The metro, for example, is a wonderful observation point. In the dark you can read the whole life of the passengers: those who leave tired from their offices, those who have had an abortion, those who have left their husband, those who have a sick father.
In Italy, Milan is the city of modernity and dynamism, and its “metropolitana”, its subway, is no exception.
The metropolitana hums along with the rhythm of Milan above it, and going down into it on any weekday means mingling with the lives of its millions of people. At the intersection of the Green and Red lines at the Cadorna and Loreto stations, different worlds and moods of the city come together. People move briskly through the Cadorna corridor here, epitomizing the Milanese habit of punctuality. In the Loreto corridor many of the passengers have suitcases that divulge their destination as the Milano Centrale, the lavish station that connects Italy with Europe. They cross paths for a moment with those going in the opposite direction towards Gessate, where at the end of the Green Line one finds oneself on the fertile and rich “pianura padana” (Po River plain) and amid its country houses.
Milan built its first metro line, the M1, or more commonly called the “Rossa” (Red Line) in the mid-1950s, during the momentum of the post-war economic recovery period. This first part was completed in 1964 and was inaugurated on November 1 of the same year at the Lotto station. It was such an overwhelming success that by the end of that first day it had carried almost two hundred thousand passengers, so many that the vending machines ran out of tickets.
Currently the network of the Milan metro is made up of four lines that serve the city and are named after their respective colors: Line 1 (Red), Line 2 (Green), Line 3 (Yellow), and Line 5 (Lilac). There is also a Line 4 (Blue) under construction, that will eventually connect the San Cristoforo station with Milan Linate Airport.
The signage of the metro system is the work of Bob Noorda, and was a graphic design success of such remarkable functionality and aesthetics that it immediately became a model of reference for many other subways in the world. Noorda was the first to propose repeating the station name every five meters along the subway platform, in order to facilitate reading for those in the wagons.
Simplicity, clear graphics, and repetition are the hallmarks of the practical and efficient signage system of the Milan metro, a place that in recent days has remained as important as ever to the life of this changed city. In this pandemic time, the metro has also undergone a radical change. That human whirlwind that before descended at all times of the day spontaneously and without rules has become a restrained and subdued group of people, moving cautiously through the metro’s controlled spaces where even one’s footsteps are mapped out and predetermined, and where one cannot stray from one’s assigned place, in order to remain perfectly “distanced” from other travelers.
It is strange to think back and feel nostalgic for those pre-pandemic times when between 8.30 and 9.00 a.m. people would complain about the quick succession of morning rush hour trains so packed full that it was a daily miracle to be able to get yourself on one. When you managed to get on, you would politely apologize to your fellow passengers for packing them in a little more, and everyone would tolerate the physical intimacy in order to get to their destinations on time.
The “metropolitana” runs at the pace of Milan, and its current state is one of the most striking indicators of how the Coronavirus crisis has changed the underlying mechanisms that govern our lives and the world.