On my flight back home from Melbourne, I read the latest issue of Meanjin from cover to cover. I’ve always wanted to send some of my work to Meanjin, but I chicken out at the last minute. So I just read and admire it from afar. I think I appreciated the value of the magazine even more as I was waiting in the airport for my flight.
Airports are such strange beasts, they tend to make me feel dislocated and alienated. Their open space and lack of sites of real refuge exhaust me. So when I started reading the essay, ‘Little Refuge: Design and Solitude’ by Ella Mudie, I was grateful for the irony of the subject-matter, sitting in an airport. Mudie discusses the prevalence of open space design in modern architecture, and the way it seems to ‘shun’ privacy, asking:
How likely are we to encounter it among the communal exercise hub of the gym, the noisy distractions of the shopping centre or the ever increasing number of crowded ‘non-places’ from airports to train stations that proliferate in our daily lives? Solitude in architecture is a magical and intangible quality, difficult to define, but we know it when we find it. These are spaces where, rather than being harried and stimulated to grasp and consume, we instead slow down, surrendering to contemplation or a meditative emptiness. Perhaps solitude is losing its desirability. Or, in a world that is squeezed for space (and pressed for time), it might simply have become unpractical, a luxury reserved for the privileged few who can afford it or dare to demand it. (p. 30)
As I read this, I thought of how my brother travels as a businessman. My brother works very hard. And he pays for his privacy in airports as a result of this hard work. In the secluded respite of business lounges and clubs, those privileged few who can afford to create a refuge within the vastness of airport space enjoy a sense of separation from being ‘harried and stimulated’. So is privacy really something that can only be bought these days?
I don’t think it’s that simple though, as the relationship between privilege and privacy has not always been set in this direction. The medieval royal court for example, used to be a public space where privacy was not a consideration in the lives of the privileged few. Their lives and bodies were essentially on constant display and under public scrutiny. Privacy was the domain of lower classes, and its lack was actually a marker of an elevated social class and wealth. So the aristocracy became aligned with a lack of private refuge, and their vast homes reflected this.
When the middle-class Victorians sought to proclaim their own financial dominance through architecture in the nineteenth century, they did so through their re-evaluation of privacy. If the aristocracy – the former holders of social and financial power – valued public display, the emerging middle-classes conversely turned privacy into a moral and architectural ideal. Suddenly, the ideal houses and homes were not the vast aristocratic mansions, but the cosy sites of domestic enclosure from the outside world, romanticised by authors such as Dickens and Ruskin.
It makes sense to me that modern architecture, which can be said to have ‘begun’ with the Modernist shift away from Victorian sensibility, swung back to those vast spaces as a reaction against Victorian propriety. And that’s the model of ‘ideal’ architecture we’ve inherited today. If you glance at blogs devoted to modern interior design and architecture, the style that tends to dominate is the spacious, neutral and ‘open plan’ design. I admire it from an aesthetic perspective, but it leaves me feeling cold and bare; these are not homes I could ever live in, they’re almost like museums.
I’m not sure whether there is a straightforward relationship between money and privacy these days, but it’s true that we are required to continually function in public and ‘open plan’ design. Our workplaces for example are conceived as communal spaces where there is little privacy separating one worker from another. As someone who has worked in such environments, and will probably continue to do so, I have to confess I find this exhausting – it just drains me.
I like being alone. That’s where my best ideas come from, where I excel. It seems almost fascist to require every person to function in the same communal manner in the workplace. Some people shine in public spaces, energised by being surrounded by a group of people. Other people, like me, need space and privacy to deliver their best work. Surely this is not difficult to understand? And yet, we’re expected to act and feel the same. The architecture and layout of our workplaces don’t take into account individuality when it comes to people’s practical productivity in the workforce.
So as I was reading Mudie’s essay, I couldn’t help but nod in utter agreement that yes, ‘To design for solitude is not to create spaces for self-indulgence but rather to give ample consideration to what the self might need for the full realisation of our potential as thinking, conscious individuals’ (p. 34). I hope I’ve tempted you to pick up a copy of Meanjin, as this is only one great essay out of many. If I wrote about each one I liked, I would be here all day.
P. S. A small reminder to vote for me in the blog competition I entered, if you haven’t already done so (if you have, thanks so much). I think the voting closes in two days, so any last minute votes would be greatly appreciated, thanks!