bar could mean the difference between a scoop and a missed opportunity. When your office is a one-hour taxi ride away from the heart of the action, chances are you’re going to miss your moment. News media needs to be tapped into the actual world around it and, as Google and Facebook finally start to wise up to their journalistic responsibilities, this should be uppermost in their thoughts.