Giovanni Muzio, Ca’ Brutta (1919-1922)
Between 1919 and 1922, the architect Giovanni Muzio designed and supervised the construction of one of the most iconic building in Milan, in cooperation with the engineer Pier Fausto Barelli and the architect Vittorino Colonnese. Located at the intersection between via della Moscova and via Turati (then via Principe Umberto), the residential building is composed by apartments for the wealthy middle class of the city. Once finished, it was criticised by a large part of the professionals but also by the Milanese people: that is why it is still commonly known as Ca’ Brutta, a nickname coming from the Milanese dialect that literally means ‘ugly house’. For the first time since its construction, between 2013 and 2016 the building was completely restored: the results were temporarily exhibited at the Castello Sforzesco and are now collected within the website named Ca’ Brutta.
The Spatial Construction of the New Man’s Urban Reality
Narrative Rationalization: Staging a Collective Spectacle
Having introduced an indisputable change, already at the very beginning of the twenties, Ca’ Brutta is nowadays considered the first, material manifesto of the architectural group Novecento, made up of Muzio and other professionals such as Alpago Novello and Gio Ponti, and promoted by Margherita Sarfatti. Generally disapproved of and misunderstood, the building was instead an incredible innovation in the field, since it represented a modern interpretation of the Italian classical architecture. Ca’ Brutta is a majestic building — especially for those times — for residential use, with its six floors and a wide extension. It shows also a structural and decorative modernity in its equipment, with features such as elevators, a heating system and hot water, electricity and underground garages. Moreover, every middle class apartment had its own comfortable spaces, with rooms grouped by function (e.g. living, sleeping or representative areas) and optimal natural light conditions.
The reinforced concrete structure appears externally like a reinterpretation of a Renaissance building, with its tripartite façade and a lateral ‘triumphal-arch-entrance’, both asymmetrically decorated with geometric motifs. The potentially problematic position of the building — at the intersection between two streets not far from the city centre — was brilliantly solved with a curved surface, which is the point of connection between the two sides. As well explained by Annegret Burg (Burg 1991), the break with tradition introduced by Ca’ Brutta resides most of all in its contrasting and disturbing appearances, exactly like Giorgio de Chirico did in his painted cities. In Muzio’s building the architectural historicism — especially the late Liberty style so commonly used in Milan — was definitely abandoned in favour of a more modern taste. People, at that time, were still not able to accept the unexpected, such as dislocated entrances and ornaments: that is why the architect received so much criticism. With this work, however, he was able to create a new architectural model, giving the Milanese middle class a ‘status’: if the city was the public domain of the most prestigious families, these apartments were their private and representative spaces.
The language used by the architect continues and, at the same time, abandons the tradition, since it is an ‘updated’ version of it, a brand-new chapter. The attention given to the forms as well as to the contents is the key through which one can truly read and understand this and all the buildings that will follow. In the end, Muzio’s Ca’ Brutta was so effective because it was capable of ‘foreseeing’ what would happen later, embodying the ‘typical Italian identity’. As stated by the architect, 'the authentic "italianità" was jealously pursued and wanted […] it was pointless to keep echoing the foreign trends and it was insane to throw away our traditional heritage and our millenary experience' ('Gelosamente fu ricercata e voluta l’assoluta italianità […] era vano continuare a far eco a tutte le mode di fuori, e insano era per noi far getto del patrimonio della nostra tradizione e della nostra esperienza millenaria' (Burg 1991, 30).
Burg, Annegret. 1991. Novecento milanese. I novecentisti e il rinnovamento dell’architettura a Milano fra il 1920 e il 1940. Milan: Federico Motta.
Calvenzi, Giovanna (ed.). 2016. Operazione Ca’ Brutta 1921-2016. Rome: Contrasto books.
Irace, Fulvio. 1997. Giovanni Muzio (1893-1982). Opere. Milan: Electa.