A Look At Milan’s Best-Kept Architectural Secrets

Behind closed doors exists a world of exuberant, symbolic design.

Every city has a distinct style of architecture that’s usually visible as soon as you touch down and walk a few blocks. Chicago has its skyscrapers, San Francisco has its pastel Victorian houses, Venice has its ornate palazzos, Brooklyn has its brownstones. But in Milan, you could spend an entire day in the city and never see its defining and wholly unique spaces: the entryways into residential buildings.


Known as ingressi, Italian for entrances, these spaces just past the front door are decked out in lavish materials, vibrant color, sculptural reliefs, inlay floors, and more. It’s the design equivalent of a cheat day–as much juicy detail packed into a singular moment while the rest of the building is fairly sensible.

Over 140 of these doorways from modern buildings constructed between 1920 and 1970 are documented in Entryways of Milan, a new book from Taschen. While they share similar characteristics–a door, stairs, hallway, and so on–each has its own flavor.

“The ingressi reveal these nuances of lives and living to us in the most subtle and allusive ways,” Karl Kolbitz, the book’s editor, writes in his introduction.

A 1965 entryway by Umberto Riva, a student of famed Italian brutalist Carlo Scarpa, features a ceiling painted ultramarine blue and transitions to ochre just past a glass door with a marigold frame and enameled metal handles. A 1952 house by Gio Ponti has a doorway outfitted with slabs of pink sandstone and white, gray, and green marble. A plain-looking brick facade of a 1958 building belies a sleek entryway with a polished black stone floor, black walls, and a frosted glass door with a massive sculpture composed of metal crescents.

The origins of ornate doorways in Milan go back to the 16th century.


Milan in the 1500s experienced a growth spurt, which coincided with the rise of Archbishop Borromeo, who preached a motto of humility. During this time, the architecture in Milan became more austere in the public realm; however, expressions of wealth and grandeur–especially from the growing bourgeoisie who commissioned grand palazzos–endured inside. The androne, the initial spaces people see when moving from the front door to a receiving courtyard, took on more importance and became a powerful place to impart a strong first impression.

“The androne was a space in which the aspirational sentiments of the rising middle class would find apt architectural expression, apart from the public gaze–behind closed doors, so to say,” writes architect Fabrizio Ballabio in an essay appearing in Entryways of Milan. “[B]y the end of the seventeenth century, that a house should be built ‘bela de denter, pei padroni, brutta de foera, pei mincioni‘ (beautiful on the inside for its owners and ugly on the outside for the fools) was much more than a mere dictum and indeed became a distinctive characteristic of most of the private construction built in Milan at that period.”

Achille Luigi Ferraresi, 1952–1957. [Photo: © Paola Pansini]
While elaborate entryways go back centuries, the modernist expression was shaped by the forces of economics and politics. The ascendant middle class lived in apartment buildings, not grand palazzos, and the architectural tradition endured in these multi-family structures. Milan has a reputation for being a center of industry, and, in the entrances, modern architects called upon skilled local craftsmen to show off their best work, like advanced stonecutting and metalwork. Manufacturers of new materials, like laminates (a favorite of Milan’s most famous modernist architect, Gio Ponti) and high-performance porcelain were also called upon to lend their expertise in outfitting these ambitious spaces.

Meanwhile, the decisions about what to use as ornamentation shifted with the times, too. For example, in buildings constructed after WWII, ceramics became popular because they were durable, affordable, and “devoid of any fascist, monumental, or aristocratic overtones, rendering it politically inoffensive and ideal to symbolize a new, democratic, postwar Italy,” design historian Lisa Hockemeyer writes in the book.

Palazzo Civita Gigiotti Zanini, 1927–1933. [Photo: © Paola Pansini]

Indeed, the political symbolism of these spaces runs deep. They celebrate an everyday experience in a monumental way. “Collectively invested upon, owned, and ultimately maintained, Milan’s ingressi were culturally significant in ways that, in the current climate of financial self-interest and social distrust, are almost inconceivable,” Ballabio writes. “They have also become one of the city’s enduring leitmotifs, making the ‘simple’ act of entering a timeless and geographically pervasive ritual so dear to the Milanesi.”

See a few of the structures featured in Entryways of Milan in the slide show above, and find the book on for $70.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.