"The city is being swept away by the metropolis. This action does not just replace one noun with another, but radically turns one state of affairs into a state of perpetual motion. As a collective action -- a verb more than a noun -- the metropolis destabilizes our concepts of time and place. With the dissolution of the city into the forever- emerging metropolis, our existence slides into permanent mobility." - L. Lerup, in After the City


forty-four. St. Pete's brief.
the photos are temporal in sequence, L to R, T to B.

the first city i’ve been in this trip with such a dominant tourism industry, in certain areas St. Petersburg reads like an outdoor museum. with its ornate Milan-reminiscent buildings (replete with arched gateways), wide canals, densely-foliaged parks, word-class museums, literary and musical heritage, and complex, devastating political history (the city alone lost more citizens during its Hitler-led WWII blockade than the US and UK lost during the entire war, combined), it’s a playground of sights and stories and a stark contrast to Moscow’s unglamorous, over-sized, money-focused frenzy. however, not surprisingly, there seems to be an inverse correlation between a city’s desire to preserve itself and its rise as a metropolitan global powerhouse. St. Pete’s however, didn’t feel frozen in time, due in part to the staggering amount of restoration occurring; a solid 40% of all buildings are draped in the green panty-hose and dust of reconstruction. moreover, even barring the tourists, the social life of the city is vibrant and is most keenly felt at 1:30 a.m. strolling along the Neva River, where the city’s under-40 crowd gather to watch the Neva’s draw bridges rise for the night. these are the only hours during which the freighters and barges can pass from the Baltic Sea inland. everyone who must then scurries home northward to the Petrograd and Vyborg areas before the last bridge rises around 2:30, or else becomes stuck partying in the city until 5am – not a bad option in a 24-hour city. (a fixed-span bridge with high clearance was completed a couple of years ago, but lies upriver to the east). after an evening on the river with my local friend, Nikolay, whom i first met in Moscow, we grabbed an informal ‘taxi’ home. this entailed hailing a regular car, finding out if we were headed in the same direction, and negotiating a price. this efficient system (also used in Moscow) is supposedly safe, but when Nikolay’s female friends hail such cars, he takes down the license plate number.

earlier in the evening Nikolay was also describing a phenomenal series of urban games which started in St. Petersburg, and have now spread to Moscow. called ‘noshnoi dozor’ (not to be confused with the horror flick), they take place all night on sporadic Saturdays and entail using leftover and in-transition spaces -- underpasses, construction sites, etc. -- as sites in an urban scavenger hunt. in one version, called ‘deadline,’ teams of 6 or 7 players drive around the city with interactive online maps on their laptops. using these maps they must find, in sequence, a series of encodings in above-said urban spaces. once a code is found and entered into the map, the next site is revealed, and so-on. the codes aren’t actually puzzles, but rather, markers that indicate that a site has been ‘found’ by the participant. during a game weekend, Nikolay described a street scene: it’s the middle of the night, streets are empty, and at a quiet intersection you might see a huddle of 5 or 6 cars, the interiors glowing with the blue light of laptops screens: "such a strange scene is an indication that a game is on." i feel as if i missed out! the phenomena is still relatively underground, at least outside of St.P’s and Moscow. there are also versions in which participants travel by foot or roller blades, although the scale of Russia’s mother cities is most conducive to the car.

a few more snippets:

the plethora of tour buses. they squeeze through the streets and deposit their contents at the Hermitage where massive groups of spectators make a relaxed appreciation of the work therein something of an Olympian effort. still worth it, if only to deja vue masterpiece bronzeworks (circa 1600BC!) from the Shanghai Museum, which I saw in May, in Shanghai. Shanghai seems to have sent her best pieces here, undoubtedly aware of the global audience that the Hermitage gathers. perhaps more artworthy: outside the Hermitage i saw two public buses which had been converted into public toilets – a witty and portable use of the decommissioned vehicles. unfortunately, the interior configuration was so cramped that using them was gymnastical.

it’s dacha (summer house) season in Russia, which means in St. P’s on any given morning and afternoon babushkas set up tiny stands (overturned buckets, boxes, crates) on which they sell their family produce right off the sidewalk – blueberries, cranberries, lettuce, radish, and of course, the ubiquitous potato.

the metro: actually deeper than Moscow’s, due to a more delicate geomorphology. the ground is less stable here, being closer to the sea (not to mention the double-duty intent of bomb shelter). the system is newer than Moscow’s (1955), less glamorous and less extensive (distances between stations are greater, and make bus-use more of a necessity). but some stations do boast a unique platform configuration not seen in Moscow, in which metal doors keep the railbed completely isolated from waiting passengers. thus, the only part of the train you ever see are the opening doors and the yellow glow of train interior. the drama of a train’s approach, replete with oncoming headlights, rush of turbulent wind, and growing rumble, disappears and the system becomes even more silent than usual.

something about photographing in these two Russian cities: it is magical and surprising to catch the serendipitous, unintentional glances, sometimes accusing, sometimes pleased, always curious, always direct.


forty-three. rings, walks, blocks.
only after arriving in St. Petersburg am i able to reflect on Moscow a little better: if Paris, Los Angeles, and Singapore met over a double espresso, Moscow might be their love-child. perhaps it’s unfair to squeeze everything into a comparative framework, but as i think i’ve mentioned before i find cities to be more similar than they are different, in the grand scheme of things. after exploring Russia’s capital near the fringes of the metro and the ring roads, the grandness of scale and the intentionality of boulevards, however sterile, recall Haussmann and Lee’s heavy-handed plannings, while the unlikely juxtapositions of the irreverent and the sacred, the pedestrian and the vehicular, the somber and the absurd recall a blin-filled cantankerous so-Cal. however, once drawing these similarities the real revelations are uncovered in the departures: the earnest skill and sober audience of the Okhotny-Ryad metro station string quartet, the pensive novel-readers found in most pocket parks, the here-today gone-tomorrow chrome-covered blini stalls, the abrupt shifts from consternation to friendliness, the 8am sidewalk beer breakfast, the earnest caricature of propaganda, and always, the guaranteed eye-to-eye glance that never falters (see metro photos previous entry).

8.16 Gray & Orange lines
walked from Galina’s pigeon-filled morning kitchen (she feeds them on the ledge until the sill is a flurry of feathers and crumbs) along the park-lined second ring road, past the open-air art installation, to the Pushkinskaya station where the world’s longest, narrowest, sleekest urban McD’s offered the usual restroom respite. from here it’s a 45-minute ride to the southern terminus of the gray line, along which stations become successively sterile in an unembellished, florescent late-80’s manner. emerging at Bulvar Dimitriya station confronts one with (yet another) McD’s, this time an exact transplant of the U.S.A. suburban typology (single storey, red-rood, parking lot) and an endless avenue of housing blocks to the north and south. from here there is an anomalous (mostly) elevated light-rail, which runs further south into a land of Transit-Oriented-Development, reminiscent of Singapore (including pastel color scheme). there is even a similar swath of flat green around each station, although along this line the swath is better connected and more inhabited than that in Singapore: sun-bathers by a pond, meticulous flower gardens, and playrounds were usually not more than 100 meters from the line. back at Bulvar Dimitriya a hubristic disregard for scale had me walking across another enormous park (surrounded by more housing blocks) and along a high-speed road over a bridge above the outermost 5th ring road. speed beside, speed below (all 10 lanes of it) and yet, there were worn footpaths, usable sidewalks, and other fellow pedestrians. however, walking along the congested 5th ring road wasn’t possible so a bus ride over to the orange line terminus and a subsequent 45 minute ride north back through the city center to the VDNKH station landed me at the surreal All-Russia-Exhibition center – a decommissioned 1950’s Soviet-sized agglomeration of neo-classical pavilions and aeronautical relics celebrating Russia’s heyday of scientific and architectural prowess. this nostalgic complex is flanked on both-sides by amusement parks, providing a raucous of roller-coaster screams and laughs that echo through the trees. the discovery of the Expo was serendipitous, as i disembarked the metro in order to ride the monorail from this station back over to the grey line, due west. however, the monorail’s lugubrious route through this part of the city seems to be an exhibit in and of itself – a modern-day compliment to the Expo, and a means to view the mega-monuments therein and around (space needle, TV tower, hotel).

8.17 Filyovskaya line
an anomaly for the system in that it’s largely above-ground. the Krylatskoye station exit is placed, like Park Pobedy’s, within the wide grassy median of a broad avenue (although unlike Park Pobedy this avenue is lined by residential high-rises). here a man with a beer sat on a bench and talked to a pigeon, and here i lay in the grass for a bit beneath the gleam of the windows and pale paint of the housing blocks above. the grass is an unnatural green, having only a few short months every year to reawaken its chlorophyll cells before the brutal climate of the year’s remainder returns. here on either side of the median run two lane roads of relatively laid-back speeds, until the median dead-ends into the more aggressive Rubylyovskoye Shosse, which reads, from north to south side: 16 storey housing blocks with ground-floor retail, sidewalk, 2-lane bi-directional traffic + bus stop, small grass median, 3-lane high-speed roadway (uni-direction), central grass median + trees, 3-land high-speed roadway (other direction), small grass median, 2-lane bi-directional traffic + bus stop, sidewalk + trees, and 5 storey low-rise housing blocks which run perpendicular to the road. occasionally there is an underpass or a glass-covered overpass for pedestrians to cross this wide river of motorways/grassways/busways/sidewalkways. near the Kuntsevskaya station, to which i walked, the central motorway splits and the southern half dips down, leaving the pleasantly-inhabitable median rising above and overlooking a stream of descending cars. a worn dirt footpath through the grass along this ‘cliff’ edge was evidence of opportunistic pedestrian traffic, and mimics the topography and use of the median which runs along the riverway closer to the city center.
8.19 circular Sunday
a day devoted to sight-seeing inadvertently turned into one of the more revealing routes in which the city’s avenues work like magnets (and safety zones), towers (once again) serve as deceptively ‘close’ landmarks in a city of flat, and yet again, the presence of the walkway along the most unlikely roadways allow pedestrianism while paradoxically, the sheer scale of distance does not.

the Victory Monument at Park Pobedy is over-the-top in both height and iconography. a 150m needle into the sky, it is covered with a cartoonish bas-relief representation of WWII, and further flanked by a semi-circular colonnade of football-field proportions. from here an attempt to navigate to Sparrow Hills found us passing the world’s smallest roller-coaster and other odd metal paraphenelia (including a haunting memorial to gulag victims, upon which little boys skateboarded, oblivious) before meandering through a quiet soviet-era housing complex where a handful of skinheads took an avid interest in following us for awhile. a quick-stepped attempt to get to safer ground landed us on the busy 4th ring road, where we followed the narrow sidewalk over the massive railbed emanating from Kievskaya station to the east. here the relics of industry (smoke stacks, warehouses) flanked the tracks, only a stone’s throw from Kutuzovsky Blvd’s Prada, Dior, and Gucci stores. following the ring road eventually brought us to a verdant section of the snaking Moskva river. here the river is flanked by the enormous tree-covered Sparrow hill, crowned by Moscow State University’s Stalinist wedding-cake skyscraper (one of seven throughout the city). here too roller bladers, walkers and joggers are free of the flow of cars, which are left parked at the gate. one can catch the riverboat up or downriver, or take the metro back into town. Sparrow Hill not providing the city panorama that was the day’s goal, i ventured solo back to Kutuzovsky in search of the 27th floor Red Bar, which i found after much wandering, only to realize i was exactly where i had started the day, near the entrance to Victory Monument. the tower that houses the Red Bar is hideous but forgivable, given its location along the river and across from the World Trade Center complex, currently under construction and visible from anywhere in the city, with its anomalous all-glass facade and arcing silhouette. this collection of buildings promises to try to be the new epicenter of Muscovite economic activity, and the new metro station which will serve it is named Moskva City, as if in contention with the Kremlin’s ideological hold on the city’s identity.


forty-two. fish need bicycles.
unphotogenic and describable only in sporadic outbursts of unelegance, Europe’s largest city intimidates my meagre capabilities. the lens too small to capture the scales, the pronunciation too foreign to penetrate, the sporadic extroversion of people so unpredictable i rarely know if i will sink or swim when i leave the ‘house’ (currently a colorful, dusty boarding room on the 5th floor of a crumbling late 19th century block). this place is intoxicating, the well-organized infrastructural legacy of aristocracy-turned-communist dictatorship-turned-city-of-unbridled-speculation, all within a hundred years, still actively churns its evolution. in a surreal juxtaposition, this most strictly and easily navigable of cities (imagine: 5 concentric ring roads, one circular metro line, and 10 cross-sectional metro lines that radiate like a clock) is overlaid with the kinetic detritus of a still-adolescent capitalism: glittery pinks and purples abound, in shoes, skimpy shirts, hair trinkets, and even a few buildings; shiny black mercedes/BMW’s/HUMMRS congest city streets like a funeral brigade, threatening to squash the pre-’91 volvo spin-offs (Zhigulis); 40’s and cigarette packs are obtainable everywhere for just over a buck (and free to consume anywhere) while peaches (and other non-canned, non-jarred perishables) can cost up to $11 a pop (as in, one single fruit). and everywhere, the noise and dust of construction, usually done by hand, and fortunately, much of it renovation of 19th C. buildings.

Joe Moran in Reading the Everyday writes about the unnoticeables as perhaps the most telling aspects of people’s interaction with place. he mentions the concept of the queue. stereotypical tales of Soviet-Russia fill the mind with images of thickly-clothed men and women waiting hours in line while the bureaucratic machine turns it slow cog. none-too-accurate: the line is an institution here, was from the very first step on soil (immigration) and has continued as such (Red Square McD’s bathroom line 45 minutes, innumerable 10R port-o-potties which dot the city, portable beer and Russian tonic stands, Metro tickets, etc.). however, treatments of the line are just as telling: need not be straight, need not be single file, and indeed, need not be heeded. (the wordless cut is a common practice that everyone dolefully accepts without complaint).

the odd relationship between car and walkway here epitomizes the still-happening interaction of all that is big, shiny, and pricey with all that is slow, quiet, and heady. on Novy Arbat, on the western side of the city and within the bounds of the third ring road (rings one, two, and three define the rough center, while distant ring four defines the city limit), above-said luxury SUV’s drive on the storefront sidewalks with entitlement to park apparently where they please. the sidewalks on this main radial artery are sizable (approx 40’) but not surprisingly 3 tons of metal takes precedence over 60 kg of muscle and bone and pedestrians become outcast upon their own territory. this same sidewalk is also used in one segment, across its entire width, as a skatepark, rendering the lowly walker smooshed against either the windshields of cars, or the windshields of storefronts. given the lacklustre retail environment of this cheaply built strip-mall above which loom repetitive blocks of ex-soviet housing (strung in decorative christmas light wire), it’s impossible not to be awed by the tenacity of the shopper. in another instance, off the high-speed riverside parkway, the front doors of an apartment building exited onto a tree-lined terrace for sitting, which led to a narrow sidewalk, flanked again by a tree-lined driveway space. all this was directly adjacent to the roadway, such that parking at the apartment demanded a direct turn-off at 50mph into a driveway. for all of this sectional abruptness, however, the garden terrace and sidewalk were surprisingly serene.

given the high speed of the major roads here (some being 8 lanes wide like the 3rd ring road), the inflating size of the cars, and the sheer size of the city’s area and many of its major buildings, it’s a wonder that the car doesn’t reign more supreme, however. Moscow is a park-garden city extraordinaire, where people walk, read, eat, drink beer, strut, kiss, socialize wherever there is a tree and a patch of green. many of these parks are linear, squished between or adjacent to major arteries. highly hoppable iron fences delineate the integrity of their territory. unfortunately, what would have been an urban miracle of non-stop green space along the median of the second ring road is abruptly and temporarily halted here and there by Metro hubs which have sprouted into cinema-supermarket-liquor store-McDonald’s nodes (again, add blinking lights and occasional bad music). in such places society’s spectrum can be witnessed, where the valet-parked cars of the well-to-do line up outside overpriced restaurants and bars while the working class sit on the nearby grass, enjoying a 40 between 3 small plastic cups.

thus, the sacred is sporadic but one could easily argue that Moscow’s Metro is a linear underground site of something reverant. begun in 1935 and largely constructed under Stalin, it is a dense and efficient (as in, train every 2 minutes, max) network of vaulted, lamp-lit, sculpted space, each station with a ‘theme’ that runs consistently from the above-ground entrance hallway (NOT simply signed stairwells) and into the deep bowels of the earth. some stations are draped in the heavy-handed propaganda of pre-1991; this often occurs at the metro stations that service the major national railway stations, of which there are a half-dozen. somehow advertising remains minimal, a testament to the Metro’s historical communist legacy, and is limited to the compartments. entrance halls will also usually have a few booths and stalls for food, lottery, and/or theatre tickets (called ARTMETRO stalls). at 9 million riders a workday, this mechanical and human river of moving parts is shockingly sombre and quiet, the site of occasional exhibitions of true gentility (a guide to walk you where you need to go, a gift of clay sculpture from the hands of an old man) and also its breach (an ass-grab, a licentious wink). for such a deep system, you rarely feel as if you are underground in the same sense as other subway systems; this is partly due to the wide and high vaults of the ceilings, the atmospheric lighting, brightness of material (often stone), and the typical typology of a wide columnaded central hallway from which the two platforms extend. this sense of open centrality avoids the rat-denizen maze sensation, and although transfer stations do demand an underground walk between two lines, even the hallways that connect the lines are given spatial attention, rarely squeezing in from the open platform spaces.

for all of this heavy built infrastructure, there is a system of how things work here that has no spatial quality. corruption need not be grand for it to be powerful, and everywhere its presence in the everyday can be witnessed if you look. policemen who look no younger than 18 loiter in threes and fours in most Metro stations and on major street intersections, occasionally checking the ‘documents’ of anyone they please. if things aren’t in order, bribes, rather than fines or compliance, are commonplace – it is more lucrative to pocket the money than to make an official report, and less expensive to pay a bribe. everyone knows this, so the rule-of-law becomes flexible. one can hardly blame this system either; in current day Moscow the gap between salaries and prices is astonishing, and without this operative black-market of payments, people would probably starve or be evicted. on the long-distance trains it is typical for passengers to forego buying a ticket, simply paying the ticket conductor under the table and directly once on the train. the passenger saves 30%, the conductor makes cash, and the trains continue to be ‘officially’ underused despite their crowdedness. moreover, as my acquaintance said, ‘everyone does it so they can’t do anything about it.’ (this doesn’t work on the Metro’s automated gate system, although one student told me they usually get 3 to 4 people through on one swipe). this loss in revenue for state-managed undertakings might partially explain inflation and makes one wonder whether financial feasibility is maintained by the over-paying law-abiders (which will last for how long?)

this type of informal-formal doesn’t hold so much clout in the area of retail, where lightweight structures and stalls populate the streets and the train station hubs but are established enough to have price-boards. there are even national chains of stalls selling blini (crepes), hotdogs, or stuffed potatoes. other kiosks sell ‘produkti’ (fruits, veggies, meat products), others devoted more to ‘sin’ items (beer and cigs galore). after this sidewalk retail space come the tiny deli and knick knack shops, sometimes lined up along the sodium-lit street underpasses, sometimes isolated in a short row of 3 to 4 near a Metro station entrance... on up to the exorbitant supermarkets on well-established boulevards (a la Dean and Deluca). this gradation of formality is present elsewhere; at the Vernisazh weekend market (Kafka meets Walt Disney), old ladies near the entrance sell handfuls of (what looks like their own) jewelry directly from their lap. moving further into the market space yields foodcarts, which flank stalls of unimaginable blinwear: belts, bags, jeans, earrings, bras. next is the ‘official’ market, accessible through iron gate, where tourists drink beer while holding their recent purchases, stuffed in garbage bags (Matroishka dolls, chess sets, amber jewelry, propaganda print material, vintage military gear, bear-fur rugs, etc). above all of this panoply hover, in the foreground, pastel reproductions of tzarist Russia onion-dome buildings (in miniature, of course), and beyond that, brutal residential towers across the street. the market is both scathingly real and candy-coated; immigrants from all over Eastern Europe are understandably desparate to make a few rubles and the sheer ugliness of the site and surrounds is a reminder that Moscow’s wealthy Merc-riding sex kittens are the cream of the crop. at the same time, Russia’s history and heritage, which is real and ever-active, is put on display as charming novelty, to which we are unabashedly susceptible (ex. i almost bought a 1920’s leather military shoulder bag; it was so beautiful with the sweat and age of time, and god knows what its original owner endured). a similar phenomena happens in Beijing, in the lanes of the crumbling hutongs around the Forbidden City. but Vernisazh is isolated from the rest of the city. no everyday meat or bread shops flank the kitsch stores; this market is a concentrated exhibition of how absurdity and tragedy meet with desire to create irony.


forty-one. Milan, II (+ Moscow hors d’oeuvre)
as usual, concluding the last city from the next. Red Square is distant in the window frame of my dinghy but friendly accommodation; one gets the sense that we’re illegal, or protected, in this get-up of non-signage, door codes, and dark hallways. in my frenetic journey from the airport to the city centre I sensed an amazing and mystifying city of Cyrillic tongue, gargantuan warehouses, minute huts, and facadeless housing blocks (I had a Singapore relapse at one point in the train-ride). the Metro more beautiful, and more deep, than any subterranean rail system i have ever seen: lonely violin performers eek out a living through sad songs that reverberate off these buried marble hallways. it’s like being within a Russian tome. middle-aged women with metallic blonde locks and hardened eyes monitor turnstiles, gates, check tickets amidst swarms of humid, noiseless, pushing commuters . . . the energy here, or the brief shot that i have absorbed, is adolescent punk and intoxicating.

i rewind to Milan: an easy city to wander, yet not full of idiosyncratic minutae that make recounting every route worthwhile; themes appear easily enough.

Milan is a trade-fair city, and though everything is resting right now, come September the hotels will be chock-full. Fuksas’ infrastructurally-sized glass roof at Rho Fiera is currently closed, but gaping from the gate is enough to see its massive (mostly) elegance. for all of its length it is inverse-thin. more interestingly, however, is its placement at the current-city periphery, the terminus of Metro Line one. adjacent is a major highway construction site. the old convention center (Fiera Milanocity), in the process of being decommissioned, was once no doubt the ‘periphery,’ a testament to Milan’s growth and her intentional planning: outer areas are classified into ‘zones,’ each with its own Integrated Plan boasting architecture-to-be. this Fiera Milanocity will be turned into a high-rise ‘green’ luxury residential showcase featuring Hadid and Liebeskind. currently, the city is vying for the 2015 Universal Exposition, true to its decades’- old engagement in global fairs (ex: Gio Ponti’s 1933 100m. tall Torre Branca, next to the Triennale, built in 2 months for the ‘Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts + Modern Architecture Exhibition”). like Jo’burg’s FIFA, Shanghai’s 2010 Expo, and Beijing’s Olympics, these events are tickets to development and a blessing for some, a disaster for others (shack-dwellers are particularly vulnerable to displacements in the name of world-city beautification, as in the case of Jo’burg).

the linear park: noticeable at the Public Gardens, near which I stayed, and the Parco Sempione, near Stazione Nord. in both cases a major vehicular thoroughfare has separated the parks near their edges, resulting in a narrow band of green of cleaved green. these linear ‘parks’ become transitional zones between roadway, tramway, and backstreet (at the Public Garden) or between roadway and railway, serving as a buffer from the walled rail-bed (Stazione Nord). my guess is that the parks came first, the roads small routes within them, that have grown over time. in general, the ‘transition’ is prevalent at all scales in Milan: the doorways lead to deep open foyers which open onto verdant courtyards, or, at churches such as S. Ambrosia or S. Lorenzo Maggiore, the ruins of a gateway are left standing to claim the territory of the church square (at S. Lorenzo the detached Roman columns are a popular nighttime hangout for beer-swilling teens). the old canals at the southern edge of the city center (in particular the Navigli Pavese) are decommissioned for all practical purposes but continue to organize housing and retail around them, serving again as open space with frequent bridge crossings. the southern half of the Pavese remains no-nonsense, but upon crossing the locks north of V. Tibaldi (where the bridge provides shelter for a small homeless population), the canal suddenly becomes a tourist domain: the water deepens enough for restaurant-boats, shade-trees proliferate as do cafes and bars.

the public transit in Milan is well-run but mostly unremarkable, and a 1 euro ticket is good for 75 minutes of riding on bus, tram, or metro. (not quite Hong Kong’s Octopus card, but more integrated than Moscow’s stand-in-line system). strangely, for a city of design and incidental beauties, the metro was a displeasure i found myself avoiding in favor of the trams, with their creaky automatic step-down stair, polished wood and brass, accurate time-tables (often electronically posted through minimal sidewalk signs) and ‘see-and-be-seen’ population. the linescapes of the tram are beautiful, often running through grass and tree-lined. compare the metro, steamy, unadorned and oddly inconvenient: you must always go to the center in order to go back out, and in a city of such manageable scale, to walk the hypotenuse is often a more appealing option. the metro’s pluses are its readability above ground, in the way of sidewalk ventilation grates, and its graffiti, which is a thick phenomena all over Milan (currently provoking a ubiquitous anti-graffiti poster campaign). in some stations the graffiti is commissioned and embraced, generating well-crafted murals. the city-wide graffiti doesn’t stand in isolation, however, and seems to be part of a culture of verbal-visual communication; unending blocks of poster-advertising render walls and fences into colorful accretions of events and happenings. signage, in general, is embraced, and navigating the city by car or foot without map is surprisingly easy; each piazza, of which there are many, is used as an opportunity for orientation.


forty-point-five. CH, mobile marketing, Zumthor, and the landscape of hay.
tiny, tidy Switzerland
packed a three day punch, sandwiched between incoming and outgoing Milan. Zumthor’s baths, 3 hours from Milan, were too good to pass up. i found myself the unlikely overnight marketing agent for Sixti rental car company which, if you’re willing to drive a car-sized moving ad, will let you go on 5 Euro a day. forgive me, principles – a case-study called. conspicuously, the ad plastered to the vehicle was pretty much the only advertising i saw during those 72 hours.

the baths are in the canton of Graubunden, Italianate to the south, Germanic to the north, and god only knows the transition probably happens at an elevation of 11,000 feet in a tiny village dotted with hay-drying barns. these structures, which adorn the mountains of Vals and surrounding towns like a smattering of rough pearls, are seemingly nestled into the grassy vertical topography without rhyme or reason. the quilted pattern of green however, and a quick peek inside will reveal that they are spaced in accordance with the hay-accumulation needs of the owner. unmortared walls of sombre gray stone provide breathable supports whose main purpose is to wield a stone roof which keeps the rain off the grass drying beneath. the mounds of verdant storage are rumored to make an unforgettable napping spot, as well, which would be a remarkable treat for anyone who is foot traveling in the mountains. the trails are everywhere, and in contrast to ‘backpacking’ in the U.S. the mountain foot-trails truly function like miniature roads, with copious signage, generous proportions, inter-connectivity and proximity to the built. a healthy daypack seems to suffice most walkers, who hop from town to town just in time for a cooked meal and a soft bed. the boundary between wilderness and civilization is thus rendered paper thin, irrelevant. it is difficult to have hard feelings about the commitment to rules and ‘doing things right’; when you’re living in such a landscape the complete awareness of one’s physical footprint was nothing short of inspiring (ex: roadside sound-barriers turned solar panels...). moreover, the potential idyllicization is rendered sophisticated by the ever-presence of everything in 3 languages, and the subtle attention paid to memorable design details (china tea cups with mega espresso machine? the dichotomy funny and warding off the precious...)

driving to Vals was perhaps more remarkable than the baths themselves, save for the serendipitous run-in with Ravee of all people...the world of architecture is small indeed. the mountain roads in Switzerland are an exercise in sublime engineering, with numerous & generous pull-outs, curve radii that never stimulate a sweat, and these breathtaking half-open ‘tunnels’ that protect the road from rockslides. covered in grass, the mountain simply sweeps down onto these structures, which are dayl-lit and supported by rhythmic pillars to their outer edge. at one point i saw two men walking on top of one, and envied them. at other times the smart car veered on happy detours off the main road to follow a sign which led over a bridge over a pristine river to end at a gravel path which led to a church of such humble and silent material weight.

this experience of getting to the baths informs their architecture more than the building itself, if that makes any sense. the play of mass, void, and moisture is borrowed directly from the landscape, and the most remarkable part of the building is not any bath but the saunas, which read like a womb, and whose primary materials are steam and soft light. as if in a dream people wander about, unclad, breathing the heavy heat, mere shadows in a dense, stone-lined cave of steam. i’ll remember the experience for years to come.

forty. Milano, I.
it’s dusk and from the balcony of my blessed ‘budget’ hotel in Milan, i can see to the northwest the blinking lights of Gio Ponti’s elegant Pirelli tower. it's one of the few buildings in the city that breaks the architectural status quo (ten storeys, heavy-wooden door which opens into idyllic courtyard, relatively flat street facades) which blankets the city in understated harmony. airplane trails criss-cross the sky, with Malpensa airport to the west, Linate to the east, and budget-minded Bergamo to the northeast. this sky-bound spider’s web simply mimics in a transverse fashion what happens below on the ground radially, where three different rail systems weave their ways through the cityscape, both below and above ground, interlaced with the linear divets of an ancient (and still vital) tram system. (these tramrails unfortunately don’t work so well with the bicycles, whose wheels become ensnared in the grooves). there is a heavy hum of dinnertime voices at this hour, as most apartments turn inwards toward a courtyard space, voices reverberating off the walls of close neighbors.

nonetheless, Italy’s financial and fashion capital is currently unhurried; to be here in early August when the city is beginning to empty out in search of sun and surf was an oversight on my part, but such is the timing of travel and between Jo’burg and Moscow, perhaps Italy’s tasty couture provides welcome old-world eye and mouth candy. moreover, as stores close and the white-collar classes escape the waning days of summer, what is left is interesting in its own right: fashion-conscious holiday shoppers, basilica-ogglers, and of course, the working and immigrant classes who will profit from being the ones to cater to the tourist’s Milan when everyone else has drawn their shutters. surprisingly, for every glass-and-gilded shopping avenue in the city there is a street market somewhere, usually further from the city centre (marked by the city’s ornate Duomo), where wardrobes and perishables are on sale from Southeast Asian, African, Sri Lankan, et. al, vendors. within this less-formal consumer space there are gradients; those who cannot afford a stall loiter on the sidewalk, or street corner, their goods in hand or spread out on the concrete. the standard of living here is extremely high, but the public parks serve as subtle shelter for the evening’s homeless who sit inconspicuously at dusk on the benches, waiting for the haven of nightfall and the locking of the gates from without. i surmise that at such time, fountains become a place to wash, and wonder if the civility of the city-by-day gives way to any unspoken micro-territorial possessiveness.

Milan may get a bad name for being all work and no play, but this doesn’t negate the fact that over much of the city’s terrain you usually have, within arm's reach: cafe, bar, eatery, gelateria, public transit stop – arguably, like any good Italian city. here the tree, the median, and the sidewalk table-for-two reign supreme, the median becoming, through the shade of copious foliage, a space for parking, a space for sitting, or a space for public transit. the ‘squares’ as it were, save for the most traditional of them near the city center, are often simply a swelling of these medians into an elongated ellipse. add playground or cafe and voila: another piazza, sans cobblestone and church but a respite nonetheless.


thirty-nine. Branner midyear report.
....although quite past midyear.