To my clients, on their summer holidays…
It’s the first time you’ve studied the place in daylight. You found the apartment online. There’s the archway from the photos, but it has a boxy shelving unit stuffed into one side, sticking out by ‘about’ eight millimetres. It’s a fine line between maximalism and hoarding, you think, surveying the shelves. And what’s this… chair covers, eh?
It can’t be easy being an architect all the time. As my friend Rowland put it in the essay he wrote for Escape, “wherever you go, there you are.” In my years spent working with architects on their communications and books, I’ve found that all value good design in their personal as much as in their professional lives. And as my clients head off for their summer holidays, I wish them wonderful food, drink, weather and interiors untroubled by badly executed details.
It’s a particular kind of frustration that isn’t exclusive to architects. There can be a lack of logic to holiday rentals that haven’t been lived in, that have never been made sense of by everyday use. We once rented a beach house in Majorca with enough plates to cater a wedding, so much cutlery the draws jammed and everything you’d need for a week’s intensive baking. But nothing to put a salad in. Or serve it with.
I suppose that’s why there’s an industry catering to holidays for the aesthetically sensitive, from Living Architecture’s retreats to sites like Welcome Beyond or Unique Homestays. I’d love to know what proportion of guests that choose a place in the Plum Guide, for example, work in design. The Guide’s ‘home critics’ pride themselves on “obsessing” over every detail, so guests aren’t offended by a tap too low to rinse a saucepan, or by laminated instructions pinned to every switch. Do they really though? The Modern House used to broker a list of holiday properties too, but that part of the site disappeared years ago. More recently, they have curated a small Norfolk barn, “a dialogue between art, textiles, furniture and the farmyard context.” It comes with “hand-picked reading materials that run the gamut from seminal texts on modernist design to contemporary offerings.” Again, I wonder if it’s just aspirational guff, and if those spines are showing much sign of wear.*
For armchair travellers, there’s Stefi Orazi’s book, Modernist Escapes – a well-researched compendium of places to visit or stay in, including the Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento designed by Gio Ponti. I came across the hotel this year when I was working on a book for Martini Gamper. During a performance at Design Miami/Basel in 2007, Gamper pulled apart pieces of furniture Ponti had designed for the hotel and reassembled them as new objects – an homage in destruction and reinvention. There’s a different kind of madness in finding holiday perfection. Maybe that’s what Le Corbusier felt in Eileen Grey’s E-1027 villa on the French Riviera when he decided to paint its walls.
Where are my clients going? Variously, an apartment they have stayed in before, a hotel they did a project for, a house they renovated for a client, their summer house, cycling, visiting family, an intensive research trip. And camping. We have often been camping with a friend who, in his day job, founded a modular housing company. He brings the same precision to the campsite – nothing is forgotten, everything has its place, and he takes pride in his modular Primus pan and stove set. We have also camped with friends that threw Joe Colombo and Hans Wegner chairs out of their van into a field in Sussex. I don’t know who designed our chairs, but they have cup-holders.
Some architects never truly holiday, they travel. Like Norman Foster. Travel is something he sees as central to learning about place and context, but holidays are never a complete break from the office. During all my years in the Foster studio, I don’t remember a time when he was completely unreachable. In Architects’ Sketchbooks by Will Jones, a survey of more than 80 architects on their drawing habits, Foster talks about making the initial sketches for the Hongkong Bank while on holiday in France, interspersing images of the project “with beach furniture and the hardware of water skiing.” In another interview, he describes the ingredients of a good holiday: “Blue sky, sun, family, sketch pad, pile of books, endless coffee, good food and wine, a bicycle or cross-country skis (depending on altitude and time of year).” He takes his many pleasures seriously, as his Instagram feed shows, but even in the famous post of him floating on an inflatable unicorn, there’s still a notebook in his hand.
Richard Rogers was said to bring a similar ethic and worked between 6am and midday on holidays. As Bryan Appleyard writes in his biography, “always some trip is being planned, always hundreds of people seem to be involved, always bags of papers and drawings are taken along as well.” There’s a lovely line about Rogers’ early family holidays with Ruth: “Often they would end up sleeping on beaches or in fields because of the shortage of cash. But… holidays were too central to their lives to allow lack of money to stop them from going abroad.”
I try to resist the urge to work on holiday. But later in the summer, we’re going to an unknown villa and we’re going with an architect – Rachel Bell, one half of Neighbourhood Studio, whose work is beautifully detailed. I asked whether she’s ever troubled by her inner critic. No. She takes pleasure in the quirks of a place, “analysing and unpicking the decisions people have made, guessing the age of different parts of a building.” Reassuringly for our holiday, if somewhere isn’t up to scratch, “I just redesign it in my head.”
*No intention of revisiting any seminal texts on modernist design on my holidays. It will be Jess Walter’s 2012 bestseller Beautiful Ruins for fun, Gypsies, an English History by David Cressy for research and then Instagram, probably too much of it. Safe travels and happy holidays. x