It has been almost a month since I returned to Ottawa from Europe. Yet, what inspired me to finally sit down and write about my experiences was a stapled copy of references from the book “Il Progetto della Natura” by Giuseppe Salvia, Valentina Rognoli, and Marinella Levi. Thus, it is only fair that I begin my story with Politecnico di Milano.
Roma to Milano
The blast of horn came from terminus 25 at about 5pm – a piercing, penetrating sound that flew out from The Eternal City of Rome and died mournfully in the field of poppies. That was the signal for the departure of the coach. I silently bid farewell to my wonderful cousin Ekaterina and her family – whom I have last seen in St. Petersburg, Russia twenty years ago – and shook hands with a spruce Italian businessman. He looked with distaste at the deep cyan of the Roman sky arching over poppy fields and began a typical “stranger on the train” conversation. Massimo was headed home, whereas my aim was to reunite with Valentina and see for myself a vast library of materials that she so diligently put together for the department of industrial design.
“Welcome home, welcome home!” – said Massimo in perfect English, as the train dashed past mansions and ironwork fences with wild vines.
“Here is my number, and you let me know what you think of Milano tomorrow.”
Milano is very … Milano. Exactly how I imagined it: grandiose and mercantile in the best way possible. The next morning I took a cab to Politecnico di Milano and met Valentina and Owain Pedgley at Bar la Rossa, a neat little student gathering spot that serves fantastic fresh orange juice.
What an impressive industrial design department! It shares campus with architecture, but has its own unique splash of style and colour. The interior of it is like entrails of automaton with primary hues of elevators dashing from floor to floor and students rushing to their classes. Classrooms are spacious, understated, and cold with aluminum piping dominating the ceiling. Tables are arranged in rows complimented by surprisingly comfortable bent plywood chairs with elegant stainless steel studs holding the back and the seat together. How appropriate for the sensorial materials class, which Valentina is in charge of.
Impactful. But even more so was Valentina’s work of 12 years: her material library. Imagine rows upon rows of various samples of metals, polymers, woods, ceramics arranged in a highly logical and neat manner for students to see, touch, smell, and taste (of course, at their own risk). There must be a universal law passed for such library to be a mandatory addition to all universities across the globe.
Valentina’s biggest passion is design and material culture that surrounds it. Having listened to Valentina’s story, I recall two episodes that were instrumental in shaping her understanding of the designer’s mission: Enzo Mari Studio and School of Design at Toulon in France.
As Victor Papanek once eloquently expressed: “Design is the conscious effort to impose a meaningful order” and as Enzo Mari bluntly stated: “We need to stop inventing and start giving knowledge”. These are only few of Valentina’s inspirations that led her to become not simply a designer, but an explorer of the world and materials that inhabit it.
What is the best way to teach materials to students?
Valentina thinks expressive-sensorial approach is one of the most potent methods, because it leads designers to not only explore sensorial qualities of the material, but also extract meaning from it. This question led Valentina to explore topics such as aesthetics of sustainability and emotional attachment of a person to an object.
So, how does all this relate to biology? To answer this question, I must mention a highly insightful exhibition that Vincenzo and I have attended this Thursday, authored by my dear friend Barbara Cuerden – a recovering academic (as she likes to call herself) and socio-scientific artist (as I like to call her).
Exhibition was housed in Blink Gallery, a non-profit collective located across from the National Gallery. It occupies “Header House,” which was originally a containment space for the explosives used in the cannons on Parliament Hill. Ironically enough, it usually features quite explosive artists, who often depict contemporary social and political problems.
Exquisite venue: the room was small and old-fashioned with numerous lamps burning blue and yellow light on paintings, sculptures, hung bird’s nests, and attendees. Outside the window I could see lush bushes and a flock of birds that fluttered and squabbled among the twigs. To the right of the entrance stood a disheveled table with a DVD case of a documentary on Koko: A Talking Gorilla and a book on the submissive role of women in contemporary society.
Barbara spoke about the issues of “attachment” in our society and how poor our research is on the subject of animal psychology in biomedical experiments. The topic of interspecies (human-primate) communication was also brought up.
Artificial and natural. Humanity and nature.
Barbara believes that the culprit of many problems in society today is our detachment from surroundings, other people, and other species. Valentina aims to solve the problem of detachment between a person and an object through expressive-sensorial approach. Daniel Wahl asserts eco-literacy – “a detailed understanding of nature as a complex, interacting, creative process in which humanity participates”, which not only results in a shift in perception toward aesthetics, but also the ethics that considers cultural, social, ecological, and economic values.
This is when the bridge can be built between the artificial and the natural, as well as humanity and nature, be it the next sustainability revolution or a simple walk in the park with eyes and mind wide open.
Vincenzo once shared a quote by Rainer Maria Rilke with me:
I walk with you through all prose
And obliquely teach you
the deep lesson in every fate.
Which is: to see in each small rose
The great Spring’s unfolding .
“Look!” I pointed to the sky. “What is it?” Massimo struggled to see anything beyond his reflection in the window. The train was approaching Milan at exactly 10pm. “See, the stars. They are marvellous, aren’t they?” “Yes,” he said, with a movement of his head that seemed wonderfully thoughtful. “The darker the night, the brighter the stars.”