Do buildings talk? I was at Milan Central Railway Station last week and it seemed to me it didn’t so much talk as shout. And while it was shouting, it gripped me by my shirt-front and gave me a good shake to show who was boss.
Its frontage is grey and muscular, packed with warrior figures carrying shields or swords, wrestling with lions or each other. And it’s big – very big and very, what’s the word… squat. Unshiftable. A building that says it’s here to stay and don’t even think about arguing the point. No surprise, then, that Mussolini had a strong hand in its design. He didn’t just make the trains run on time. He made sure the Milano Stazione Centrale told everybody just what was what.
There are steps leading up to the station (of course there are) and at the entrance you see maybe half-a-dozen guys of Indian or Pakistani background, trying to sell stuff. Cheap stuff. Little green rubber figures that inflate when flung against a strip of board, fragile-looking plane models that are remote-controlled, little hand-held machines that go cheep-cheep as they blow rainbow bubbles. How do these people make a living? Even if their profit margin is 100%, it seems impossible that they can sell enough to keep body and soul together. The contrast between their powerlessness and the muscle of the building they’re standing in front of couldn’t be greater
They say Milan Station is a bit like the Union Station at Washington DC. That’d make sense - it’s another power centre. But as I looked at the Milan building, I was reminded of one nearer home: Stormont. The same grey-white stone, the same squat design, the same pretension to authority. Admittedly, Stormont doesn’t have the massive figures that comprise the front of the Milan Station, but then Milan doesn’t have the long intimidating walk that Stormont not so much offers as thrusts upon its visitors. With, of course, father-of-unionism Carson on his pedestal out front. The message of both buildings is the same: we are in charge and we’re staying in charge.
When power-sharing was being planned, the location of the new Assembly was the subject of some debate. Republicans at first said that the old Stormont building had too many echoes of the past to be suitable for a new beginning, but unionism won that argument - Stormont it was, Stormont it will be. On the other hand, by bowling up to the front door in black taxis and by holding events like the annual Poc Fada competition (trophy: the Edward Carson Cup ), republicans made it clear they were setting up camp on the holy ground of unionism. A bit like reaching up and tweaking Il Duce’s nose.
When you bend your head back and look up at Milan Station’s giant steel canopies, thoughts of power and poetry fill the mind. In the end Benito Mussolini died at the hands of his fellow-countrymen. They kicked his corpse, spat on it, then hung it on a meat-hook from the roof of a Milan petrol station so the populace could more effectively throw stones at it. Percy Bysshe Shelley, who loved Italy and is buried there, wrote a great poem about power, ending with the lines “Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
The monument to power in Shelley’s poem is fallen, forgotten. Milan Stazione Centrale and the Stormont building still stand. But the hubris that created them both has been swept away and we’re all – ALL – the better for it.
Yes, buildings talk, but you mustn’t believe everything they tell you.