by Natalia Krslovic.
Leaving Australia for a yearlong adventure in Italy calls for a few lifestyle changes: it’s no longer acceptable – or climatically plausible – to wear havaianas (our national flip flops) in public. Italian juice bars – or lack there of – aren’t satisfying my cravings for a passion mango boost juice, and my diminishing supply of Luca’s Papaw Ointment is starting to make me sweat.
But one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make in the Belpaese (the beautiful country) is in regards to spatiality; that is, the norms surrounding how physical space is utilised, and how I myself occupy space. In other words, people here live in shoeboxes, and I’ve just had to get used to it.
Of course this adjustment is to be expected living in Italy – where more than triple the population of Australia lives in about 4% of Australia’s geographic space – so it’s no surprise that high-density living is the norm here. With urban sprawl becoming a growing problem in Australian cities, and gentrification making inner city areas less affordable, this compact Italian lifestyle is probably one Australians will have to adapt to in the not-so-distant future (cc Green Square).
However, one of the social ramifications of this kind of urbanization is, paradoxically, that many people become socially isolated from one another (Tönnies 1887; Durkheim 1893; Simmel 1903). That is, essentially, when we live, work, eat, sleep and play on top of millions of strangers, we can become socialised into ignoring each other, and we never really get to know the neighbour living in the shoebox next to ours.
So what role can art and design play in creating communities under these conditions?
On a trip to Milan this week, I was able to see the Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano, or the Milan International Furniture Fair. This event not only showcases the best the world has to offer in terms of furniture, industrial and spatial design, but also cleverly utilities the minimal public space available in this metropolis, in a way that’s conducive to creating new social interactions.
The Navigli District of Milan is home to the two navigli, or canals, of Milan, which once served as transport and trade routes to the Ticino River, are now home to restaurants, bars and nightlife venues. Comparable to King Street in Newtown, with its cafes and shop fronts competing for sidewalk and foot traffic, as the banks of these canals are spatially poor, the Furniture Fair saw exhibition tents set up on barges on the canals themselves, creating floating spaces.
In true Italian fashion, while the installation of the barges happened overnight, it took half the week for the actual contents of the exhibitions to be installed. That is, precisely half of the running time of the Fair itself. However, this provided opportunity for visitors and locals alike to inquire about what was happening in the area, and to engage with the designers and reps from the exhibiting manufacturers. I actually saw an old lady stop an aerosol artist while he was painting a mural on one of the barges, just to ask about his work. And, like Italians do, they launched into a conversation like they were old friends.
It’s these kinds of interactions that span across generations and sub-cultural groups, which flourish during public festivals: because, well, they make room for them, in both the physical and metaphysical sense.
Re-imagining public spaces also breathes fresh life into underutilised areas. The Laminam show at the Orto Botanico di Brera, or the Botanical Garden of Brera, employed Laminam coloured ceramic slabs to create what looked like sculptural installations throughout the garden. Moving from rich, blue jewel tones at one end of the park, through to a more neutral, earthly palette on the opposite side, not only structured the exhibition into smaller, rectangular spaces – which seemed quite like the layout of rooms in a house – but also dictated the energy and dynamism of the particular space you were in; the blues calling for visitors to walk around and view the garden beds, while the earthy browns lead to an open seating area, which allowed visitors a chance to sit, rest and mingle. In this way, they gave a certain functionality and purpose to the distinct areas, turning the often-vacant park into a natural oasis amid a concrete jungle.
The feeling was really as though I’d been transported to a manor in the Lombardian countryside. I mustn’t have been the only one who felt that, as other members of the public were capitalising on having a quiet haven to their disposal, with many sitting on comfortable sofas chatting amongst friends and strangers, while others had returned for a second visit, armed and ready with novels to read in a peaceful corner.
While I’m no expert on Milan or the Milanese, it seemed like the Fair was successful in getting people out of their usual patterns to interact with their city – and most importantly, with each other – in a more communal way. Though maybe they were just keen for a chance to get out of their shoeboxes.
The Milan International Furniture Fair is an annual event happening right now (from April 8 – 13) in various locations around Milan. For more information, check out the Official website here.