Milan is having an uncharacteristically hip moment.  Despite messy logistics and half-baked construction, The Expo has revitalised the city’s spiritual shroud, while iconic public figures such as Giorgio Armani have helped buoy the wave of attention with a new fashion museum and a recent Hollywood-studded 40th anniversary event.  But no one has done more to shine a truly long-term, international and bright lens on this city than Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli who will open the doors to their long-awaited Fondazione Prada on 9 May.

In the works for more than a decade, the Fondazione opens with 'Serial Classic', an exhibit curated by Salvatore Settis, and lives up to every bit of hype that has swirled around it. The project is massively ambitious – 10 different buildings packed with a dazzling selection of contemporary and modern art sprawl like a labyrinth across 19,000 sq meters — and is just as satisfying.

‘People keep asking me if this is an art gallery, a public museum or a private foundation,’ Bertelli told us in a private preview of the substantial compound.  ‘In truth, we wanted to make a space that was an aggregate of all three. It is very homogeneous and at the same time very heterogeneous.’

Visually, the Fondazione Prada is an intriguing hodge-podge of different buildings, styles, spatial sizes, creative themes and time periods.  Shiny mirrored surfaces battle against raw concrete interiors;  tiny, intimate rooms contrast with vacuous warehouse-sized hangars.  Without a typical plan, the discovery process unfolds without a pre-ordained path, though a stop in the Wes Anderson-designed cafe, wrapped in tromp l’oeil wallpaper recreating Milan’s famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, would be an excellent place to start.

A former distillery, the location features a disparate mix of seven structures that date back to 1910, plus three new ones (one of which, called Torre, is still under construction) all set within a tall-walled, art-filled campus.  Hundreds of pieces of art have been sourced from both Fondazione Prada’s private collection as well as non-permanent exhibits and site specific installations. 

‘It was our intention to make old and new work seamlessly here,’ observed longtime Prada collaborator" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Rem Koolhaas, whose OMA architectural firm was charged with designing the compound. ‘At any moment, you can’t really tell if you’re in an old building or a new one.’

Set in the southern section of the city across from bleak railroad tracks, Fondazione Prada’s neighbourhood is in a decidedly un-cool part of town.  ‘What’s fabulous about this area is its industrial quality,’ Koolhaas stressed.  ‘We absolutely do not want to create any gentrification here - this was crucial for all of us.’

The classic Milanese might not be pounding on the surrounding real estate, but the space itself — which unfolds like a creative village with charming public spaces and open-air courtyards — is sure to become a lure, not just for the city’s resident design class, but for top art and architecture scene-makers around the world. And let’s be honest:  this (much more than a six-month, mass, eat-fest) is exactly what the city of Milan needs most.