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Taking Trenitalia’s slowest train in the direction towards Saronno, the ride to Bollate is a ten-kilometer venture away from Milan’s center. Bollate is not an exciting city. Besides InGalera, Italy’s only restaurant housed within a prison, the city has a single landmark—Villa Arconati—often referred to as the “little Versailles” of Milan.

The comparison needs no justification; refurbished with grand baroque elements, the villa’s manicured gardens were inspired by the landscape topography of Louis the Great’s Versailles when the gardens were redesigned in 1621 by count and art collector Galeazzo Arconati (known for the vast collection he amassed of Leonardo da Vinci works, including the 1119-page Codex Atlanticus that is now housed in Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana). Arconati purchased the castle and took it on as his personal restructuration project transforming it to a cabinet of curiosities. If local legend holds true, Vivaldi and Arturo Toscanini were frequent visitors to Villa Arconati. In architectural identification, the villa is now categorized as ‘Lombard Baroque’—a term common enough to have its own category recognized but not enough to compete with the neoclassical-fascist that Milan is primarily associated with. 

Following the extinction of the Arconati family, the villa’s ownership shifted throughout the years. Unrelated to the Arconati bloodline, Augusto Rancilio was twenty-six years old when he was killed in a mafia encounter in another Milan suburb, Cesano Boscone, in 1978. He was an architect. Shortly after his family launched the Augusto Rancilio Foundation in his memory; a non-profit facility dedicated to research and support in architecture, design and urban planning with special focus on entry-level youth. Years later in 2011, the Augusto Rancilio Foundation moved into its brand new headquarters: Villa Arconati.

Around Rancilio’s age at his death, Ruggero Pietromarchi was twenty-seven when he launched Terraforma. The three-day electronic music festival in Villa Arconati’s gardens and exterior spaces is attended by over three thousand who make the trip to Milan’s outskirts from across Italy and nearby European countries (such as the majority coming from France, whether due to the geographic vicinity or the regional word-of-mouth). 

Pietromarchi secured Villa Arconati as the festival’s location through contacts he made while working at Ponderosa Music&Art, a production agency notably known for their representation of pianist Ludovico Einaudi. Amongst the greenery of the overarching Groane Park, Terraforma brings to Milan a lineup of musicians and artists as renowned as American artist Laurie Anderson (in 2019) and Jeff Mills (in 2018) and as small as local talents, all the while aiming to minimize human impact. 

Ticketing thousands and thousands, festivals like Terraforma (on the micro-end) and Nevada’s Burning Man (on the macro end) are large-scale events that witness an influx of attendees that is massive. In an increased watch on ecological accountability, projects such as the Ontario-based Green Festivals and the UK-based A Greener Festival provide tips, audits and awards to the festivals that work to minimize damages caused due to overuse of land and the CO2 emissions involved in hosting a large-scale festival.

Competing against a long roster of summertime electronic music festivals popping across Europe’s forests and seashores, Terraforma distinguishes itself for its sustainable values all the while referencing the specific actions that they take to rationalize the claim; this includes their relationship with Italian non-profit Liter Of Light for their low-impact lightening across camping grounds, their iron-and-wood structures for bars and stages crafted in partnership with homegrown boutique teams and a network of student volunteers. For the festival-goers coming out of town who choose to sleep on camping grounds, Terraforma provides organic soap by their partner Borotalco—Italian talcum cosmetics manufacturer—and Tokyo-inspired pocket ashtrays meant to reduce cigarette butts and joint roaches scattered around the villa. For the showers and sinks, they enforce shut-off valves into their water distribution system and maintain a greywater system wherein wastewater is dispersed across the villa. Their Kiosque à Musique stage is entirely self-sufficient, powered with solar panels. Following the closing of the festival, the team releases a sustainability report to the public that details all the ways in which they have minimized the collective carbon footprint on Villa Arconati.

In their landmark restoration project together, Terraforma and Fondazione renewed a piece of Villa Arconati that had seemingly faded over the years. The team noticed a labyrinth structure in an architectural illustration depicting Villa Arconati by 17th century Bolognese engraver Marcantonio Dal Re. Using it as a map, they realized that the trees do in fact appear to form a circular structure as indicated by Marcantonio Dal Re’s clue. In 2016, they went to work and began recreation of the labyrinth. With the support of Milan studio Fosbury Architecture they planted 500 hornbeam trees, spending two years on the outer two circles and then progressing to the inner small circle.

As the Terraforma team were winning awards for their environmental sustainability, their efforts in cultural and heritage sustainability have been perhaps understated in their mono-use of the word as their slogan—The Sustainable Festival. During the 2019 edition of Terraforma, festival-goers expressed their pride in placing trash in the correct trash bin, sorting between waste that is that is mixed, organic and recyclable while donning reusable Terraforma cups strapped around their necks with strings provided by the volunteer-built wooden kiosks upon the deposit of a two Euro coin. These attendees appear to have an understanding that they are participating in some sort of sustainable act but may not realize the series of events and the stakeholders involved in making that buzzword justifiable across the viral event listings, especially those published on clubbing magazine Resident Advisor who continues to spearhead the promotion of the festival. 

Terraforma and Augusto Rancilio Foundation’s commitment to maintaining an active culture rich with music and architecture in the Versailles-like structure is multistoried and carries layers of affection for generations past, both the music and the architecture. In Italy, landmark heritage management has been left to brands and foundations to finance. In Rome, the luxury Italian shoemaker Tod’s took on the financial end of the restoration of the Colosseum, Fendi The Trevi Fountain, and Bulgari the Spanish Steps. Like these brands, Terraforma and the Augusto Rancilio Foundation are private entities. Their approach to conservation differs in all the ways that they render it participatory to the stakeholders with common values that desire to take part; those with an honest fondness for architecture and music who fervently champion and defend the avant-garde. 

“Galeazzo Arconati is sort of our dad,” says an Augusto Rancilio Foundation member in a mini-Terraforma documentary. In a cycle of unrelated stakeholders—too poetic to be accidental—Villa Arconati’s gardens have flourished across decades.


Villa Arconati

Via Madonna Fametta, 1, 20021

Castellazzo, Milan, Italy