August 1st, 2001

August 2001

If travel broadens the mind, that may be because it frees the mind from usefulness.

Our daily lives are spent being functional. Our cars, homes, workplaces all have a primary purpose. However pleasant we make those environments, we cannot forget what they are for. The same is true of most of the buildings we visit; their beauty, extravagance, ugliness, meanness, is disguised by their use.

I am sure that one reason why so much new build is insipid, is because we all assume we won’t be looking at it. Shopping, living, and working, are focus activities; where they happen seems to matter less.

I played a game with some friends recently. I asked them to choose a street or a walk they knew well, and describe it accurately – the kinds of buildings, the street furniture, bus-stops, phone boxes, curious detail. Then we went and compared the mental map with the original.

What was astonishing was how much had been lost and forgotten. Anything we use regularly becomes so familiar we can no longer see it. The substance dissolves, leaving a ghostly image we claim is real.

All those down to earth practical types might as well be living in a cyber-bubble. The harshness, strangeness, and ordinary magic of the world misses them. The only way to live fully is to be fully conscious. That means noticing where you are – which like all simple propositions, is hard to do.

Travel unclenches the grip of unreality that chokes off so much of our engagement with life. When we go somewhere new, we look around us. We are not concerned with use or function. We want to find the essence of the place, and the little details excite us. No longer dulled into not noticing, we find pleasure everywhere. Even the bad things amuse more than they irritate.

The rush for more exotic holiday destinations is a symptom of how difficult it is for many people to get any thrill or satisfaction out of what it familiar. The kind of creative attention Cézanne brought to an apple is absent from normal life. We do not know how to see the thing in itself as it really is. The exceptions are what is wholly new, or when we fall in love.

Not everyone wants reality-contact. The Costa del Chips, the guided tours, the programmatic package holidays, are ways of avoiding newness. Transporting home abroad, or filtering experience through a tour leader who has done the rounds a hundred times, ensures that nothing will puncture the unreality bubble. ‘Foreign’ is literally ‘Other’. An encounter with Otherness is a question addressed to what we think we know.

An architect friend of mine tells me that when he is designing a new building for an interesting client, he becomes hypersensitive to his own environment. On major projects, he has once moved house, and twice moved offices, simply because he looked around and though ‘How did I get here – it’s dreadful?’

This is extreme – he’s an extreme sort of a guy – but how often how you travelled somewhere and desperately wanted to move there, simply because the dead layers of life seem to have been peeled away.

Fresh sensations, new emotions, are valuable. Can we experience this in everyday life, without endless novelty, which in itself becomes pointless?

Buildings matter precisely because we do inhabit them. Wonderful buildings are a way of prompting the soul. When a building cannot be reduced to its function, it helps us to be more than functional ourselves.

We need that freedom. Life is too short to save for the holidays.