June 20, 2002  |  Ivrea

From Switzerland I made a detour to visit northern Italy, Ivrea, where a new interaction design school is gaining attention. The town of Ivrea didn’t have too much to offer, working class, unkept, in the smouldering heat I have a hard time imagining staying here for two weeks, let alone two years. The town is dominated by the company of Olivetti, which is 1911 produced the first typewriter. The navy ministry placed the first order, and a new industry was born. During the war the company focused on precision machine tools, especially when German supplies were unavailable. In the design industry the company is well-known—the ad department, headed by Adrian Olivetti himself, created many memorable designs throughout last century and the company worked with leading architects to create then shocking buildings for factories and workshops. These all glass facades don’t look so good anymore… as is the old industry. The company is shifting focus to research and services, in the new sectors of communication—including founding the interaction design school.

A muddy river divides the town; a sculpture dedicated to Olivetti junior marks its main bridge. Rather naively conceived, there is a small tower of rusted giant-size nails, then an even bigger nail, with Olivetti’s bust on its head, inserted into the wall of a small waterfall. Rather than commemorating a productive, influential life, the sculpture’s impression on me was that Olivetti’s reward is an afterlife of toil, being hammered into the wall, being pounded by water. It reminded me of Sisyphus, pushing a rock up a mountain each day for eternity. I felt tired from walking and from the sun. Haven’t we all earned our rest? (My dream is to coast down a river in a valley, there are mountains on the sides for me to admire and to scale if I felt the urge, but meanwhile it’s effortless, smooth sailing.)

But then I remember an interesting interpretation of Sisyphus’ fate—that he is lucky rather than punished, that each day he has an assigned duty that he can perform, and the next day and the next day, and he does not have to worry and sleeps soundly at the foot of the mountain each night. Indeed our work, be it blue or white collar, are not so different from Sisyphus’s task, and to curse or to be grateful for this fate is a decision for each, or, until we’re worn down enough that we give up and accept the inevitable. How does one push a rock up a mountain? This might have been a Zen koan. And the secret of the universe is that each time it would be different.

I pass by the bridge a couple more times during my stay. Though the sculpturer’s idea is still of doubtful quality to me, perhaps accidentally it achieves a more accurate portrait of a working stiff. To work is to participate in humanity’s procession, it is said, and I am aware that my hiatus from it is only temporary, not just for economics, but, well, what else is worth the bother? Not that I’m saying it’s the only way to live, not at all. To have time for oneself, to live by unconventional means is admirable, but to be forever idle is to be out of tune with the rhythm and progression of all things. Until our bodies disintegrate, until time and pressure wear us down, there is work to do.

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