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unfolding Navigli

by Davisi Boontharm


"Unfolding Navigli" is a set of (un)foldable notebooks with sketches from the rediscovered, reemerging canals of Milan, in which I am trying combine my ability to sketch fast and artistic sensibility in experiencing the urban situation, with the logic of an urban researcher. The aim of such exercises is twofold: to let the hand think, discover and ask questions, and to establish a provocative and open-ended synthesis which combines aesthetic and documentary quality. That opens the spaces of my intuitive choice to the new readings, both to my own research and to the viewers . The selected but raw, unedited notebooks, which are partially presented in this issue of urbophilia, were first displayed as an impromptu exhibition at Politechnico di Milano in March 2017, to complement the theoretical exegeses of Theory and Practice of Urbanity, taught by Darko Radović at their Department of Architecture and Urban Studies,


The city as a text


Milan’s original, Latin name, “Mediolanum” hints at the “place among (water)ways”. That confirms the significance of places which encourage encounter, the roads and waterways which are part of foundation of any successful city. But, in this landlocked urban centre, the presence of water demanded extraordinary efforts, significant engineering in articulation of the abundant flows which originate in the Alps. One of Milanese myths (or a historic fact, no one seems to be quite sure) says that even Leonardo da Vinci was involved in design of Navigli, as those waterways were the lifelines of commerce which was, and remains at the core of an undeniable success of Milano.


But, as in many cities worldwide, the original quality, the raison d’être of the Lombardian capital has all but vanished. The carefully engineered streams and crafted watercourses were declared redundant and covered. The present Navigli are only scarce remnants of the once rich network of water which supported life of Lombardy. They have gone through significant transformation, from utilitarian waterways which for centuries enabled the trade and industries, to an almost total degradation during the last several decades, to the most recent rediscovery. The Navigli are back, this time as vibrant promenades of bustling commercial and social activities, loved both as residential precincts and the strings of tourist attraction, especially as part of the Milanese night scene.


I decided to use the advantage of short, lived experience in Milano to immerse myself into reading of that the rich urban text of Navigli, using my Sketch and Script method1.



Linear urban narratives


During our relatively long stay in Milano in 2017, we decided to stay near Navigli. I wanted to devote myself to observation of spaces and rhythms of Darsena and Navigli, and the first days of spring were an excellent time for doing that. The Navigli generously opened their qualities to me, hinting at the number of places and themes worth noting down, exploring,  researching and discussing.


Milano is a city is in constant movement. That is especially true in Navigli, where it is impossible to grasp the totality of the place by staying long in one spot and dwelling on a single instance. The physical condition of the place shapes the way in which we perceive it. As only two pedestrian bridges link the two waterside promenades, the quays of Naviglio Grande, thus, invite movement parallel to the waterway. The buildings on both sides and the ground floor activities set the rhythm of the experience. The people are in constant move, while the abundant spots comfortable for stopping to stand or sit are tempting, and threaten the flux. The sounds of the crowd …


The two promenades act as continuous theatre scenes, simultaneously taken apart and joined by the water of the Naviglio. From one side we, observe the activities at the opposite bank, choosing to be spectators while, inevitably, simultaneously accepting the role of actors in the spectacle observed by those at the other side of the canal. One is constantly aware of being within a particular ambiance, at one, specific side of the Naviglo (the sunny or the shady one, the busy or the less intensive one), being a part and the witness of the movement. The distance of …



The format fit to place


I am interested in finding ways to communicate the myriad stories concurrently happening in that place, in a given time. My sketches oscillate between asking and answering the key question: how to capture my own experience of that situation and how to communicate it as yet another story, or a record of the stories which, somehow linger in those places.


The Navigli are linear. Both their waters and the lives flanking them flow. Within them, the numberless scenes of everyday, ordinary lives intertwine with extraordinary moments. They unfold, and fold back onto each other. That’s why capturing those stories demanded linear format, the format capable to both keep flows and enable folding and unfolding. That is also why the title of my exhibition and this issue of urbophilia is “unfolding Navigli”.


I had to choose a particular kind of sketchbook. The record of the moments of my life which (un)folded during that precious, lived time at Navigli required the accordion style notebook. Only in that way the notes could capture the space-time continuity of symphonic experiences orchestrated by the canal, its flanking streets, facades, railings, pavements and an uncountable number of lives and movements. That condition cannot be presented in a single shot. The long and linear format of the Japanese Moleskine album allowed me to keep the totality of the story in one hand, and ability to stop and stare, to experience any of the innumerous moments, stages, snapshots which contribute to the essence of that totality. This kind of album demands a particular kind of handling; it wants to be unfolded by two hands in order to reveal the selected fragments or the full picture.


It is impossible to see the whole Navigli in one glance. The viewer of my albums also needs to move, from one frame to the other, by unfolding pages and by glancing across the drawings. It takes time to follow the flows. In the process, one has a sense of being control (we can choose whenever and wherever to stop); but, there is an equally strong sense of being out of control, out of balance (as stopping inevitably means that we might be missing something precious, happening now, within the next fold). Exactly as in the rich spaces making Navigli, which beg the visitor to stop and, by their immoderate richness, simultaneously pull forward.


In this work, I used sketches to form a story which seems to have a single narrative line, but which also allows travel through particular elements, following the lines suggested by the facades or by the footsteps of the pedestrians. Such work cannot conclude. It offers a non finito  continuity of rough, in situ pencil sketches, the ultimate aim of which was to expose the essence of place. Or, to ask what makes Navigli irresistible.

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