Up at 0530, which is virtually a lie-in for this week, in order to get the fast train to Milan. I'm heading for Domus in Milan, for whom I'm doing some strategic design work. For those that don't know, Domus is amongst the most revered of architecture and design magazines, founded in 1928 by the great Gio Ponti. Joseph Grima, erstwhile Storefront for Art and Architecture director and fellow Postopolis organiser, has just taken over there and brought me in to help. More on this later, no doubt.
But for now, I've got to finish my presentation outlining the design strategy on the train (and later, from the passenger seat of Joseph's car). The train, from Turin's quietly impressive station to Milan's ridiculously impressive Centrale, is a delight too. it takes just over an hour on the Frecciarossa, and is hugely civilized. Their second class is as good as Britain's first class. And it's 30 euros. My lack of Italian means the ticket purchase requires a little patience either side, it's quite different to the Trenitalia experience mentioned here a few years ago. The flat fertile countryside glides past the window as I flick between Photoshop, Omnigraffle and Keynote.
Milano Centrale is one of the genuinely great examples of civic architecture of course, even given its somewhat dubious origins. Despite its humbling grandeur, it actually feels public and democratic first and foremost, rather than fascistic. A genuine public good. In this, it's another indication of how buildings live and learn politically, as well as formally.
I'd have happily stayed here all morning, people-watching through my camera lens, but it was onto the Metro to Cadorna to meet Joseph.
Metro was good. It's not particularly extensive, but not bad, and only a euro for a ticket. Again, Australian and British public transport suffers in comparison. Quick and relatively comfortable, and well-used. Out to Cadorna to Cafe Virgilio on Piazza Virgilio. Macchiato, almond croissant, Keynote.
After Joseph had sped through the streets of suburban Milan – by the way, how excellent to see small cars everywhere, by far the most common type; another credit to Italians – we arrived at the peculiar PoMo industrial estate/campus that is home to Domus and sister publications. The presentation went well, and the rest of the day is spent at the Domus offices, working hard. Although the campus is a little awkward – though it does rather uniquely feature a kind of test track for Quattroruote magazine, apparently – the Domus digs themselves are lovely, Vitra-designed white spaces, both functional and elegant. Perhaps only Italian design has consistently managed to combine sharp modernity with genuine vitality and flamboyance, and you can see all of that here.
Several macchiati later (via excellent ham and melon, with zucchini and big fluffy ball of buffalo mozzarella in the staff canteen for lunch), it's a taxi back to the centre at the end of the day, and the Hotel Zurigo on Corso Italia in particular (good hotel; cheap but perfectly serviceable, though wifi is 5 euro per hour).
I have time for a walk before the sun goes down, and it's the first free night this week i.e. devoid of work or dinners. It's hugely enjoyable to do this, and also very very fortunate to have this time on my hands, as I'm often thinking this week of C. at home with the kids back in Sydney, both of whom have decided that now would be a good time to obtain the latest iteration of the common cold.
So i make the most of it, taking hundreds of photos and walking kilometers around Milan's old centre. It's a different feel to Turin of course, despite the surface similarities in terms of form and building. It's bigger, more glamorous, uglier, more impressive, noisier, more vital, and so on. I like it very much, and did from the moment first saw it, around 15 years ago on an EU-funded research trip to the Naviglio district, looking at creative industry-led urban regeneration.
After the various tourist sites, and the lesser-travelled side-streets, i have dinner (ham, tomato pizza, birra, macchiato) and watch the city go by from the side of the street. A group slowly grows in number on the tables to my right, as more scooters deposit be-suited men fresh from work, laughing, grinning, joking, teasing each other and generally being Italian men. To unfurl another winning cliche in this little report, virtually everyone here is well-dressed and attractive. I read The Guardian international edition and La Republicca. I can barely understand much of the latter, but it's always instructive to look through the local press. Here, an emphasis on information design is discernible, particularly when i compare how the Craig Ventnor/artificial life story is reported across both papers.
Italy is a complex place. Even the construction of the country itself is complex. Joseph had earlier related the recent ban on journalists reporting on court cases in progress, a law that many allege is created by Berlusconi to protect Berlusconi. This may be the least of it, however, as the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy seems likely to be marked not just with a half-hearted whimper instead of a joyous bang, but with serious doubts being expressed as to its long term viability. There is a chance that the north may split from the south. Currently slim, but growing. And then, what of Italy?
The Economist has a decent piece on it last week, noting the correspendent's friend, who declared "I am a Florentine. A Tuscan? With difficulty. An Italian? Never!". In the land of city-states this makes some historical sense, of course, as well as playing to contemporary currents in economics around the rise of mega-regions rather than nation states.
As ever, football unifies as well as distributes in this country. It's everywhere around me, and i wallow in it happily. But football can only do a certain amount in terms of the ongoing unification of Italy. Its primary function, as the great football writer Simon Kuper wrote in the FT recently, is as a mirror rather than a gun. It reflects the society it finds itself in, rather than changing it. Still, as Kuper also recalls, the historian Eric Hobsbawm, watching his native Austria play in the 1920s, said "The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people."
So while Italy may be an imagined community, its football team is one of its more tangible manifestations, and rather more appealing cultural product than the tawdry affair that is the output of the prime minster's national television stations, and indeed the prime minister himself. (NB. This piece was written before the 2010 World Cup finals.)
While a World Cup without the Azurri would be almost unimaginable, today the city is abuzz with talk of the following day's European Champions League final between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich (two city-states if ever saw them.) The blue and black stripes of Inter are in abundance, punctuating the crowds of tourists outside the Duomo, just as the red and black of their rivals AC Milan are mysteriously conspicuous by their absence. Football in Italy is, for me, part of that great cultural life referred to earlier, a common vocabulary that can have a civilizing function. However, this is not to ignore the issues Italian football can have with corruption, hooliganism and racism, and in particular the appalling treatment meted out to local player Mario Ballotelli this last season. On occasion, Ballotelli hasn't helped himself but there is no excuse for this and other transgressions (though thankfully, that particular situation is getting better). Again, is it possible to retain the best elements of localized football culture, whilst discarding the worst?
Trams of various vintages trundle around, the sharp long-nosed variety cutting a dash down the elegant streets, as I walk back to the Hotel Zurigo.
(Another outcome of the day was the new iPad I'm typing this on. Joseph had kindly ferried one back from New York for me, and so the ceremony of the un-boxing and syncing and occurs tonight. As I suspected, it's a game-changer alright.)
Finally, a restful sleep.
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