The Golden Quadrilateral in today’s Milan is composed of haute couture shops, jewelry emporia, and nouveau riche tourists. It’s the geographic square that once sheltered the novelist Alessandro Manzoni, the composer Giuseppe Verdi, the physicist Albert Einstein, the socialite Clara Maffei. Severe battles raged for days in these streets as the riotous Milanese struggled to expel their Austrian imperial occupiers. Nowadays the blood-soaked alleys of the nineteenth century are luxurious windowfronts where bored, dolled-up sales girls loll inside, among the vidcams and the cybernetic security systems.
In this same Milanese downtown, a failed bank has been retrofitted into a hallucinatory five-star hotel: chandeliers like horror movie infestations, crooked plastic arm chairs in a nauseous green, tortuous, polka-dotted corridors that lead nowhere, and a psychedelic swimming-pool installation that might drown Olafur Eliasson.
The Milanese hotel’s restaurant is weirdly devoid of spaghetti, pizza, vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper, or any shred of meat. Here they serve a relentlessly chic macrobiotic green diet of mashed veggies and nutritious drinks without alcohol.
A tornado with hail had recently peltered this bewildered metropolis where I grew up and once studied, but any change has some benefits; the needle-strewn junkie park once full of muggers had recovered its dignity, next to the huge Natural History Museum and the National Gallery.
This spring, the high-tech lifestyle magazine Wired Italia has organized a conference, its first. Next to the endangered whale skeletons in the Natural History museum (itself a ghostly hulk shrouded for repair), the Wired avant-garde had erected clean white plastic domes, where a cheery if rain-dampened crowd gathered to admire the gadgets and discuss the future.
The event opened with a greeting from an Italian astronaut, recently launched to the International Space Station. He sent warm greetings to his many social media followers, his Wired Italia audience, and of course his mom.
Then this fiesta went on for three spring days, while a cavalcade of futurists, technicians, writers, and artists commuted through the local tourist traps, the hotels, the arcades, the museums, the tents, the gravel paths and muddy grass of the public park, hoping that the troubled skies would clear while anxiously seeking a wifi connection. Their elegant geodesic dome of laser-sawn plywood and inflated tubing was the perfect headquarters for their shaky future.
During the festival, a famous Italian writer actress and feminist died of old age. Franca Rame was the wife and coauthor of the Nobel prize-winner for literature, Dario Fo. The committed Milano of the activist 1970s was thrown at once into deep mourning, while, in the Wired high-tech pop-up dome, a scientist from Genova explained the prospects of caring for Italy’s aged population with robots.
Thanks to European grants for robotics studies, the scientist possessed a stunningly cute and remarkably capable little Italian robot, which specialized in simulating human empathy. The planet’s poor and starving were beyond the help of personal robots, the scientist explained, but Italy abounds in luckier souls who get cancer, go senile, become blind and deaf, and whose many ailments of physical decline can and should be tackled with nano technology, nano medicine, and artificial smart prosthetics. The brain is the only organ that cannot be rejuvenated.
A young visionary from Brescia, a city close to Milan, spoke of nurturing technical talent in local bars, where Italians might be programming in Linux instead of sipping coffees and playing bocce. Big online communes full of shareable tools are ideal centers for Italy’s young unemployed, who cannot afford to leave their parents or travel and live on their own. New solutions must be found in the endless status quo of economic crisis and imposed austerity. In Italy, middle aged people are driven to suicide by the economic policies from Rome, Berlin and Brussels, but there’s plenty of room for start-up incubators inside the husks of dead industries.
Other visionaries were advocating networked sharing and digital home manufacturing during tomorrow’s third industrial revolution. If a whole generation is to be precarious and severely underemployed, shouldn’t that be politically recognized as our genuine way of life now? In Italy, unaffordable housing is a middle class issue, no longer the usual plight of the Roma, the clandestines and the youth. The pressure of a predatory real-estate system forces once law-abiding citizens into makeshift squats and lofts in abandoned industrial estates. One has to live in some genuine shelter, no matter which offshored bankruptcy trust may allegedly own the territory stencilled on the Google Map. The “stuffed animal” is the signature urban form of Europe’s 21st century: the facade still remains in place, while banks become hotels, factories are collective squats, pop up domes are cultural centers, and the future is a museum.
The downtown Milan tourist zone is densely trampled by Russian wives and mistresses teetering in new stilettos, but they would never read the patriotic novels of Manzoni, whose imposing mansion, once the literary HQ of Italian nationalism, stands as shabby and forlorn as a failed bookstore. The presences of Verdi, Einstein and Maffei are marked only by modest plaques among Milan’s much-prized scars of Austrian cannon-ball damage. Maybe it’s for the best that the dead of Milan rest easy. The dead don’t need push-up bras and hand-stitched leather cases for their iPads: the dead are ubiquitous and virtual, while fame is a fickle thing.
Yet there is something missing today in this deeply superficial city. Where are the flying cobblestones of 1848 and 1968, where is the sense of danger and genuine potential? In the 1970s, when everyone still expected a car and a garage as a matter of course, my dad owned a blue BMW and drove it ceaselessly — even though it was once stolen and used in a robbery. The Wired expo also has a BMW — a futuristic all-electric BMW, clean, green and entirely unaffordable. This spectacular showpiece has undulating digital curves and a pedestrian-dazzling paint-job that’s embedded right into the chassis.
This fascinating all-electric BMW is a concept car, born as a stuffed animal: nobody can afford it, there’s nowhere to drive such a car in downtown Milan (the tourist zone is closed to cars for the sake of window-shoppers, while the highways have speed limits).
The only people with any genuine use for this car are the tall, near-naked, bottle-blonde Milanese BMW booth bunnies, who stalk around the vehicle lending it even more sex appeal, but who never open its doors or even flash its slanting headlights. One pities the car thieves who would dare to steal this artifact — it’s festooned with smart GPS tracking alarms. And as for the rest of us, well, we live in the twenty-teens — long after the assembly-line prosperity of Fordism and the black gold-rush of cheap oil. That violently boisterous lifestyle of the Space Age, and the universal terror of the Atomic Age, have both melted away like our ice-caps. Likea smart little robots scurrying under the towering bones of the dinosaurs, we live among the consequences now.