• Itineraries

Residential cells and prefabrication: contemporary housing

The cell

The complex, multifaceted project Magistretti developed in collaboration with the MBM company is one of the high points of Magistretti’s ideas about contemporary dwelling: the prefab company asked him to invent a building process that could be adapted to a variety of urban situations. The focus was more on the internal domestic landscape rather than context: an apartment-type which, whatever its size, ensured good spatial quality. It was an attempt to apply the results achieved during the design of numerous upper class bourgeois houses (e.g., the Bassetti apartment or the Cerruti apartment built in the fifties). but on a much bigger scale and using a model that even less affluent classes could afford. The minimum cell has a day area inspired by the dictates of the Modern Movement and Mies van der Rohe’s teachings on fluidity (Plan of a housing type for the MBM prefab complexes, 1964). To enhance perception the cell stretches in an uninterrupted sequence: living room, dining room and kitchen are an unicum giving onto a loggia; their functions could be separated using modernfold partitions which would become invisible when stacked in a corner. The bedrooms were located next to this Milanese-style living room; the number of bedrooms in each apartment varied, but they were grouped together based on repeatable, identical planimetric layouts. However, the architect’s main focus was to design fixed furnishings to simplify contemporary housing. Their size depended on the number of users: the traditional bulky wardrobes usually found in bedrooms were replaced by modern closets placed along corridors while kitchens were equipped with serial-produced unit furniture ready for the new essential household appliances: in short, a “turn-key” house, the first of its kind in Italy.

From the apartment to the building, and on to the city

The project for the MBM company was one of the first experiments in Italy in the field of heavy prefab systems applied to housing. As a result Magistretti was commissioned numerous projects: the famous group of towers in the Gallaratese region (which actually turned into a contemporary architectural workshop); the houses in the Fulvio Testi neighbourhood in Milan; houses in the province, for example the complexes for the Europa and Fuxia cooperatives (both built in Trezzano sul Naviglio); and the seventy-house complex built for the Istituto Autonomo delle case Popolari at Buccinasco. All these projects were jointly designed with engineer Enrico Brusa, the company’s technical director; the buildings were nothing but an aggregation of the base-cells studied for the apartments and repeated as regards their height and length to either create fourteen-floor towers or long horizontal blocks along the outskirts of the new suburban settlements (Possible layouts of the prefab buildings in the MBM complexes, 1966). The strict reiteration of the building schema - an essential characteristic of every project that exploited the prefab technique - is visible in the façade: a vertical sequence of the loggias next to the living rooms, alternating with the solid and projecting vertical columns corresponding to the only staircase leading to the entrances of the apartments in each nucleus. The endless options with which to personalise the materials used for the closure partitions made it possible to adapt each building to the client’s specific requirements, thereby ensuring a very high margin of flexibility, including for the finishes. In certain tables the latter appear to have been inspired by the typically Milanese tradition of baked brick, revamped in a contemporary style. This may have happened after the lesson imparted by Torre Velasca designed by the BBPR group and headed by Magistretti’s acknowledged maestro: Ernesto Nathan Rogers.


The building method Magistretti studied for the MBM company was based on a reinterpretation of a French patent known by its commercial name: the Balency System. The latter had already been used to build Thamesmead, a new urban settlement for 60,000 inhabitants built on the outskirts of London. This interesting project does not use a traditional system of prefabricated beams and piers assembled on site (the most common solution at that time), but involves self-supporting reinforced concrete partitions assembled in highly mechanised worksites (MBM folder). The panels and other structural elements (e.g., staircases) were produced in factories that were likewise avant-garde; concrete was poured into moulds which were then specially treated, either with vibrations – to obtain perfectly smooth surfaces – or heated with hot water so that they were ready to be used in just a few hours. Each element already had frames for doors and windows (in the case of panels for vertical closures), conduits for the systems (hydraulic, electrical, telephone) and, in some cases, a radiant heating system: this technological solution ensured high levels of environmental comfort and was very avant-garde compared to the period when Magistretti was testing this solution.

Maria Manuela Leoni