Around 1850, Gilbert Scott dispensed his terse canon: buildings whose windows admitted an appropriate amount of light were not necessarily architecture, whereas buildings whose windows were either too small or too large at least revealed an attempt to produce architecture. Could this diktat issued a hundred and fifty years ago be a useful criterion for anyone trying to define what architecture is in the so-called digital era? Could it help to unravel the semantics of our times, or does this confusion rather stem from a cultural sea change in the very nature of built structures? Looking for over- or undersized windows might be a useful criterion for anyone driving out of Milan in search along the way of significant attempts to produce architecture. Once on the Via del Mare, our hypothetical traveller would first come across the astounding regimented array of gigantic skylights of the city’s tram depot designed by Vico Magistretti - who defined good architecture as a building capable of aging gracefully. The encounter might well stir a few questions in the mind of our traveller. Further down the highway to the east another apparition would loom into view: the new bastion - nicknamed the “aircraft carrier” - running parallel to the road and draped at regular intervals with distorted primary shapes marking out the road like milestones. Our traveller would probably be at risk of taking his eyes off the road to take another look in an attempt to grasp the artistic intent, or Kunstwollen, behind these elevations. Could it be that even in our digital times, architecture presupposes an element of theatrical panache or overstatement? The urban development under construction known as Milanofiori Nord would seem to confirm this thesis. There prevails an “aesthetic of disorder”, in the words of Luigi Pezzoli, director-in-charge of the vast urban project managed by the Brioschi group. Could this project be pointing the way on the difficult issue of how to tackle urban development in an era dominated by few resources (and fewer ambitions)? Milanofiori Nord is the name given to an articulated urban development project that can only be understood if two timeframe registers are simultaneously taken into account: the irregular spurts of building activity, and the long-term financial and intellectual commitment of Milan’s Cabassi family over four decades, now entering its fifth. A brief history must include a few key facts. First, unlike other development programmes in Milan of similar extension and timeframe - City Life, Porta Vittoria, Santa Giulia, Sesto S. Giovanni or Porta Nuova - Milanofiori Nord has successfully negotiated the tangle of red tape surrounding construction projects and by and large met the established timelines despite the global financial crisis. Second, this development area of approximately 360,000 square metres is part of a wider development area of more than two million square metres that comprises Milanofiori, Milan’s first large scale (500,000 sq m) urban venture built at the end of the Seventies, and its planned extension - Milanofiori sud - of over one million square metres. It is apparent from this overview that Milanofiori Nord’s current development phase is just another piece in the mosaic of what is a longstanding urban laboratory that has undergone rethinking and adjustments. Indeed it stands as a sort of visual archive of recent urban theories, an open-air enquiry into the nature of public space in the pre-digital and digital age. The first quarter to be built, Milanofiori, perhaps reflects the last flicker of the confidence in architecture that characterised the Sixties. Writing in the Italian weekly L’Espresso, Bruno Zevi defined the scheme for metropolitan Milan’s largest business and commercial quarter as a huge entrepreneurial wager. Richard Sachs of The Times called it a courageous response to the congestion of Milan and the rapid growth of the tertiary sector. It was certainly an innovative venture for its day and the first private development programme to use triple building volumes, floating floors and curtain walling to achieve much vaunted flexibility. A daring flourish in its day, we now condemn the straitjacket concept of an exclusively tertiary quarter realised in one-note structural language and materiality. The development of Milanofiori Nord, on the other hand, illustrates the extraordinary nature of the programme both as a real-estate business venture and for its architecture. The owners reviewed past experience and took the brave decision to turn a critical situation into an opportunity, and as a result, to take the whole question of urban space onto a higher plane. The approach was pertinent since it inevitably forced questions about what contemporary urban spaces are all about, and how the seamless functional diversity achieved by historic city centres can be reproduced without falling into the trap of the nostalgic remakes. The endless city; the generic city; the sustainable city. This string of zappy buzzwords reveals how overloaded we are today with meaningless metaphors. What making and being a city actually means today is a question asked by many. It is an insidious and to a certain extent, inappropriate question since it continues to use a word like ‘city’ that has lost its significance in today’s semantic confusion, which - like our sprawling cities themselves - blurs our visual and mental horizons in an amalgam that has neither beginning nor end. Indeed, can we still talk of the city as the hub of cultural sophistication? Milanofiori Nord’s owners wisely provide no direct answers to this conundrum. An answer is implicit, however, in their approach to development: engaging large numbers of consultants, holding several restricted competitions and actively participating in the master plan (by Erick van Egeraat) and the implementation of its landscape and construction requirements. Some eight Italian architecture practices of differing experience and fame have been involved in translating the blue print into reality, with differing degrees of success. In other words, Milanofiori Nord is a significant urban development in both theory and practice. It stands as a possible alternative to the often, incomprehensible “urban science” based on concepts of development and implementation that informs the Milan city fathers’ General Development Master Plan. Milanofiori Nord has responded with several no’s and a few yes’s. It has said no to the persistent tendency to pour money into the city’s historic centre. It has said no to the dichotomy between town centre and peripheral areas. It has said no to a city without quality. It has said no to the single-function city. It has said yes to urbanism as a “system of solitudes” in which non-built areas are not residual pieces of land but equally important segments of the city; an urbanism comprising many areas without a central nucleus: a network of nodes. Milanofiori Nord acknowledges the fundamental importance of managing not only the overall general development plan but also the individual projects of which it is made up. In Italy this has often been viewed as a secondary consideration, as Leonardo Benevolo admits in his book “La fine della città”. It was believed, Benevolo says, that the way to remedy a city’s chaotic expansion was to have a regional land-use development plan to ensure that all projects would meld harmoniously. This belief is rooted in Bottai’s conviction that the force of law enjoyed by a written document - like the injunctions carved on ancient Roman monuments - would counter all wayward phenomena. Unfortunately, however, the opposite proved true and whenever possible, developers took little heed of the official plan. The answer of Milanofiori Nord’s owners to such mystification was unequivocal: “architects should do architecture and engineers do the rest”. In other words, designers, helped and assisted on the technical and structural issues, were free to concentrate on architectural matters. Weekly meetings throughout the duration of the worksite took care of the rest, ensuring intense yet efficient decision-making and project implementation. “Everyone knows everything and seems to know it before even visiting a museum or a place”. This would appear the daily sound byte of our digital communication times that seem to have hypnotised our populations with its infinite number of media and screens. Nor is there any let-up, or time to pause and ask a series of questions that architecture and building professionals seem unable to answer with coherent professional strategies. Yet the projects thus far completed at Milanofiori Nord seem to run counter to the mainstream tendencies of a society in thrall to communication and its corollary, greenwashing. They demonstrate a return to nature and a naturalising of architectural form. Architectural whim has been replaced by an ethical agenda of environmental sustainability. The designers of the most interesting projects (CZA, OBR, 5+1 AA) have avoided being engulfed by a plethora of marketing, shopping mall or leisure space experts. They have demonstrated that even in times of radical change, architecture can still be a cultural act, even if this entails simply acknowledging the sheer weight of the support systems required of contemporary structures, from the need for parking spaces upwards. Their scope of intervention can range from making a façade’s windows, perhaps of variable geometries, meld into a graded colour scheme, to blurring the confines between a built object and its natural surrounds. In other words, they have had the humility to recognise, accept and interact with the aesthetic of disorder characterising our age; an age in which, in the eyes of Rem Koolhaas, the impetus on urban issues has now moved to the East with his much-vaunted “Singapore model”. Milanofiori Nord shows how a close-knit alliance between entrepreneurs, architects and construction professionals can achieve significant new urban schemes rooted in “Western culture”. It also reconfirms Ludwig Wittgenstein’s pithy definition that the difference between a good and bad architect is the ability - or inability - to resist temptations - like exaggerating the size of roof skylights.