Stephen Bayley: Stimulated by travel? Try simulation instead
Sunday 15 April 2012
It is my proud boast that, with cunning and determination, I denied my children access to the Magic Kingdom. Some would call this cruel. I call it inspired. They were very small when Disneyland Paris opened 20 years ago last week, on 12 April 1992. Both philosophically and actually, I manoeuvred them past it. Aged five, they were eating oysters and steak tartare at La Coupole. If you are going to go to Paris, best, I think, to experience the real thing.
Of course, I admit there are elements of fakery in the La Coupole experience: it's a parody of a brasserie, but a good one. Instead, Disney suggests that nothing is ever real, that all of life is a simulacrum of something else: reflections, echoes and interpretations, none of a very high order. Or what you might call kitsch.
This troublesome word is easily defined: kitsch is faked experiences, one material masquerading as another, conceptual dishonesty, bogus pleasure, zero intellectual content and a prevailing low estimate of public intelligence. I told my children this as I swirled a kir and they thoughtfully munched their frites.
Alas, despite my best efforts, the Disney effect is spreading. From the deep well of Marne-la-Vallée, kitsch has leaked south to stain Tuscany. It is one thing to restore a deserted hilltop village, but it is an entirely different thing to build a whole new borgo when you have run out of the original ruins. This is what the German holiday business TUI – Thomson's parent company – plans at Castelfalfi between Siena and Lucca.
Our own National Trust is busy creating synthetic experiences. Chairman Simon Jenkins is keen to "bring buildings to life". But buildings are living things without the addition of bouncy castles. The trust has a programme of dressing historic interiors so that visitors may better understand that "real" people once lived in them. This is a strategy that will delight only the extremely foolish. And nor is it carried out with Disney-like thoroughness: at Lindisfarne Castle the other day, I saw a piece of cheap, stamped steel cutlery bringing a Lutyens kitchen "to life".
Once you have started on a journey of simulation there is really no knowing where you might, conceptually speaking, stop. I recently spent four thrilling and exhausting hours on a British Airways 747-400 simulator. The experience is so technically accurate, not to mention psychologically convincing, that real pilots can train without leaving the ground. Put it this way: I flew to Rio while in a shed in Hounslow.
And this started me thinking. If you can simulate the dynamics of flight with such astonishing accuracy – the instructor asked me if I would prefer mild or severe turbulence mid-Atlantic – why not simulate the destination as well? Passengers on a simulated flight could deplane into another shed near Heathrow and enjoy all the pleasures of travel without the nuisance of going through security and border control. Straight to the pool and a cocktail with minimal time-wasting. Perhaps a massage? And you'd enjoy the moral advantage of not having burnt jet fuel on the way.
There's surely some future in this idea. And we could get Disney to manage it.
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