From Elizabeth Farrelly – Architecture critic smh.com.au, 9th January 2014
What makes the ideal holiday?
What makes the ideal holiday? Admittedly, as a boredom-phobe and hopeless writaholic I’m probably the last person you’d ask. I rarely do big-block leisure (by ”big-block” I mean anything over 30 minutes), much less your actual vacation. Yet two things strike me. One, that most holidays are, however obliquely, disappointing. Two, that some are not. What, I wonder, makes the difference?
Not place, per se. I’ve been bored in some astonishing places. Mediterranean villages, Balinese mountaintops, luxury yachts. And yet some holidays, like the brief one I have just enjoyed in the droughty inland, leave me refreshed, renewed and, in some part, healed.
Of course the refresh-relax thing is what holidays are for. But there’s relax that vanishes without trace on return to work. And there’s the relax that stays with you, healing and strengthening like those endearing little animalcules that scoot around your body darning your worn DNA before it goes into holes. (That’s just a metaphor. I know it’s really a stationary in-cell repair system. But thank you).
Yet disappointment is the holiday norm. You’ve been there. Where the dads self-medicate with beer and cricket while the mums make salad, apply sunscreen and resolve kid-fights. Where twice a week you drive in asphalt-melting heat through 50km of petrol stations and strip-retail to Nowra or Tuggerah for supplies. Where all the kids get bluebottle-stung but the chemist is closed until Friday.
Many vacations give less than they take. You’ve spent thousands and booked nine months ahead, so you can’t just leave. But the days seem impossibly long because you can’t actually do anything interesting. It’s like reality with the good bits taken out.
Indeed, I’ve occasionally thought the main purpose of the holiday – like the horror flick – is to build gratitude for humdrum reality. So secretly pleased are we to get back to fast wi-fi, Japanese tapas and first-picked Darjeeling tea that we vow never to grizzle again.
So, what’s the decider? Not physical comfort. Often the least comfortable holidays are the best. Swag on sandy desert, unpadded tatami in a paper-walled ryokan, bush-camping with long-drop dunny. That sort of thing.
Yet some kind of comfort is necessary. You might call it aesthetic comfort, although it’s not about banishing ugliness. Indeed, some ugly is fundamental. The stitched-up beach house with its big-screen tv and ultra-smooth design-mag fitout is way less relaxing than the ramshackle fibro shed furnished with worn family rejects, dog-eared paperbacks and ancient board games.
You’ll say I’m just redefining ugly, and to some extent that’s true. The barefoot Whale Beach of 20 years ago remains tantalisingly in my ”ideal” basket, whereas Whale Beach now – stuffed full of charcoal stucco and balcony-glass – I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.
If by ”aesthetic” we mean not how things look, per se, but how that look (or feel or smell) conveys meaning, aesthetic comfort is something that allows connection. And in connecting it heals. So a looser, more porous aesthetic – peeling weatherboards and sandy tracks – is naturally more restorative than air-con and plate glass.
But connection is just one primary human drive. The other, opposing it, is competition. Connection (be it with humans, landscapes or higher consciousness) is a love thing. Competition is a status thing. One is open. The other, closed. So the shack and the mansion aren’t just different in scale. They’re opposites. The shack – friable, permeable, transient – reifies love. The McMansion – pumped, primped and proofed – is built status.
The ideal shack presupposes two conditions: wilderness and leisure. Wilderness of course is a Biblical precept; one of the few to be adopted by the 20th century as a core value. As mid-century environmentalist Edward Abbey put it, “wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital … as water and good bread.”
Yet wilderness is unattainable. This is partly because of the Wilderness Paradox, whereby the minute you’re in it, if you’re more than a sole soul – a hermit – it’s no longer wilderness. It’s very low-density suburbia.
But there’s also this. Is wilderness something we truly want?
Judging by our behaviour, the degree of wilderness most of us want is the kind represented by ”absolute waterfront”; the expensive, hard-edged illusion that no one else exists. No sooner do we find a Whale Beach or an Esperance than we start to work it. We chop and channel, drain and divide, plough and till, pave and plant. This is fine, in its way. But it turns wilderness into habitat, listening into action, leisure into work.
I’ve nothing against work. Like I said, I’m an addict. But leisure, it turns out, is also vital; both to the restorative holiday and, say the sages, to spiritual engagement. Leisure, said Aristotle, manifests the divine spark in us. Which suggests that the etymology of ”holiday” – holy day – may be more than just vestigial.
If work is the effort to change and shape the world, leisure is its opposite. Work creates and embellishes habitat; leisure listens. Back in the 19th century, the suburb was invented to ape permanent and universal leisure. But it was always a lie. The suburb pretends openness and love but in fact, being predicated on boundary and addicted to display, is the built form of competition. It’s this hypocrisy that rankles.
What’s interesting to me is that this sense of openness, of silent listening, characterises my finest holidays. It was 45 degrees last Friday when we arrived on the dry farm west of the mountains. Hot as. Nothing moved. Even the dogs were still.
That evening, instead of swimming with the others, I sat in loose silence with my host, feeling the cool creep over the hills. Hearing the out-breath of the big dry land, the reality behind the palaver. Listening, if you will, for the voice of God. Pretty damn lovely. Workaholic that I am, I could get a taste for it.