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A Rooftop Garden Grows A Community in Milan

An architectural design studio creates a modular solution for an edible rooftop garden—and builds a community along the way.

A Rooftop Garden Grows A Community in Milan

architecture & interior

In the heart of the Brera district of Milan, high above the bustling cafés, high fashion boutiques, and a towering Renaissance castle, architecture and design studio Piuarch has planted a garden. Unsurprisingly for a studio known for its collaborations with fashion houses like Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Fendi, and Givenchy, as well as its participation in the Venice Biennale of Architecture, their approach to the garden has been one of innovation, discovery, and imagination.

Piuarch wanted a space that would not only be generative and aesthetic, but that would also form an entire ecosystem. From a nursery where seeds are germinated to a productive source of food and a compost generator that provides fertilizer for the next growth cycle, Piuarc wanted the garden design to be energy-offsetting, modular, and repeatable—a model that could be duplicated at scale.

A Rooftop Garden Grows A Community in Milan

Above the Piuarch office in Milan an open-air garden rises above the structure. Built on modular systems of pallets, it is quick and affordable to assemble or change. The wood creates a wooden path network for gardening and socializing. (Photo: Piuarch, The Gardens of Eden)

They arrived at a design that employed a modular pallet system. Low-cost shipping materials were used to build a walkway, also doubling up as containers for the garden. Repurposing this material for dual uses defrays the cost of production and makes use of material that would otherwise be discarded. With the design in place, the studio was then met with some structural challenges. The architecture of the building—originally built in the 1930s—would not be load-bearing for the weight of the garden. The site was elevated through fiberglass structures supported along the perimeter of the building. This created an elevated platform upon which to build.

Landscape designer Cornelius Gavril, in collaboration with organic seed and fertilizer company VerdeVivo, then set to work planting a variety of fruit trees—plum, fig, peach, lemon, and mandarin orange—and a rich selection of vegetables that includes tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, eggplants, peppers, chilies, and various types of lettuce. Ornamental flowering plants like passionflower, climbing rose, cornflower, and larkspur were combined with edible flowers like cosmos, sunflower, and nasturtium. An officinal garden, comprised of plants used “to rediscover the medicinal and therapeutic properties of plants used for pharmaceutical purposes over the centuries,” Piuarch says of their intentions.

A Rooftop Garden Grows A Community in Milan

Garden beds are filled with lacinato kale and various lettuce creating an edible bounty in the heart of the city (Photo: Piuarch, The Gardens of Eden)

However, it has been the social impact of the garden that has been most surprising for the studio. The garden became a gathering point for members of the studio, as well as those who use the building, and the larger community. “It creates a new social space of interaction, both for our collaborators and clients, as well as for the local schoolchildren, who can attend laboratories and learn how to start their own vegetable garden.”

When considering your own rooftop garden, start on a small scale. Anything from a few potted plants to square foot gardening can create a new viable source of homegrown food or ornamental plants on your roof. The same guidelines apply to rooftop gardening as for any other space: consider sun exposure, rainfall, and climate. Then, think about what you’d like to grow: kitchen, herb, medicinal, or cutting gardens are great productive options for a yield you can use in your everyday life. However, with rooftop container gardening, it is also important to consider the root depth of the plants you choose, as well as the load-bearing capacity of the roof. Make sure to check on the sturdiness of your rooftop before beginning a large-scale project.

A Rooftop Garden Grows A Community in Milan

Blossoming cosmos have been planted along the edges of the seating area, filling the rooftop with dots of color. (Photo: Piuarch, The Gardens of Eden)

No matter which type of garden you plant, the true joy of a rooftop garden is in discovering new spaces and ways to grow where nothing grew before. “One of the most fascinating aspects of this project is that it created a new space with so many meanings and positive outcomes out of a space that was previously useless and inaccessible,” said Piuarch. It’s one way to go wild, even in the heart of the city.

This story was written by Abbye Churchill and originally featured in The Gardens ofEden.