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Destroying all the things we love. (Comment).

Leisure is one of the great growth industries on the planet: but instead of benefiting humanity, it has destroyed much of what we hold most dear. It is time to use imagination and creativity to limit leisure's corrosion.

Leisure, for most of us, is modern phenomenon. Before the agrarian and industrial revolutions, most people were involved in subsistence farming, or with serving those who were involved on the land, so they had very little time to spare from the toil needed to keep themselves alive.

The industrial revolution did little to free the majority. For instance, it is in the last half century only that in industrialized countries the weekend has emerged as a period when most people have time off from work. (When I started, even professional people were expected to go to the office a few Saturdays a monthly Weeks off for an annual holiday were unknown to most. Certainly the huge winter break, which brings Western Europe almost a halt between Christmas and New Year, was unimaginable. Before our era, even the rich had little free time. Oscar Wilde's heroes for instance had to spend a lot of their lives in ritual: changing their clothes for the next event of the day, or having to take part in basilisk balls.

Exploding leisure

But the notion of free time, parts of our lives not devoted to toil, or to established forms, but to just satisfying personal desires is almost entirely new. Leisure is explosive; it can be very destructive; it can destroy people as well as enhance them. Paradoxically, huge numbers of wealthy folk whizz round the world from the industrialized nations to gawp at inhabitants of subsistence economies in Indonesia and India. Such travel is fundamentally unnecessary. It greatly pollutes the planet, and it has little benefit to either the observers (who usually learn less than what simplistic guidebook sketches tell them) or the observed (who become dependent on creeping to the rich, rather than making themselves more able to determine their own affairs).

Yet all of us who can afford it go. Never have more people moved round the world than they do now, and very many are travelling for pleasure. We travellers are not concerned with the fungal growth of vulgar villa estates on the Mediterranean shores, nor of the rape of the beautiful tropical coast of Queensland to make way for dull and typecast resorts. Most of us want the standardized experience: a proper American-style hotel room with en-suite bath; buffet breakfast; the sea and preferably a pool. We are killing the planet to provide this, and we are destroying local cultures as precious as the species of plants and animals that we make extinct almost every day. It is no wonder that we find the world we have inadvertently created threatening.


Just as leisure is beginning to destroy the planet, it corrodes everything we have made in it. The huge amount of traffic generated by spectators of major sporting events overloads transport systems and destroys urban tissue with huge car parks. In pursuit of picturesque ethnicity, many people. Often children, are forced to do demeaning and often health destroying jobs. (Try knotting Oriental carpets all day and see how long you keep your sight; try serving from dawn to after dusk in a tourist restaurant and see how long you can remain sane.) Now that tourism is available to almost everyone, we export the worst aspects of home cultures to sunnier and cheaper countries. The Costa Brava has a foul, greasy cuisine imported from the poorer parts of British cities, in which fat floats on immense quantities of beer; the coast of Bali suffers from similar horrors, imported from Australia.

Other forms of leisure are most onanistic and, indeed, psychologically destructive. Huge industries have been built on appealing to the lowest common denominators in human life -- violence and sex. Perhaps things will get better after 11 September 2001, but the way in which Hollywood has promoted violence has been absolutely shameless, and is progressively reaping horrendous rewards in decay in public behaviour and the structure of society. We are rapidly approaching the state of the Romans, who pacified the mob by providing its members with free bread and circuses in which the most dreadful violence was ritually demonstrated. But at least, the blood had a point: even people as civilized as Pliny and Cicero defended the Games on the grounds that the trained gladiators showed the populace (all male members of which were likely to find themselves in the army at some time or another) how to be brave in the face of adversity and horrendous wounds. (1)

But the Romans at least knew how to integrate their leisure buildings into the fabric of their cities. (2) The Colosseum and the Circus for instance, though powerful monuments, were intimately embedded in the rest of urban life. The medival successors who build the churches and cathedrals (in which most public amusement then took place) managed to relate their buildings to their towns a parvis or close in front perhaps, but as often as not deeply integrated into vernacular texture at the back.

Cultural conversation

Why can't we relate the leisure buildings of our time to the structure of ordinary life? Architects are unable to do much to amcliorate the corrosive effects of leisure on our culture. But they can at least try to make its built expression part of a general culltural conversation. Thirty years ago, Robert Venturi looked at Las Vegas and decided that its junky buildings, devoted almost entirely to the pursuit of commercially organized leisure, could show ways of reinvesting the public realm (then much reduced by the ravages of tired late functionalism) with senses of occasion, arrival and departure, presence and welcome. Learning from Las Vegas was one of the reasons why the industrialized world was almost overwhelmed with a tidal wave of tatty PoMo. But perhaps it should be reconsidered now. It did at least suggest how buildings and structures serving leisure could become part of a civilized urban conversation.

Against the ravages of the leisure industries, we need every ally we can find. Much further thought and imagination is needed both organizationally and three dimensionally. Even in a recession, perhaps particularly in a recession which gives us time to breathe and think, we must start to invent ways of trying to tame the terribly corrosive effects of commercial leisure.

(1.) Nowadays, the violence is electronic make-believe, though it nonetheless pervades society. Yet we cannot use the Roman excuse: few people are likely to be called up for military service, and when even one of them is killed there is a national calamity (as opposed to hundreds of innocent foreigners who may die by misdirected high-tech weaponry).

(2.) They did not ofcourse have the problems of car parking.
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Title Annotation:negative aspects of leisure
Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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