Modernism always wanted to have it both ways: on the one hand, modernist architecture was supposed to be, in theory, the same in all places; that’s one reason why modernism in architecture was also called the International Style. If all modernist buildings look the same, when you see one you have seen them all: no need for further travel. Yet throughout the 20th century modernist culture and technology enthusiastically endorsed and favored travel. In the 60s we traveled to the Moon, and civil aviation made the world smaller. In modernist culture, travel was good. It made all travelers better, happier humans. It was good to learn foreign languages and to go see distant places. High modernist travel was not only good; it was also cool. The jet setters of the 60s were the coolest citizens of the world. Even later in the 20th century the general expectation was that borderless, seamless travel would keep getting easier and more frequent. Most Europeans of my generation grew up learning two or more foreign languages, and it was not unusual until recently to be born in one country, to study in another, and find one’s first job in a third one. That was seen as an opportunity, not as a deprivation.
Well, no more. Times have changed, and the tide has turned. Put the above trend into reverse, and go back to square one–or possibly even further. Travel today is bad; it is uncool. If you say you travel–no matter the reason: personal or professional, tourism or work–cool people look down on you. Some very cool people may even stop speaking to you. If you travel to earn your living, you are a loser. If you travel to see places, or to learn, you are an enemy of the planet.
It all started in the 70s. Back then the double whammy of two energy crises reminded to all, in the starkest terms, that travel and transportation are energy-intensive activities. When, after the first oil embargo, the price of fuel unexpectedly went up, so did the cost of travel. At the same time, not coincidentally, the culture of post-modernism started to favor regional, vernacular, and local styles in building, as well as the use of local building techniques and local building materials. In the beginning, that was mostly seen as a benevolent, long-overdue rebalancing act: for modernism, we are all the same; for the post-modernists, we are all different. Regionalism was called “critical” back then. Not now.
One generation later, ecology and environmental preoccupations have been replaced by climate activism, and rabid nationalism has replaced critical regionalism. A few months ago Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg went on an 11-day railway tour through Europe (during her Easter school holidays) to deliver talks to various European parliaments and to meet, among others, the Pope in Rome and Labour leader Jeremy Corbin in London. Many, like her, have banished or are banishing air travel in a bid to reduce their carbon footprint, and the “no-fly” movement is rapidly gaining traction throughout Europe and beyond. The carbon footprint of each flight is now often shown on electronic tickets, next to airfare; the numbers for the carbon footprint of rail travel are more controversial, as nobody knows precisely how to calculate the environmental impact of rail tracks and related infrastructure, from the ballast and electric lines to tunnels and bridges. All the same, even in the absence of precise facts and figures, it seems reasonable to assume that a 10-minute talk on Skype may have an even lesser carbon footprint than a 36-hour train travel. If that is confirmed, the young Swede’s remarkably effective, rightful, and persuasive words would have been even more environmentally friendly if delivered electronically, rather than in person. The electronic transmission of information burns less energy, and is therefore likely to be more environmentally friendly, than the physical transportation of things and people. That is an argument that many today do not want to hear.
But then, trains have their enemies too–for quite different reasons. The new populist government of Italy has made a big show of opposing the construction of new railway links through the Alps–to the point of abandoning some already under construction. As the Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Development explained in February 2019, his main preoccupation is not to facilitate train travel between Italy and France, but to provide for better travel for Italians within their own country. And for several months this spring the Eurostar train link between Paris and London was hit by a strike of the French custom officers, compounded on the British side by various incidents and, in at least one occasion, by Brexit protesters who targeted the rail link as a symbol of European travel they would like to curtail. As the hapless former British Prime Minister said in a famous speech in October 2016, “if you believe that you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
Well, at least that’s clear. For us, the design professionals, that means that buildings should be henceforth organically grown, or “sourced”, like wild mushrooms or bio-certified potatoes: designed and built by local people, each of them fully traceable to a local birthplace; and each building made with local materials, in a local way, expressing and embodying local identities. Identities, defined that way, are by definition frail, and can only thrive behind closed doors. One generation ago architectural students around the world dreamed of building schools, hospitals, and social housing. Fifteen years go they dreamed of faraway museums, monumental bridges, and glitzy airports. That’s gone too. Today’s populist right and activist left are united against those who choose to travel, or have to. Today’s travelers are not jet setters; they are migrants. Tomorrow’s travel infrastructure will not need bridges and airports, but fortified walls and concentration camps. It has happened before.