Just a decade ago, the area known as Porta Nuova in Milan was a place you would avoid at all costs. By day, the seedy wasteland did nothing but block transit from a pleasant few hours of shopping at Corso Como 10 to any number of convenient quarters, such as the restaurant-packed Isola or the Repubblica district where the Hotel Principe reigns. By night, the neighborhood hosted an unsavory line-up of drug dealers and prostitutes offering every flavor of nocturnal misconduct to a sketchy clientele.
Now, the neighborhood which once earned the unflattering title as the single largest abandoned area in a city center in all of Europe, looks like a scene from an upscale real estate brochure: rolling grass lawns, parks, bridges, foot paths, 30 new giant buildings cut from gleaming glass all of them environmentally certified—and a workforce of professionals who sweep in each day to eat, shop, work and even sleep in the bustling community.
Behind all of this razzmatazz sits a humble building that is dwarfed in dimensions and grandeur from its skyscraping sisters. Its front yard is populated by a children’s playground, a ground-floor restaurant Ratanà, whose seating tumbles out from the building, and a large-scale, perfectly manicured vegetable garden that runs along one side.
This is the Fondazione Riccardo Catella, the spiritual compass as-it-were of the entire Porta Nuova project and the first building to be erected (in 2005) on the now bustling-site. The Foundation was masterminded by Manfredi Catella, co-founder and CEO and co-founder of COIMA sgr (formally Hines Italia sgr the real estate company which with Catella oversaw Porta Nuova’s entire transformation), together with his American wife Kelly Russell, with the aim of promoting environmental and sustainable best practices not just with the Porta Nuova development but throughout Milan.
“Every time I come here and see kids playing on this playground, it makes me extremely happy,” says Russell, the Director or Marketing and Communications for COIMA sgr, as well as Managing Director of the Foundation. Each afternoon, mobs of kids—including four of Russell’s own, aged 11, 9, 6 and 16 months—enjoy the play area in front of the Foundation while their parents take in an aperitivo at one of Ratanà’s shaded tables. “Our goal is to re-think how public spaces are designed to make a city more livable or not.”
Though Russell’s programming has included everything from re-building city sidewalks and restructuring courtyards at public schools, to commissioning artists to create child-friendly play equipment, her passion is sustainable food and organic vegetable gardens. She has not only brought gardens to several Milan schools, folding them into the educational curriculum, but also to the Foundation itself, which allows the public to participate in a work-for-food program.
Her most recent and perhaps most ambitious project, however, was granting permission to plant a gigantic wheat field across the 12 acres in the backyard of the skyscrapers of Porta Nuova that the Catella Foundation with Milan’s Nicola Trussardi Foundation realized by commissioning the contemporary artist Agnes Denes to create “Wheatfield,” a public artwork that required 15,000 cubic meters of soil to be transported to the site. As many as 5,000 Milan citizens came out to help plant the field in February, and five months later, the crop was cut and reaped by the same community.
“I am a farmer at heart,” says Russell, who was born in Georgia and grew up in Alabama and whom we photographed days after the wheat field was shorn. “My dad picked cotton when he was little. I grew up with that. No one believes me now.”
Indeed, Russell looks like a very slick city girl. A former model brought to Milan for work, where she met Catella, Russell has now spent almost as much time in Italy as she has in the States. “I’m super Milanese,” she laughs. “In fact, I’m much more Milanese than American. I drink a lot of red wine—but moderately. I eat like crazy. I drive like an Italian. I don’t stay in my lane like an American woman. I’m late for every meeting and my friends, like you, tell me I don’t speak English properly anymore.”
Notoriously press shy, Russell has never agreed to sit for any portraits, let alone on a tractor or inside a wheat field wearing a kaftan, so we thank her in advance for the honors. “I work in a mainly male environment so I am generally dressed very conservatively,” she professes, with a loving eye-roll towards our brightly colored clothing racks. “Only you could convince me of this vintage shoot.”
Russell remains one of our heroes in the great, gorgeous girl series. Not only is she a dynamo working mother who makes the professional-to-family balance look effortless, but her work is lofty and inspiring.
“Nobody believed in Porta Nuova in the beginning,” she explains. “We had a lot of communities concerned [who did not want construction]. Manfredi and I were in the neighborhood every weekend with our kids, speaking to people. We were on the front lines. We’ve created a community and it feels very fulfilling.”
– J.J. Martin