Do Convention Centers Make Sense? Visiting Fiera Milano Shows How It Can Be Done

Aerial view of a large convention center

Massimiliano Fuksas

Fieramilano is the world's third largest convention center, at 3.7 million square feet of enclosed space. It was designed by Massimiliano Fuksas and is a taut, elegant collection of eight huge halls, connected by a spine of glass and steel. It cost €755 million to build, almost a billion dollars. I used to think that such things were white elephants, an artifact of an era before the internet showed us everything we needed. An urban planning disaster, taking people out of the city and dropping them in an ex-urban spaceship. Then I visited it, as a guest of Machines Italia, and it was an eye-opener.

credit: Entry /Lloyd Alter

One isn't really prepared for the scale of this thing, so big that there are two main entrances; One at the end where the high speed train from Milan stops, and this one in the middle, that leads up to the administration wing.

credit: Entry pavilion/ Lloyd Alter

A spectacular, wavy glass roof covers most of the circulation areas.

credit: Lloyd Alter

You cannot see from one end to the other, even in this shot of the main circulation spine while it is empty; it is too far. It is, in fact, the longest interior vista I have ever seen.

credit: upper level/ Lloyd Alter

It is so long and often so crowded that there is an upper level on top, complete with moving sidewalks. This actually appeared a bit superfluous, and was never busy while I was there. It may be the nature of the show; machine tools don't attract a huge crowd.

credit: Lloyd Alter

For employees who don't want to run up to the moving sidewalks, bikes are provided. As a visitor I wouldn't have minded having a bikeshare handy.

credit: Lloyd Alter

There was a much larger, busier entrance near the high speed train that connects to Milan.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Along the walkways one could find many attractive and comfortable areas for all the smokers (and there are a lot of them) to have a pleasant break.

credit: Lloyd Alter

If you got bored with the exhibits, there were a few showrooms along the spine, and a lot of very nice looking restaurants. You knew you were in Milan.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Then of course there is the raison d'etre, the exhibit halls. They are nondescript by design, and absolutely huge. Each one could suck up a Javits.

credit: Lloyd Alter

This hall had higher ceilings than the others, to accommodate monster machines that were bigger than a house.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Along the way, there were strange elements like this orb, which I was told was a meeting room.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Surrounding the convention center are dramatic hotels, such as these two leaning towers,

credit: Nice Shades / Lloyd Alter

This one was covered by a fascinating screen to shade it.

credit: Lloyd Alter

TreeHugger looks at life through green coloured glasses, and one has to wonder about the virtue of moving all this massive equipment around so that people can fly in to gawk at it in a billion dollar set of giant barns. But on the other hand, the internet can't compare to meeting people face to face and seeing the real objects. The purpose of this trip was to show North American journalists and writers the scale and sophistication of Italian manufacturing, and it was impressive. But the scale and sophistication of the Fieramilano was overwhelming. I have never seen anything like it.