City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Up at 0430 to leave the unloved Rathbone Hotel before taking an Addison Lee to Stansted for the flight to Turin. Driving through North London as the sun comes up, I realize how little I know of the area north of Camden, in which the Seven Sisters Road seems to extend forever. It's distinctly London terrain, and immediately recognisable as such, but Waltham Forest and the like are actually as foreign to me as Turin is, despite me having lived in London for a decade.

Stansted is a bit of a mess these days. The place has been submerged in retail to the extent that passenger experience is compromised, almost beyond all repair. We're flying RyanAir as BA were due to be in flight today. I'd rather have taken the train, but we'd have had to set off the day before. Next time for sure.

I enjoy the absurdity of flipping open the latest Monocle whilst on RyanAir. Comparing its fictional airline supplement (Nordic Nippon Air, a long-time Tyler obsession; i'm surprised it took this long) with RyanAir is instructive, particularly as the flight crew spend the whole flight trying to sell everything from RyanAir scratch cards to smokeless cigarettes. Still, the price is equally absurdly cheap, and the ride is smooth and on-time. 

Descending into Turin is quite something. i hadn't realized it was so close to the Alps, and the setting, as we deplane onto the tarmac, is reminiscent of a Swiss airport. instantly, the air feels cleaner and fresher than London, despite the fact we're standing next to a freshly grounded airliner.

For some reason, it's been almost a decade since I was in Italy. As the taxi speeds into town along the cobbles and tram tracks, i wonder why. It's immediately appealing. We're here to visit Experientia's studio, which turns out to be in one of the central squares of old Turin.




It's a lovely setting, in a converted 17th century apartment on one side of the square. Although i've seen a fair few design studios in my time, i hadn't seen one so easily inhabit a domestic space like this before. Each of the rooms off the parquet-floored corridor contained a long table strewn with iMacs et al. Some rooms still have the traditional Piedmontese design of self-closing doors, hung at an angle to ensure they swing themselves shut automatically.

Piedmontese door

The proportions of the rooms are of course perfect. Floor-to-ceiling shuttered windows. They got so much right with this form, and thankfully continental Europe is still full of it. (Reviewing a set of data regarding Finnish building stock recently, the most energy efficient buildings were made in 1900, surpassing everything since. Hmm.)

Sun streams in from the square outside, which slowly fills up with people throughout the course of the day. It's wonderful to hear the sounds of children out there, the easy mix of activities and people effortlessly enabled by this space. The lack of cars, as well as the magical architecture and the Italian culture, makes a huge difference. Still, you know all about the perfection of these squares. These days they always make me reflect, in vaguely curmudgeonly fashion, on the Anglo-Saxon inability to produce anything remotely as good. Leading off the square, we wander through a beautiful arcade with vast roof in the 'light industrial revolution'-style, which leads to one of the numerous colonnaded passages of cafés and shops, vaulted ceilings letting light slice through the cool dark of these perfect little spaces. And walking later that evening, you can see the medieval city layout punctuated by modernity.

Turin arcade

Turin arcade


Turin colonnade

Turin modern

Turin modern

Experientia, and particularly the gracious and engaging Jan-Christoph Zoels, thoroughly spoil us throughout the day. Leavening complex work and a lot of discussion, we have several well-timed trips for espresso, each to a perfect small bar, and lunch is extraordinarily good, sitting in the warm sun on the square. The square features the home and parliament of the first prime minister of the unified Italy (see later note on the parlous state of that unity) and with a cathedral, law courts, and marketplace in easy reach, it's not exactly a surprise to discover that the house that Experientia and other firms/residents now inhabit used to be a brothel. Urban economies are all about agglomeration and supply chains.

Life here now is still focused on the sybaritic and experiential but in this case through food and drink, sun and space. The snacks, If i can call them that, that are summoned up mid-afternoon are ridiculous – a tray literally covered with morsels of chocolate, cream and biscuit – as is the f
ruit, the lush strawberries being almost the size of snooker balls.

Turin tea


And again, the coffee is wonderful. It all makes me wonder why we don't live in Italy. I realise there are issues with, say, the Italian attitude to efficiency, the variable levels of entrepreneurship and ambition, and a political scene that rivals New South Wales in its shambolic corruption, but the quality of life and culture (mostly in both senses) is so good. Is this paradox at the heart of humanity? As Rifkin would have it, the tension between empathy and entropy? Is it possible for Italy to be innovative, progressive, heterogenous, driven and efficient in the areas of life that warrant such values, whilst retaining the easy quality of life, of culture, of valuing something like a local strawberry, a tiny espresso stand, a healthy literary scene, or a square full of scampering children and bereft of cars? That these things should be preserved while others improved? Is it possible? Can Italy emulate Spain in avoiding becoming a vast open-air museum? It has much work to do there – but how to do it without discarding what makes it special?

The Shroud is back in town, so the city is unusually busy, but these narrow streets dissipate most of the bustle of the bewildered and lame. Infrastructure built for the Winter Olympics a few years ago had flipped most of the cars out of the squares – which were essentially being used as car parks – and into underground car parks, and so they are now clear for strolling, kicking a football, having a drink, and eating out. After a good day's work, a quick drink in yet another perfectly civic square, and then back to the hotel (the Hotel Victoria, which is good, with free Internet) for a heavy, heavy night's work, before beginning to nod off over the keyboard circa midnight. It's an unusual birthday.

Photos of Turin, May 2010


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