BOTTON, Alain de

The Art Of Travel

Date: Thursday 23 January 2003
Time: 00:00
Running time: 58 mins

Alain de Botton, author of The Art of Travel, addresses such topics as airports, exotic carpets, holiday romance and hotel minibars, while referencing the beauty of spaces and architecture and suggesting how we can learn to be happier on our journeys.



Mohsen Mostafavi introduces Alain de Botton.

It’s a great pleasure to welcome Alain De Botton to the AA.   Alains talk tonight is in conjunction with and exhibition that we have upstairs and the exhibition relates to a travel scholarship that exists under the name of Peter Sabara. Peter Sabara was a wonderful student here many years ago he died when he was very young and he used to teach here and at Royal Collage and his family then set up this travel fellowship which is given every year between the students of the AA and the students of the RCA.  And this year the winners have been Jonathan Nicos and Joseph Prima [inaudible], two students in the diploma school at the AA. Normally when we have the Peter Sabara travel fellowships people submit proposals that are very, very complex, very detailed. For example the last one was a fantastic kind of exploration along the silk route. And the idea of actual route became such a critical part of it Jonathan and Joseph went completely the opposite way by trying not to have a very clear destination and letting themselves be open to the possibility of discovering places so the photographs upstairs document this. I think if you haven’t seen them I would really urge you to have a look at them because they’re great. And after seeing the photographs and the proposal I think it dawned to Vanessa Norwood, who coordinates exhibitions here, that in fact Alain was the person who had also written very eloquently on this topic and in fact Joseph and Jonathan were not the first people to come up with the idea of not having a destination.  But I think that then set up this ability of this conversation between their photographs and Alains work on travel. Alain de Botton has been really one of the most influential figures in contemporary literature especially in the last 5-10 years where The Consolations of Philosophy which has probably played a very significant role in bringing philosophy to a much wider audience than it has been historically. And of course his more recent The Art of Travel has received enormous attention he has recently finished a book entitle Status Anxiety which is on social hierarchy in the west and is working on a book on interiors which I think would be of great relevance to a lot of us, so without further delay please welcome Alain De Botton.

[Inaudible] I much enjoyed looking at the exhibition upstairs if any of you haven’t seen it it really is well worth seeing almost uncanny in the way that it’s picked up on things that I was interested in already so it just shows that where all roughly thinking the same things. Tonight I want to talk about travel but I wrote this book called the Art of travel but really it’s not about travel because travel doesn’t really interest me what interests me is places and when I was writing this book, I always thought to myself my secret ideology was that this really was a book just about places and their power and their effect on us and the word travel was simply a good hold-all in which to contain all of these ideas, that I didn’t really know where they belonged and then just though of sticking the word travel on the jacket which got me into a lot of trouble with certain reviewers who kept saying where’s the bit about your year off when you go travelling and where’s the bit about losing your luggage etc , it really it’s a very selective journey through travel and the emphasis and I’m saying this to you because of where we are tonight is really on places and power of places and the emotions that we can have in certain places and it did seem to me when writing this book that this is sort of an area of life which doesn’t really quite have a genre it’s a little bit travel it could be architecture or landscape writing I don’t know what it is so a weird book.  And The art of Travel was designed really to be a chance really for me to think about that and pin down some of my thoughts I should probably say that before writing this book a few years ago I wrote a book called how Proust can change your life although when the book was originally written it was called how Proust will change your life. And then I remember sending the book to my American editor and he read it and then a few days later he said we will publish the book but we do insist that you change the title because our in house lawyer has read the book and in certain American states you can be sued if you make a promise that isn’t then fulfilled so better change it to how Proust can change your life. I’m saying this just in case what I’m going to say is a complete disappointment and gibberish, please don’t sue me. What I think I’ll do is ill dip into a number of chapters and a number of themes that crop up in my book and then hopefully we’ll have a chance to answer questions and answers and all that. One of the first topics that I look at is the whole business of difference between anticipating a place and being in a place all sorts of themes crop up in that. It’s an experience that’s really at the heart of any desire to travel. Travel at its most basic is based on the idea that moving from point A to Point B your mood will in some way improve. There will be some kind of increase in happiness, very crudely from point A to Point B. It’s also very true that the desire to go to a place can arise with very very minimal knowledge of what that place is actually like. Just as in Love the capacity to fall in Love is entirely, particularly in men is unrelated to any knowledge we may have of the person we might be falling in love with. Psychoanalysts would say that there’s a lot of projection going on here, essentially that were filling in the blanks with things that we want to believe are true. In my book I relate a journey that I made to the island of Barbados and I really tried to track in minute detail the desire and the realisation of this desire and the difference between the two and I relate how on one January day this is now a few years ago I was sitting at home and  it was a particularly miserable winter a brochure went through the door unsolicited, called Winter Sun and I think most of us are feeling that after  few months of British winter if someone shows you a brochure called Winter Sun something starts to happen you almost can’t control. You want to go there and I was looking at pictures of these winter sun places and I include a picture in the book that I got from this brochure. You can really see it, it’s a picture of a beach with the classic but azure sky and the sand and the palm tree the classic beach shot and I’ve seen these beach shots so often and I keep telling myself that there is some problems associated with it but every time I see one I so want to go there. As I look at this picture now I actually do believe as I believed a few years ago that if only I could be there I would be happy. And I’m really trying to explore, really it is extraordinary the power of images and sort of imaginary went off to Barbados and tried to record very minutely the difference between what I’d imagined it might be like and what the reality was like and one of the sort of crudest but most major observations is when you look at a picture of a place like this, a very basic thing, what one is likely to forget is that you’re going to actually have to be there. You’re not just going to be enjoying the palm trees and the blue sky and the clouds but you will be in that scene and is a whole welter of anxieties regrets fears all the kinds of things that make living with one self day-to-day difficult all of these things will accompany one to the destination this is of course something that travel agents are particularly unsympathetic about.  If you went to Tomas Cook I’d like to go somewhere else but not with myself. They would call the police its just something that it’s a very basic sort of perceptual error and we keep forgetting, it strikes us again and again, we simply often cannot imagine ourselves in the scene and I say that I conclude at one point I say that in order to get a more accurate sense of what its like to be in a place you shouldn’t just look at a picture for a second what you should do is probably stare at the picture for about 20 minutes then you will get a much clearer sense. If you look at anything for 20 minutes what immediately starts to happen is that other thoughts start to intrude, thought that come between [inaudible]. Some anxieties, worries, you might be hungry, thirsty a whole welter of thing could happen that would come between you and the experience so I think a lot of the reason why were distracted and confused by images is the way that we just take in one glimpse and in one glimpse this is only a very very partial sense of what will actually happen. I end the chapter by looking at one of the stranger characters of French literature a character called the Duke Des Esseintes, a character that comes up in Huysmans novel À Rebours (Against Nature). He develops a rather distinctive attitude to travelling for those of you who haven’t read it, there’s a section where one day this character Des Esseintes,  he lives in a huge villa outside Paris and one day he decides that he’d like to go to England because he’s read some Dickens and he’s been very moved by some of the descriptions of London he’s also dipped into Baedekers Guide to London this guide to London and he’s developed all of these fantasies about what it would be like to walk in Green Park and to visit the National Gallery etc. So he’s got a whole host of fantasies and one day he decides I really will head off to England so he buys his ticket heads off to Paris goes to the Gare du Nord and as he’s about to get on the train with his 16 pieces of luggage he travels very heavily, he suddenly thinks “Oh my god I’ve already enjoyed the best parts of my journey to England from my own home.” So the gets the porter to get all the luggage right off of the train  again and heads off back to his villa and decides that in fact he will never travel again instead what he will do is to dedicate in his large villa one room to the subject of travel and so he decks out this room with all of the kinds of things that can inspire reveries of travel he hangs in his room a series of timetables of the major shipping lines and train lines he gets a jar of sea water and occasionally undoes this jar of sea water to smell the smell of the sea he gets a large sail; and occasionally he flaps the sail around so as to evoke the sounds of the sea journey and anyway. So that the most extreme conclusion one might come to I myself don’t go that far but there are indeed moments that one can think that a flip through something like the British airways Worldwide Timetable can be more rewarding than the actual journey. For those of you who have ever looked through the British airways Worldwide Time Table it is a wonderful document lists all the destinations and it truly is very very inspiring. There’s another chapter in this book that I rarely talk about but in this company I think I am going to have a go because it’s all about the architecture and the feeling of what I described as travelling places, places that we really go to only when we are travelling. They’re kind of in between places, they are places like motels, diners, airports, train stations, like many people, many of you in this room but not many this is a slightly selective choice, I think these places despite their formal architectural poverty one could say they nevertheless have a real hold on us and I really try to explore why do I love going to service stations so much. That was the sort of motor behind this chapter and I tried to explore this from many different angles and one of the ideas that I came up with was that there are places where no one is really at home and if your someone who doesn’t feel quite at home when your supposed to be at home there is a kind of relief in the anonymity and the transience of certain places and I think that what does explain the hold that some on these places have. Its rather like listening to a very sad piece of music when you’re feeling sad, it can be the best thing, it’s not necessarily by being a very homely place that you can necessarily feel at home if other things are not going right so it’s really trying to think about the way, a certain degree of alienation can actually help one to feel a sense of community, we hear some much about the architecture of community and there is a weird way in which a lonely service station might oddly have more of a sense of community because it’s the community of fellow lonely souls, I definitely recommend to anyone who’s feeling lonely there’s nothing quite beats an evening in a happy eater on the roadside and I explore this great artists of these lonely places : Edward Hopper who seems very alive to this .  I also try and describe the beauty of taking an aeroplane because the modes of modern transport are hugely interesting to me again this is something that very often is spoken about either not at all or else through a technology so when people talk about the beauty of flying or taking a train often that conversation gets diverted to the impressiveness of the aeroplane etc. And I’ve tried to describe it from a more aesthetic point of view. I am aware that there does tend to be a gender issue on this , I think if you are sitting next to any man in an aeroplane, and the aeroplane is taxiing somewhere and you say that a triple seven out the window and an A310 and most  men will understand that you are talking about new generations of Boeing airbuses but most women will looked quite puzzled and bored although I made this extremely sexist and completely false remark the other day in a lecture I was giving and a woman stood up at the end that she was a pilot for British airways and she knew a hell of a lot more about travelling than I did, so I must apologize if I am. Anyway I think that there can be a slight of a gender thing which I think is an unfair block to an appreciation to the aesthetic dimension of flying. Let me read you a little bit about flying and the pleasures of it, I say that a few seconds in life are more releasing than those in which a plane ascends to the sky, again for some people, looking out of a window from inside a machine standing stationary at the beginning of a runway we face a vista of familiar proportions a road, oil cylinders, grass and hotels with copper tinted windows the earth as we’ve always known it or we’ve made it with the help of the car where calf muscle and engines strain to reach the summit of hills, where half a mile of less there’s almost always a line of trees or buildings to restrict our view, then suddenly accompanied by the controlled rage of the engines with only a slight tremor from glasses in the galley we rise fluently into the atmosphere and an immense horizon opens up where we can wander without impediment , a journey which on earth would have taken an afternoon, can be accomplished within an infinitesimal movement of the eye, visit maiden head, skirt over Bracknell and survey the whole of the M4. There’s psychological pleasure in this take off too, for the swiftness of the planes ascent is an exemplary symbol of all kinds of transformations: the display of power can inspire us to imagine analogous decisive shifts in our own lives to imagine that we too might one day surge above much that now looms over us. The new vantage point lends order and logic to the landscape road curve over to avoid hills rivers trace paths to lakes, pylons lead from power stations to towns, streets that from the earth seem laid out without thought emerge from the earth as well planned grids. The engines show none of the effort required to take us to this place, they hang in the inconceivable cold patiently and invisibly powering the craft their sole requests painted on their inner flanks in red letters, being that we not walk on them,  and feed them oil only D50 TFI-4 a  message for a forthcoming set of men in overalls 4000 miles away and still asleep there isn’t much talk about the clouds visible up here , no one seems to think it remarkable  that somewhere above an ocean we are flying past a vast  white candy floss island which would have made a perfect seat for an angel or even god his self in a painting of Piero della Francesca. In the cabin no one stands up to announce with requisite emphasis that out of the window we are flying over a cloud.  A matter that would have certainly detained Leonardo and Poussin, Claude and Constable, anyway, ill stop it there. That’s some on my enthusiasm for flying and trains which is part of this book. Moving on now to another chapter where I discuss the theme of what I call the exotic because it seems that one of the qualities that we looks for when we travel abroad is a quality that could be defined as the exotic, the exotic is of course something that I rather put it something that is seems exotic to an outsider but isn’t in fact so at all etc. But nevertheless I wanted to try and recover some of the positive associations in that word and also to try and loosen us from this kind of almost very modern obsession with the idea of getting a place right. Because of many people have got places wrong , there’s an idea that its always it bad to have an idea of a place that perhaps is selective so I was trying to challenge a little bit that idea that all selectiveness when viewing places is bad and is false. And trying to make a case almost for personal enthusiasms when it comes to certain places, I tried to analyse what does make a place exotic. At one level its because it is different, but that doesn’t seem enough because lots of places are different, exotic and it think it really needs to be a place that is both different and also lovable in some way, that a place contains something that we long for and feel attracted to but perhaps don’t have so much in our own environment, there’s almost a comparison to be made here with the way that we find certain people lovable desirable, exotic, sexually attractive. The process is kind analogous there are ways in which we can often fall in love with people because they have qualities that we admire but don’t possess and it’s a recognition of these qualities that draws us to them, in case this is hopelessly abstract. I remember feeling a great amount of love for my girlfriend one night when we had been invited to a party and suddenly we were driving we were already quite late and suddenly we got a flat tire, and I rather panicked cause I’m not so good on the mechanical side of life and I didn’t know what to do I suggested calling the police and she said no don’t be ridiculous well just get the back tire out of the boot. She in full evening party gear got out this back tire winching up the car and changing the wheel off on and off again in just a few minutes, and as I was watching this process , I felt well this is why I love her, because she is able to change a tyre, and I think similarly sometimes she feels that when she sees me lying around with lots of book she likes the idea that someone in the house is doing a lot of reading even though she herself doesn’t get much of a chance, so we balance each other out and I think that can be a feature of romantic relationships and also of our attraction to countries, we think about the way that Germans, there’s such a long history with Germans falling in love with Italy. To make it very crude  there are qualities that Germans that Italians don’t and vice versa and I think that if one reads journeys of someone like Goethe the sense of what that journey to Italy meant to Goethe, you get a sense of really that he was finding in Italy qualities that he admired and needed in order to be a sort of rounded human being but couldn’t find enough of in Germany and of course this shows huge variation, we have this idea that an exotic country, if you say to an average Northern European or Nothern American the exotic, what images come to mind, often it will be things like the Middle East and the reason for that in the huge literature on the middle east and the whole 19th century  romantic emphasis on the middle east as the source of the exotic. Although that really doesn’t have to be, I remember I made a trip to Egypt a few years ago and I remember flying back from Cairo and I was chatting next to this Egyptian man and as we were coming down towards London it was an August day and London was covered in very thick grey cloud and it was pouring with rain and I turn to this man and say I’m really sorry this is pretty grim, and he said no no no this is so exotic. And I thought of course it is, of course its exotic, if what you’re looking out on most of the time is the desert. The word exotic is a very mobile one and I think you can gain a very interesting understanding of someone, by saying what is the country that you find exotic? Because it is something that very much varies and that tells us a lot about someone’s internal geography so was something I was trying to explore. Another issue that often comes up in travel in other things, I was looking at this trough travel, is the theme of curiosity. Travelling is generally being in a foreign place is an experience that demands a lot of curiosity; there’s a kind of an expectation that we will be very curious of the place that we are in. If you read the average guide book to the average city to go and see 5 museums 16 buildings 12 shopping arcade 5 fountains etc, whole lists of things that you should if you’re a good person, go and want to see. Of course what can often happen is a collapse of curiosity. I describe being in a hotel I was invited to Madrid a few years ago and friends have told me how wonderful Madrid was, a friend had even lent me a guidebook. As I sat in my hotel I felt a kind of despair and I almost wanted to start crying and return home because I didn’t want to see anything I just wanted to be at home really, I felt a complete absence of curiosity and a great sense of guilt because of that. I think that proper curiosity how one becomes properly curious about places rather than simply obedient to the demands of a tourist schedule takes us right to the heart of education and really a sense e of what it means to fell alive intellectually properly alive, rather than obediently alive, I think that on the whole travelling does set up quite unrealistic expectations. To be properly curious about things takes an awfully long time it often demands a whole background, of expectations, thought, knowledge etc, which we simply don’t have the chance to build up, and part of the problem is a geography is a very unhelpful curiosity , if you’re a tourist in this part of London in a way there are supposedly many many things to be curious about, go to the British museum you should admire the Georgian architecture, you might go and look at the shops of Oxford street etc. So there are a whole host of things that you need to do, but of course to be properly observant of, let’s say, Georgian architecture might require that one actually skirt the and head off to the squares of Islington or whatever it happens to be so geography can set up a very unhelpful system of expectations of what we should be interested in, its rather like if you were forced to read a selection of books for a university course , simply according to how books were sized, or the colours of their spines, there’s a kind of arbitrary quality to the way that the tourist schedule is built up. It’s sort of worth exploring feeling less guilty about, I don’t know.  Moving on now, I’m really skipping through just to give you a sense of some of the ideas I was playing with and that there is a lot more in the book itself. Another thing I wanted to look at and I was chewing off some rather big questions because there is a chapter here called on the country and the city and the large question at the heart of this is what’s so nice about the country side. What so great about the countryside? I can’t really confess that I answered it completely in 20 pages I was really trying to address at least some aspects of what is it that draws people to the country side I got some help from this from William Wordsworth who I always thought was an extraordinarily dull poet until I stared to explore him more deeply and to read him properly. Wordsworth had some fascinating thoughts about why it is , regenerative quality nowadays when we think about the benefits of nature the answer that tends to be given is very much a physical one that nature is good for your body it’s great to breathe clean air, its healthy that’s the aerobic answer to the purposes of nature, or else there’s also the ecological answer which is  that nature is a vital resource on which we all depend etc, the argument quickly becomes political but this wasn’t how people in the 19th century would have addressed the question for them it was absolutely obvious what nature was good for, nature was good for your soul. Again nowadays this is a very unfashionable and strange idea, if you said you are going off to the lake district for your soul that would sound very old fashion potentially pretentious etc, and yet that would have been the very much the view of someone like Wordsworth and I wanted to try and recover some of what he might have been motivated by, when he said that really to boil it down horrendously down to a nutshell, I think what Wordsworth saw in nature was a realm independent of human beings. He believed that cities are very very bad generators of envy because it’s a fact that when we are surrounded by other people we quickly compare our condition to theirs, we always think that someone else’s advantages are greater than ours etc. So envy is something that Wordsworth saw as an urban disease, so the country side as a real relief from that, because it’s a realm that’s independent of man, and that awes man, or should awe man, to withdraw from his or her petty concerns.  In my book I tried to talk about a way in which a feeling, quelled by looking at a waterfall or a large mountain, I did sort of take Wordsworth almost at his word and tried to see what he might be on about let me read you a little bit where I talk about this I say that there are concerns that seem indecent when one is in the company of the cliff others to which cliffs naturally lend their assistance their majesty encouraging the steady and high minded in ourselves their size teaching us to respect with good grace and humility all that surpasses us it is of course still possible to feel envy for a colleague before a mighty cataract it’s just if Wordsworth message is to be believed,  a little more unlikely. Wordsworth argued that though a life spent in nature his character had been shaped to resist competition, envy and anxiety, and so he celebrated these are lines from the prelude:

“At first I looked at man through objects that were great or fair first communied with him by their founded a sure safeguard and defence against the weight of meanness selfish cares coarse manners and vulgar passions that beat in on all sides from the ordinary world in which we traffic.”

There’s Wordsworth trying to tell us about why the country side might be good for envy, let me sort of skip on now to a couple of chapters where I looked at the impact of travel, places its a sort of well known but very widely observed fact that the desire to go to places is very easily influenced by our acquaintance with works of art. I think that the way that many of us nowadays respond to the American landscape is completely connected to the way that for the last 60 years, 70 years so many films have depicted areas of the United States in a particularly attractive light so that  when we drive down a main street or when we cross the New Mexico desert we’ve done so before, we’ve done so in works of art, they have opened our eyes to the possible pleasure of a particular kind of aesthetic, there is a way in which not knowing certain works of art can cut us off, can leave us blind to certain of our pleasures of places and conversely it’s when we do know certain works of art that we can be initiated to the pleasure of places I describe all of this with a journey I made to the south of France, to Provence where I’ve never been  but and didn’t immediately find much charm, people always go on and on about how nice Provence is but it was really only after looking at the great stalwart of Provencal artists in province Van Gogh and looking more closely , what was particular about the landscape began to pick up on certain things like the particular quality of Cyprus trees the particular quality of the blue in  the sky , another  such features that Van Gogh was very alive to and draws our own attention to , there’s a lovely quote from Oscar Wilde which I think captures this idea which artist are initiators to the pleasure of places, Oscar Wilde said that before James whistler the Thames and to paint London there was no fog in London, of course there was fog in London but we just weren’t so good at finding it, picking up on that idea one could say that there were far fewer Cyprus trees in Provence before Van  Gogh came along a painted them. Very much this idea, it’s through its acquaintance with certain works of art. As architects were all very much used to seeing improve an environment as a task of knocking something down, rebuilding it, redoing it, but making a sort of intervention, I think that artist often challenge that idea, by showing us that really all you might have to do is to adjust your eye sight as it were, and not necessarily pull anything down. I mentioned very briefly in that chapter the way that the films of Patrick Keiller have to some of the industrials landscapes of the South East of England that before I’d always seen as just plain ugly, without knocking anything down, Patrick heeler has helped me to see something attractive in places, so I think that’s a real sort of challenge there.  Another theme that I pick up on is the idea of memory and places if we do manage to have a nice time, and mange to end up in a place that we like, there can often be very quickly a kind of bitter sweet thought that we are about to lose this place that just in a few hours we will be back on a plane that we will be back home we will soon have forgotten the place which at the moment seems very very important to us, the anxiety of forgetting a place is I think something that we do come across when we travel. Most people start to do quite typical things when they feel that anxiety they pick up their camera or their video camera, or they start buying souvenirs , and in these sorts of ways , picking up a camera, buying souvenir what we are hoping to really  try and do is to preserve an experience but there is something rather paradoxical about it we all know the experience of trying to capture something and then returning home let’s say you’re very in a vulnerable moment let’s say you r were in Petra, someone comes up and tries to buy you a miniature carved camel , and you are sad to loose Petra, you buy the camel, back home you look at the camel and it’s just a camel but where is Petra? So I think there is that feeling sometimes that were trying to pin an experience down and it flies away. This theme attracted the attention of John Ruskin in the 19th century and particularly in the theme of photography just at the dawn of the people were constantly taking photographs and at first he was very keen on photographs himself but  gradually he grew less and less enchanted with the medium as he saw that photographs encouraged people not to look at the places that they were actually taking photographs of, so that really photography ended up a completely  sort of self defeating exercise  he felt for many people and he came up with this idea that really in order to try and remember anything, we have to make and even if he stressed again and again and said nothing to go with making greater art this had to do with appreciation he believed that in order to properly try and remember and appreciate a place and understand a place you either have to draw it or else try and describe it in words, and he wrote a couple of books on drawing, he thought that it was scandalous that people weren’t taught drawing they were taught Latin and Greek at school and maths and physics they were never taught drawing or they weren’t taught it systematically and he believed that drawing was  as much of a effort a reading and writing and the reason for this is he felt that that drawing is something that very quickly takes us  from a general sense of what something or someplace is like to a much more specific sense. There’s a very nice description of the way that he asks the reader, he has a rather blunt way of writing and he tells the reader he says I bet you think you know what a tree looks like but you don’t have any idea what a tree looks like because you’ve never drawn one and  he describes the difference in the way that people imagine trees and what they’re actually like and I had a few goes drawing trees and it is true that I didn’t know what a tree looked like I probably still don’t know very well. It s really a very sort of basic but very important point the role of a conscious  madness of something truly and understand the laws of beauty that could be a very old fashioned way of looking at things but I think really what he meant was trying to be able to describe a drawing why we like places to try to develop theories about why it is that we like places he was also very keen on a psychological approach of the description of place, but also describing in very emotional language why certain buildings move us and I think that’s for all its flaws , a wonderful thing about Ruskin’s architectural writing it seems that for him building and landscapes are almost like people they are animate things they have characters , mountains are strong and sometimes angry etc. The environment this I coming to an end hopefully this ties up with the theme for the exhibition upstairs , this is all about ordinary life , all about coming home one could say it’s an interesting feature of travel that when we there is a dichotomy that  abroad is exciting that home is boring .we wouldn’t go somewhere else if we didn’t  in some way have a dissatisfaction with our own environment but there is a sort of curious feature of this dichotomy which is if you imagine the average aeroplane descending towards a city half the people on board will be coming home oh no how sad and boring and half of them will be going to a new place, and they will be thinking god how exciting so much to see etc. Etc. And of course the place that they’re going to. This idea of the huge role that a mindset can play attracts the attention a very little know figure in French literature called Xavier de Maistre at the end of the 18thcentury wrote a very odd little book called Journey around my Bedroom and the idea of Journey Around my Bedroom was a sort of anti-travel book in de Maistre’s day rather like ours travel was begging to or was associated with  rather annoyed de Maistre and he decided that he was going to describe a journey around his bedroom and this could be as fascinating as a journey to the Himalayas or to the South Seas. It was a kind of polemical edge it was a big best seller, he followed it up with Nocturnal Journey to the Windowsill, in which he described the journey to his windowsill. Unfortunately the book isn’t public but I think it is a very sort of inspiring idea because most of our time of course spent in our own locations there could be real prejudice against the everyday that is formed by habit and our sense that a place can’t be interesting its rather like many things the feeling of what our response should be to a place hugely colours [inaudible]  what would be very interesting to walk to work has a huge effect in actually making that walk to work to work  not very interesting. Another valuable point to bear in mind as we travel. I discovered that Nietzsche was quite interested in de Maistre and knew all about him, there was one passage that I came across that said Nietzsche he describes though the way in which there are some people that have had extraordinary lives and they seen all kinds of things and just can’t really say that they seem these great experiences have sort of washed over them and there are other people that outwardly have had quite ordinary lives and yet have been able to make an awful lot from their experience, and that’s seems to be at the heart of de Maistre’s own writing. Let me just read you the quote what Nietzsche says about this he says:

“When we observe how some people know how to manage their experiences their insiginificant arable soil that bears fruit three times a year while others and how many there are driven through surging waves of destiny the most multifarious currents of the times in the nations and yet always remain on top, bobbing like a cork and were in the end tempted to divide mankind into a minority of those who know how to make much of little and a majority of those of those who know how to make little of much.”

Desserts, floated on icecaps, and cut their way through jungles, and yet in who’s souls we would search in vain for evidence of what they have witnessed dressed in a pair of pink and blue pyjamas satisfied within the confines of his own bedroom Xavier de Maistre was gently nudging us to try and notice before we taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we’ve already seen. That seems to be a really major theme of the book this idea of the way that we look at the places that we visit. Probably I should stop it there, what can I say thank you very much for coming, we do have time for questions and thoughts and reflections so do feel free to have a say but thank you all very much.


Question 1: I was wondering if you think we are more and more pressured, everyday it seems like were bombarded  all the time to think were kind of dull advertising sort of says that unless your Jamie Oliver and you’ve got 10 friends on a moped and your listening to this music, do you think there’s more and more pressure?

I think this comes from the way that we live at once in a kind of meritocracy that has real sense of a hierarchy and also in a democracy where everyone is supposed to be equal and everyone is supposed to have value this very much Christian inspired, I think these two thoughts are always in tension, in a constant struggle. No sooner do we have an exhibition like the one upstairs saying actually there is value in the everyday that’s then challenged by other highlife or whatever  it happens to be, I think it’s a constant perhaps  fruitful tension, but I think what tends to get lost is the domestic and the everyday. The very fact that we say there’s a point to be made in saying that everyday life is interesting or the domestic is interesting suggests that were often or on the verge of

Question 2:  Inaudible

The question was in regards to travel and the everyday How do I see photography in regards to travel and the everyday, the great sort of achievement of photograph has been for me what I like in photography is the capacity it wants to make the everyday new, and that kind of the very act of framing a very ordinary scene can be just to view it [inaudible]. I like so many other people I like ordinary landscapes, landscape s of the ordinary built environment like the pictures upstairs. There’s a picture upstairs of a woman reading a book upstairs on a train an immensely powerful image I think , we’ve all been on that train I think we’ve been sort of alone with that experience we’ve perhaps haven’t noticed  it in that way, I think what seeing that picture does is almost give us licence to see the beauty of it because it’s quite odd to find a journey on a modern plastic train quite attractive its generally we still have very classical ideas of what is attractive, and photography I think can really challenge that and does that very well. So that’s my view.

Question 3: From the theme of photography when we were taking the photographs on the trip it was very unknown what was going to come out of it, and the fact that you say that everybody has been on the same train or a similar situation and that’s when we reinterpret it and re-evaluate it is exactly what gives photography a communicative power.

As you say the fact that everybody has been on this train in a similar situation, and the fact that particular situation and that is reinterpreted, revaluated is exactly what photography

It’s a very touching quality it makes the number of times we’ve been alone with that scene, one of the to feel less alone with the experience, we discussed , I think one of the reasons why people turn to art is because they find that certain things that are not current is other KINDS of discourse and I think what photography can do is to get us to feel that there’s someone with us in certain kinds of experience, almost encourages up to take certain of our feelings seriously  if you see an aesthetic rendering of someone reading a book on a train that going to almost a confidence to find that sort of image attractive, that does seem important.

Question 4: How would you envisage a new travel agent?

A new kind of travel agency, I’d love to start a new kind of travel agency In fact  I’ve had a visit from a Dutch man just the other day who said that he’d started a travel agency in Holland , everyday life in Holland and he’s got this thing whereby he gets quite wealthy tourists from America and elsewhere and he gives them projects to do, he’ll give them a certain very limited amount of money and he’ll say survive on this till tomorrow and apparently it’s been an absolutely huge success he’d also take them to ordinary people in a way its childishly simple but I think very very interesting and I’d love someone to start that here. If anyone wants to do that we can talk about that later. I think is a wonderful idea, that would be my sense of what a travel agency should be and generally shouldn’t send you very far away.

Question 5:  Inaudible.

Like in so many other things that have a sort of practical purpose and genuine purpose there’s also a kind of status purpose behind travelling, things can get very confused in that way. You’re doing it to get one up on the neighbours.

It would be very bizarre people often say where are you going where are you spending your summer, I’m just going to spend my time at home that would seem rather strange.  People would think “Oh god I didn’t know they were that poor etc.” It’s really not allowed.

Question 6: Inaudible

Flaubert says at one point a well educated person needs to know 5 books well. I don’t know whether a good architect needs to know 5 buildings well probably. I do think that on the whole travelling invites us to see its possible to do everything I’m constantly coming across those people that say “oh I’ve got 10 days of holiday, I’m going to go to India” You just think really why? Are you sure? It’s this constant urge for more rather than for deepening experiences. I’m more for less experiences but for deeper ones.

Question 7: Inaudible

I don’t know whether that’s actually true I was once taken on a surprise trip to Paris and got highly unnerved as I was on the Euro star I didn’t even know if I was going to Brussels and really cut me off from a very important source of pleasure which is the pleasure of anticipation and whatever the truth value of anticipation, what one could say {inaudible] as the that actually the pleasure of anticipation is as legitimate as the pleasure of actually being in a place, I think one need to move away from this idea that the being is the real thing and the anticipations is the false thing it has its own reality and in a way why not concentrate on the anticipation if that’s a source of pleasure. Another kind of travel agent would encourage you to book a ticket , would take our money etc, you have to book he would impound your passport and take way and even destroy it and then give you back your money with a commission that might actually be a wonderful way of travelling.

Question 8: Is the idea of taking a holiday around you own home Japanese theme park, you’re travelling around the world but actually you’re staying in Japan [inaudible]

I guess the theme park is really picking up on the idea that you don’t need very much to make you dream, you don’t need the whole of Holland in order to start thinking of Holland. I guess what one could say to the [inaudible] maybe all you need is a book about Holland a picture of Holland a postcard of Holland etc. I think it is picking up on that undoubtedly true idea that you don’t need the whole thing as you don’t need to know a person before you could imagine falling in love with them marrying them and being in love for ever. It get harder to imagine that you could do all of those things once you’re actually there as it were.

Question 9: inaudible

Well I do actually travel a lot less than most people that I know I actually do like being at home. There’s a sort of secret ideology behind this, and I can say thing in this context because I think because everyone here is an artist, I think artists are generally always on holiday in that sense because and that doesn’t mean that their being lazy but they’ve always got their senses alert and there’s quite a lot of literature which I’m quite sympathetic to that basically says that the whole concept of holiday is a very cruel plot by [inaudible] the between play and fun and work is a very cruel one and it reflect the fact that most people don’t enjoy their jobs as soon as you enjoy your job your permanently on holiday in a way and I think that most artist do every though they hate even though they also in a way hate then in a way do also love their jobs so they are always being receptive, they’re always working. You know novelists their always at work I presume architects are also always at work always looking always trying to get inspiration they can’t help but respond to certain materials certain shapes etc.


Question 10: If you travel is there some plan, method in which you take up or explore?

I think I’ve been discussing some of the methods, or at least hinting at them, it’s got to do with knowing what you want to see its getting a sense of your own curiosity your own resources where something can slot in. We all know for example that comparison it’s when you’ve compared two churches in Venice that you’re able to see what’s special about one and what’s the identity of one starts to become clear once you also know the other. It’s very good to have something to compare ones experiences to some kind of reference point , very often we don’t have that so that’s something to build up. It’s because you know one building by Le Corbusier that you can appreciate other qualities in another building by Le Corbusier. Successful travelling is having that other thing to relate what you’re seeing to. So that’s one idea.


Question 11: Inaudible

I think that the great advantage of sort of working holidays in that sense is that again they’re very alive to the way that doing nothing isn’t very interesting that relaxation is definitely one mode  we have to relax for every night for 8 hours or whatever, so it’s definitely one mode that were in. But actually on a whole relaxation is only one of the things that makes us happy and [inaudible] it tends to feel alright to feel relaxed enough and then other desires to promote goodness to reflect beauty to create something whatever it happens to be kick in, I think that an active holiday is picking up on that.

Probably I should stop it there. Thank you all very, very much for coming.


All lectures are open to members of the public, staff and students unless otherwise stated.

February 2020
Su M Tu W Th F Sa


AA Photo Library has DVD copies of Public Programme lectures dating back to 1974


Online Lectures
Lecture Archive



For any issues with video playback please contact
AA Digital Platforms

The Architectural Association, Inc. is incorporated as a company limited by guarantee (No.171402) and registered as a charity (No. 311083). Registered office: 36 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3ES, 020 7887 4000

Click here to read the AA’s latest review report.

Click here to read the AA’s latest action plan.



The Architectural Association receives Taught Degree Awarding Powers by the Lords of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council.

The Architectural Association (AA), the oldest independent school of architecture in the United Kingdom, is pleased to announce that it has been granted the power to award its own degrees. As of 1 October 2019, the AA has the right to establish new academic programmes and degree awards and is working to create some of the world’s most pioneering courses in architecture to shape and build the future.

Taught Degree Awarding Powers (TDAP) give UK higher education institutions the right to award bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Prospective students worldwide can apply to the AA Foundation Course (Foundation Diploma), Experimental Programme BA(Hons), Diploma Programme (MArch), and nine taught postgraduate programmes encompassing History and Critical Thinking in Architecture (MA), Projective Cities (Taught MPhil) and Sustainable Environmental Design (MSc/MArch), amongst others.

AA Director, Eva Franch said, ‘since our founding in 1847 we have never ceased to create new horizons, institutionally and academically. This is a significant milestone for the AA and demonstrates how we have grown and progressed as an institution that has always valued independence. Receiving TDAP marks a new era for our institution; these are exciting times for the AA. The process has required considerable work from all members of staff and students. I would like to take this opportunity to credit them for this major achievement’.

President of the AA Council, Victoria Thornton added, ‘the TDAP process has recognised our strong governance, academic standards, scholarship and teaching as well as the environment supporting the delivery of taught higher education programmes’.

The School’s application for Taught Degree Awarding Powers was supported by the Architects Registration Board, the Royal Institute of British Architects and The Open University.