Coming soon to the discerning traveller: the ugly tour
Something to Declare
Stephen Bayley is an author, critic, columnist, consultant, broadcaster, debater and curator. With Terence Conran he created the influential Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria & Albert Museum, which evolved into the Design Museum. Stephen writes a regular column for The Independent on Sunday’s Travel section, and contributes features that have previously covered anything from travelling through Japan via the iconic Shinkansen, to the artisans of Florence and driving a vintage Fiat 500 around Sicily.
Sunday 14 October 2012
There are two types of beauty spot. Marilyn Monroe had a famous one. The other is the area or view approved by the creaking mechanisms of our culture as "beautiful". For example: Beachy Head, Long Mynd, Chesil Beach, Wharfedale. In France, maps use an icon suggesting pleasantly pulsating sightlines to indicate their points de vue.
Conventionally, the purpose of travel is to consume beauty, to enjoy pleasing points of view. So, indefatigably contrarian, I have been thinking about ugly spots. Here is a rich source for rumination. Identifying hideous cities is one of journalism's clichés. Every so often, folk make a list of the places people dislike most. There is rarely much debate. Luton, Corby, Thamesmead, Plymouth Civic Centre, the old Birmingham are routinely stigmatised.
But we have to be cautious about what is and is not beautiful and ugly. Evelyn Waugh wrote a hilarious corrective to sight-seeing consensus:
"I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountains almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant in its pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting."
The only certain thing in the history of art is that tastes change. What is admired in one generation is predictably reviled in the next. Michelangelo was once thought coarse, Shakespeare a rustic buffoon.
And every Paris intello was once against the Eiffel Tower. In 1887, Guy de Maupassant, Charles Garnier, Charles Gounod and Alexandre Dumas fils wrote to Le Temps calling it a "hateful column of bolted tin …. useless and monstrous". Who does not love it today?
It is only a matter of time before our hated Brutalist towns and cities are adopted by the conservation lobby as touching memorials to Sixties sensibilities, as quaint as Duck Island Cottage in St James's Park. If the wrecking ball does not get them first.
So just as we must be cautious about premature condemnation, it is worth reflecting on what pleasures might be had from considering the future of ugly travel and tourism. To make a case for ugliness, you could start with the idea that beauty is boring. If everything were beautiful, nothing would be. Landscapes of perfection would be intolerably dull. If we spent all our time staring at the picturesque lake at Blenheim, we would surely soon crave the contrast of landfill in the Lea Valley. Heaven needs its Hell.
Of course, there is ugliness already in travel. It's always a bad air day when flying: red eye, cramps, the penitential air of baggage recovery, the Ballardian bleakness of airports. Not to mention the vileness of French suburbs with their Conforama trading sheds, Baltimore, et al.
But wherever it occurs, ugliness is challenging, not soothing. And who does not want to be challenged? And ugliness has another claim. It is, according to Serge Gainsbourg, superior to beauty "because it lasts longer". Quite so.
Stephen Bayley's 'Ugly' is published by Goodman Fiell tomorrow, £25
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