Monday, June 11, 2012

The Dark Side

In the Northern Italian town of Bassano di Grappa, there is a beautiful bridge of Palladio’s design, Ponte degli Alpini. On one side, an old vertical house contains a nice-looking tavern, which I chose for a late-afternoon drink. I was surprised to find out that the tavern had a small museum on two levels below the drinking floor, entrance free of charge. A bit hesitantly, I descended several flights of narrow steps into the Museo degli Alpini – and into another world.

The Alpini, or the Alpine brigades, were the elite regiments of the Italian Army, specially trained to fight in the mountain terrain.  They were formed in 1870s, at the outset of the Italy’s unification to protect the country’s northern mountainous borders. But the first big warfare for the Alpine brigades came with the beginning of World War I.  The action became known as the “War of Snow and Ice”, with most of the front lines running through the highest peaks and glaciers of the Alps. It was estimated that 12,000 Alpines, one out of every three enlisted, had died in the course of this campaign.

The lowest floor of the museum was, in fact, devoted to the years of WWI. One would need W.G.Sebald to describe the impact of objects on display, things that often defied description.  I’ll cite only a few examples, from memory:
-Gas masks (chemical warfare was a common tactic), including gas masks for horses, mules, and also for dogs; 
-Small cages for canaries, which would signal presence of the gas;
-Devilish devices for installing barbed wire in field, which looked like huge corkscrews (since one could not hammer the posts in without attracting enemy’s attention);
-The opposite set of devices for cutting barbed wire of the enemy;
-Outfits for fighting in extreme cold and snow, such as enormous overboots with six-inch wooden soles, or anti-ice glasses with opaque metal lenses, with only tiniest holes provided for vision;
-Horrendous spikes and hooks that attached to boots, for non-slipping on the glaciers;
-Horseshoes with similar spikes;
-Medical equipment of all kinds, such as metal wire stabilizers for legs, arms, and head, and also a wire face mask, which could hold a cotton swab soaked in analgesics;
-And so on.

It is hard to imagine that someone conceived and made these kinds of objects for people to use. The very notion of morality gets suspended. How many lives have been saved by these terrifying gismos? How many people were killed because of them? In narrow sense, many objects demonstrate technical and functional elegance, yet the very fact of their superior functionality calls for a larger question: why would people want to do this to each other?

It is no wonder that these kinds of objects, their power notwithstanding, are never included in any design anthology, never shown in a design exhibition.  Architecture and design are too often presented as a life-affirming, optimistic enterprise. We try not to think about the dark side. Until we stop to admire a Palladio’s bridge, and stumble into memories of the War of Snow and Ice.