Monday, 7 May 2012


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!


Petra said...

thanks for the introduction. I hadn't heard of Meanjin. bookmarked it to get back to it later (seems like you can read most of it online!?)

and good luck with the competition xxx

Kate said...

It seems, increasingly, that solitude is becoming equated with either a determined anti-social form of self-isolation or with loneliness; and viewed with suspicion or pity or sheer incomprehension. I thrive on periods of solitude - need it and enjoy it. I also like to be in company - but when I choose to, not as a default. I'll certainly be looking into Meanjin.

Megan said...

I completely agree with you, I hate the communal work set up. Just like you, I love my privacy and work best when I'm alone. I wonder if this 'team-work' mentality that corporations have been pushing for years will ever disappear. It's nothing short of over-rated in my opinion. Great post!

Ballad of Seasons said...

me too sometimes I get fed up with the tiring communal workspaces. especially if you're doing a phd, as myself, working hours become nothing but waste of time and you wish that noone comes to the office the next day so that you'll be more creative :)
for these reasons, I demanded flexibility in my workspace choice depending on the task that I'm working on. luckily my demand has been welcomed and now I can work at home, alone, if I needed to. as far as I accomplish the task, there shouldn't be a problem.
both the article and the magazine seem interesting. I'm reading the article online right now. thanks for sharing.

p.s. good luck for the competition! just voted for you :)

Sally said...

So interesting to consider the trends of interior design and architecture from this perspective! Makes me wonder in which direction the trends will go next.

Sadly I guess places like airports aren't designed for the individual, so they're meant to give the idea of spaciousness to help the hoards get along...but in spaces meant to encourage intimacy and creativity, a la coffee shops, I feel very bewildered and exposed by "new" empty architecture and interior design, and same goes for apartments (within reason). I can't stand tooo much clutter, but there's a coziness to haphazard things, it's all about finding my personal balance.

(And edited to add in regards to Kate's comment above - agree so heartily! This sentiment about healthy alone time reminds me my anger at how society is attuned to and favors extrovertism, whereas interovertism is misunderstood and no less important to society.)

Jane Flanagan said...

I find the necessity to work in an open-concept office similarly exhausting. I know it has a knock-on effect on my productivity too... I listen to too many conversations that have no impact on my work, I get roped in every which way.

That said, when I have control over my exposure, I appreciate certain public spaces. For example, I live alone, so I like to work in coffee shops and public gathering spaces sometimes...

That's more a reflection of the ontology of my life (than class or income). When I have choices, I embrace both in my own measure... For me, happiness in private or in public is a function of being able to make the choice to walk away from either kind of space when I've had enough.

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures said...

Wow what a thoughtful post! I've never thought about this before, but I agree with your thoughts completely.

rooth said...

Fascinating takeaway - I have never really heard that it is OKAY to be alone every once in awhile. That you need it to think and that's alright. Airports are really strange places to be and I find them to be really awkward places to read as well. I'm glad you found a piece that suited your need at the time

Camila Faria said...

I hate that I can't find all the amazing publications you mention over here Hila. I'll try to order it via post.

April said...

I watched this video recently that I was reminded of when reading the blog entry and comments.

"Susan Cain: The power of introverts"

Hila said...

Petra: yep, you can read a lot of the essays online, which is quite generous. But I will say that the print version is far more enjoyable to read.

Kate: yes, exactly, solitude is regarded as strange and anti-social - in negative ways. I don't understand this mentality that we need to be constantly surrounded by other people, or that removing yourself from people every once in a while is a 'bad' thing.

Megan: ah yes, the old 'team-work'. It has its value, but as you said, it can also be vastly over-rated and incredibly unproductive.

Ballad of Seasons: I think everyone who needs their privacy to work better should have this flexibility to work at home, or to retreat every once in a while away from communal work spaces. Unfortunately, I doubt that very many people have this privilege.

Sally: I think being extroverted is regarded as 'healthy', completely ignoring the fact that a lot of people simply aren't extroverts. It's perfectly possible to maintain a healthy relationship with society and be an introvert. The problem is more to do with how others perceive you as an introvert.

Jane: yes, I so agree with you, I like having the choice to step away when I need to. But that choice isn't always available to me, so it usually ends up being me who has to bend my personality to others, rather than the other way round. It can make me feel paranoid about my own personality, and I don't feel that's fair, as I can't exactly change who I am.

Andi: Thank you.

rooth: I usually find them awkward places to read too as there's so much outside stimulation, which is distracting. But I think having essays rather than a novel in front of me allowed my attention to focus better.

Camila: It should be available by post, but if not, they also publish many of their essays online, so you should be able to read it :)

April: ah yes, I've heard of this, it's on my reading list.

Nit said...

I've never thought about it in that way, it's quite interesting and more comprehensive actually. Usually, for me, public and private worlds are associated with the history of male and female "traditional" designated roles... (and not so traditional actually)
I didn't know the magazine, it sounds quite interesting!

Hila said...

Nit: yes, I definitely see space through a gendered perspective too.

Nadiah said...

You should certainly submit to Meanjin. I used to read through the submissions pile and would have loved to come across one of your pieces.

Hila said...

Thanks Nadiah! I have to admit to being a bit intimidated, but I'll give it my best shot and try submitting something.