I visited Milan Central Station recently, and there is only one word for it: awesome (see my ‘a brief history of awesome‘ post if you think I use that word loosely). But more than that, it was designed to be awesome.
I arrived there from Zurich. The train had wound through the Swiss mountains; providing me plenty of opportunity to play compare-and-contrast with traditional ideas of the natural sublime and those of the built environment. This was two weeks ago, and I was haunted by news from Japan too, in particular a radio interview with Japanese ambassador to the UK, Keiichi Hayashi, saying his nation had been ‘humbled and awed’ by the power of nature. I was also thinking about the many people keen to point out how incredible the stories of engineering coming out from Japan were too. As a friend posted on his facebook wall:
the Fukishima plant is four decades old. It’s just been hit by an earthquake ten times the size of the one that hit new zealand… then a massive tsunaumi… and now a series of hydrogen explosions. And the reactor cores are still intact. I’m wowed.
A sense of the power of technology to control nature, or of science to understand it, is different from an idea of the power of nature itself. Technological and scientific sublimes reflect connections (or disconnections) to people. Although we may feel in awe and at so at some distance from those great people who have done such amazing feats of genius, they are still people, so we may also feel some sense of connection and control too (entirely depending on context).
But onto the awesomeness of Milan Central Station. The first thing I noticed was the large expansive arch of the platforms. I don’t know if it’s the shape, or the size, or the promise of adventures on the trains going in and out, but it’s hard not to be moved by such spaces. York’s got a grand one too, and I’m a big fan of Paddington’s.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Walk off the platform, and you enter a huge hall. And another. And another. Milan Station is huge. I mean really, really huge. It’s hard not to sound stoned here, but it’s like, really, REALLY huge. It probably doesn’t take up that much more space than Edinburgh Waverly or the Gare de Lyon, it might even be smaller, but it is high and spacious is a way that clearly aims to accentuate size. It’s built to make you go wow in the same way you might gawp at the size of a mountain.
It reminded me of a church I once saw across in Manhattan. From a distance, it looked like any church you might find in the UK, but as I got closer I realized it was built on a completely different scale; each brick was at least 10% bigger. The station also reminded me of iconic religious buildings like the Hagia Sophia, the Neasden Temple or St Paul’s cathedral, especially the way the light comes in from the ceiling to flood the various large halls.
The building it most reminded me of, however, was London’s Natural History Museum. Just as the NHM is often dubbed a cathedral to nature, Milan station is in many ways a cathedral to technology. You might not be able to see, but in those circles just above the columns and gargoyles in the photo are representations of a car, and a train and a ship (slightly closer shot, but hard to capture in a photo). Also, look, it’s Roberto Fvlton and Georgio Stephenson, and what about this:
I should add that the building also reminded me of the Soviet monuments in the Szoborpark just outside of Budapest. These, although relatively small, are positioned at clever angles so you cannot help but feel slightly threatened. Milan Station, like statues, museums, churches and a host of municipal buildings all over the world, is designed to make the visitor feel small in comparison. This is awe to make you feel humbled, and as a form of the technological sublime, to feel humble with respect to other people.
I’m ambivalent about this. On the one side you might see such a feeling of being humble compared to others as a celebration of the skill of people. But on the other side is a sense that you are not as good as those other people. If the sublime in science writing comes from a transference of the power of God to Nature, I’m not sure about transferring this power to people. Or at least I’m not sure about it if such majesty is unequally distributed. Or at least I think we need to be aware that we are ascribing such power and consider whether it’s appropriate or not, and whether (and how) it might be changed/ transferred/ redistributed.
Basically this is just all a long way of pointing out that breathlessly going ‘OMG isn’t it a-maz-ing…?’ isn’t the end of a political conversation, it’s the start. But I think that’s important.