Stefano Boeri’s Urban Trees Grow in Milan

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11.30.16 | By
Stefano Boeri’s Urban Trees Grow in Milan

If you’re a fan of architecture and design, you might know the work of Stefano Boeri, first by his time as editor of Domus, the Italian architectural magazine started by Gio Ponti in 1928, and where he spent three years before moving on to four years as editor of Abitare, one of the world’s best known design magazines. In his post-editor life, Stefano has turned his full attention to his own architectural projects. As part of an effort to revitalize Milan’s historic city center, he recently completed a design for two sustainable residential towers. Called Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) the apartments, are inspired by a need to create urban biodiversity, and will have more than 900 trees on 96,000 feet of terraces.


So that brings us to the Milan Design Week in April of this year, when the 3M Design team collaborated with Stefano Boeri Architetti to create “Urban Tree Lounge”. It’s more than a little nod to the importance that trees have played in Boeri’s work, with a decidedly urban edge. The “trees” are created using 3M films, nonwovens, and adhesives, which created a kaleidoscope of dancing light. At the base of the tree is space for visitors to rest weary feet (and as any design exhibition attendee knows, that’s no small thing!). The reflective light created by the leaves was intended to inspire visitors to “reflect” on their experiences in Milan and hopefully, the unexpected combination of materials and architecture would provide some inspiration fodder.


“Thanks to an energizing exchange of ideas, we were able to achieve the goal of creating a conceptual tree that, like an organic one, absorbs, filters and mirrors the sunlight to create a shadow to reflect and recharge. It’s my hope that this prototype can influence creative approach to design in public spaces,” said Stefano.

Stefano Boeri and 3M Chief Design Officer Eric Quint

Stefano Boeri and 3M Chief Design Officer Eric Quint

We managed to snag some of Stefano’s limited free time, and talk with 3M Chief Design Officer Eric Quint to ask a few questions about inspiration, the importance of light in design, organizational hacks and more!

Where do you tend to find your inspiration as an architect?

SB: I find inspiration in day to day life, fueled by constant interpersonal exchanges with the people that come to our studio, lectures I go to, and guests I invite to my classes in the Polytechnic University of Milan and in the Tongji University.


Many of your projects have a “green” or sustainable aspect to them. What is the importance of sustainability in architecture and design?

SB: I believe in an evolution of the term sustainability. Usually it has been associated with a mere technical approach based on energy regulations and material efficiency. Sustainability has a more complex reality where three spheres are intertwined. First, the urban sphere with the human space, the natural sphere – spaces of minimal human intervention – and the rural sphere – the natural productive environment. A new concept of sustainability puts man in the center of this encounter, and by placing ourselves here it is necessary to ponder the relationship with all other species.

EQ: For 3M, sustainability is about achieving balance across economic, environmental and social factors while addressing global challenges with one common goal: to improve every life. Design plays a critical role throughout every phase of development and commercialization and it is about bringing sustainability, design and materials together to create solutions that have long-lasting impact.


How do you balance your creative involvement in projects versus your studio management related activities?

SB: Our studio has a unique work environment. The concept is of a social space where energies emerge. It’s a space of constant exchange of ideas and where all are invited to participate on different projects – from architecture to research, from industrial design to society.

It has become increasingly complex to manage the process of creativity and business and the many variables that impact priorities. Now we are involved in several pro-bono projects, such as a rebuild for the city of Amatrice (heavily damaged after a recent earthquake) and a public installation for a charity center in Milan, Italy.


What was the inspiration for the Milan Design Week installation and can you tell us more about the “Urban Tree Lounge”?

SB: One of the main inspirations was an advertisment from the 60’s for an Italian liquor called Cynar. They had a slogan “Bevere Cynar, il aperitivo fatto di carciofo contro il logorio della vita moderna” which means: Drink Cynar, the aperitivo made of different plants and herbs against the strains of modern life. The ad that was continuously present on television featured the actor Ernesto Calindri who was quietly sitting at a table in the middle of a street full cars, having a drink. His peaceful state is somehow a reminder of the search for calm in the current chaos in which we are all inserted.


How important was creative collaboration for you in this project?

SB: It was really really important. The constant exchange of information and knowledge with such an “avant-garde” and innovative material company as 3M was substantial for the project. Their research and evolution of materials, and their contribution was without a doubt an essential part of the project.

EQ: Our design teams worked together with shared values uniting quality with purpose to create design solutions that are beautiful, functional, and impactful. We thrive on collaboration, so it was a privilege to work with a partner like Stefano Boeri whose architectural influence, urban sensibility and sustainable mindset bring ideas to life.

The installation utilized materials traditionally used in very different ways, such as 3M Dichroic Film, typically used for architectural application on windows. How do you draw inspiration from unique materials to find new creative and imaginative ways to use them? 

SB: The incredible thing about a material like 3M Dichroic Film is that it plays with basic elements like light. For this project, we were interested in exploring the current state of public spaces, and how they can entangle the notion of contemplation and relaxation (historical behaviors in Italian piazzas) with the current behavior of information exchange and constant communication that have occupied our daily life – there is practically a physiological need of recharging our gadgets that can also be applied to our bodies.


The Urban Tree Lounge was created to be a space for people to recharge their minds, as well as their electronic devices. What is the overall message you wanted visitors to take away from their experience?

SB: The Urban Tree Lounge was indeed a space for recharge, people and mobile devices, but also a prototype of intimiate public space that aims to generate spaces for exchange but also for the decompression of time. We wanted to create an opportunity for people to experience magic moments of inspiration and reflection combining materials and architecture in new and creative ways. A place to recharge the body and soul, creating a unique experience.

It is necessary to connect the current condition of virtual exchange that we have developed with the internet and new media, with the physical world, with the movement of our bodies and with the tangibility of contact.

Light and the use of reflective 3M materials were a key aspect of this project. What was the inspiration behind this? Why is light such an important part of architecture?

SB: Light has always been a matter of interest for architecture, from the classic architecture of gothic churches, passing through the modern architecture of Le Corbusier and arriving to the most corporate examples of contemporary skyscrapers. Light is the medium on which we relate body with the outside, passing through the physical constructions. Thanks to the materials of 3M, we could explore the possibilities of variation of light passing through a thin film, also the capacity to bounce and thus reflecting images.


What were your biggest takeaways from 2016 Milan Design Week and did the Urban Tree Lounge meet expectations?

SB: Milan Design Week has managed to once again become a center of creativity, and a place where energy and innovation have the opportunity to become physical. The Urban Tree Lounge executed in collaboration with 3M is evidence of how energy is transformed into processes that later have an outcome, that are not left behind archived in a virtual world – it is evidence of how a multitude of inputs manage to overcome distance, language, budgets, timelines to become tactile realities.

EQ: The conversation began with an interest in designing an experience that integrated 3M materials with collaborative creativity to welcome visitors and encourage reflection on new opportunities to design thoughtful solutions for tomorrow, and the Urban Tree Lounge provided that. A place for people to reflect and recharge.

See more of Stefano’s work here and learn more about 3M’s Dichroic Film here.

Amy Azzarito is the author of "Nest: The Secret History of Things that Make a House a Home" forthcoming in 2020.