Norman, Zaha, Daniel, Cesar and many more of world architecture’s signature brands are flocking to Italy to put their stamp on the design capital of Europe

Milan Fair - This volcano and river of glass, by Massimiliano Fuksas, erupts over a central promenade linking eight exhibition halls
Milan Fair - This volcano and river of glass, by Massimiliano Fuksas, erupts over a central promenade linking eight exhibition halls

Milan, the city that leads the world’s design and exhibition industries, requires a similarly exhibitionist style for the buildings around them. Such ambition entails urban development on a grand scale, and there are about 100 projects in the offing with a total value of £18bn. As well as innumerable museums, offices, design studios, and luxury houses, Italy’s second city will shortly be home to an enormous trade fair complex, a “city of fashion” and a world jewellery centre.

The public authorities and private entrepreneurs involved in these schemes have lined up an array of architectural glitterati for them, including Zaha Hadid and Foster and Partners from the UK, Arata Isozaki from Japan, and Cesar Pelli, Daniel Libeskind and Harry Cobb from the USA. And that is not to say that native architects, including Renzo Piano and Massimiliano Fuksas, are not holding their own against the outsiders.

The city’s spectacular regeneration is kicked off by Milan Fair: its £540m exhibition complex is under construction near the airport and due for completion in April. As designed by Massimiliano Fuksas among others, eight giant exhibition halls are linked by a central mall beneath an irregular wavy clear-glazed roof that tumbles over minor atriums and auditoriums like a river in flood.

For its next trick, the trade fair is planning a second, even more daring project. Located in the city centre, City Life is an extraordinary fashion show of three curving skyscrapers, a design museum and angular housing blocks, all gathered around a nature park. The architects here are Hadid, Isozaki, Libeskind and Pier Paolo Maggiora.

No less amazing is the City of Fashion, another high-rise, mixed-use regeneration project at the northern edge of the historic city centre. Here Cesar Pelli has wrapped together a fashion school and museum, exhibition space, offices, housing and shops in crescent shapes around a spiky central skyscraper.

As for Foster and Partners, the British practice is designing a city within a city on a former steel mill site on the city outskirts. Although it does not reach for the skies, Santa Giulia will provide housing for 12,000 people, along with a congress centre, retail space and offices, all arranged around a city park and pedestrian shopping boulevard.

The ambition and exhibitionism of these developments is obvious. Whether they will all see the light of day before they fade from architectural fashion is as yet unclear.