Odyssey: A Wanderer's Manifesto
It rained the whole time in Tirana – as if the weather-system were consciously trying to fit in with our own plans. Three times we made love in a low-grade hotel room near a casino spray-painted with images of Las Vegas. “You have no home,” she observed, as she got up to go to the bathroom at the end of it all.
I’d just bet she hadn’t realised this was the first time I’d been to Albania. Though the revolution had left town, there was plenty of life to the place, and after a quick internet search, I’d pulled a tour together for her: the film studios (from which socialist cinema had been distributed to China), Stalin Square, a ruined factory – another Communist relic. Most of my running commentary, I’d made up. I don’t know why I’ve been so drawn to fiction lately. I read that William Faulkner once worked as a guide around New Orleans, inventing all kinds of stories that subsequently became received tourist wisdom. Maybe I’m just a frustrated novelist, looking for a creative outlet.
She set me wondering though – what is a home? Is it the place you set out from? A string of temporary addresses? An apartment in which you stash the detritus of life? The collection of habits and preferences that even the most committed globe-trotters carry with them from one hotel-room to another? For me – someone who’s always on the road for work – home isn’t family: it isn’t a wife, children, parents; it isn’t the place I grew up in. I’m just a traveller with an overactive imagination. Ask me the road home, and I’ll give you no answers.
Allow me to introduce this project of mine: a package tour that I’ve decided to call Odyssey. I’m fond of the name, I admit: for its epic resonances – being a tour-guide, remember, is all about selling experience. If only car manufacturers didn’t reach so predictably for it when they’re launching a new make on the market, my delight with the word would be complete. But “odyssey” also implies a journey home. If I have no home, how can I point the way back to others?
We’ve confined our package tour to China, and to buildings that have sprung up, over the last few years, across nine places. China’s love affair with urbanisation shows no intention of cooling off, as insatiable new cities swallow villages and deserts – however much land you feed them, it seems, they always want more. Overworked architects are pouring into the country, struggling to keep up with demand. The world sighs at the spectacle of it all, and at the extraordinary economic activity that lies behind it. I wanted Odyssey to take a snapshot of this.
Of course, there’s nothing new about architectural tourism. Traditionally, though, architects have made pilgrimages to venerated models of classical perfection. I wanted to do something different: to draw attention to the experimental, the undefined, the under-analysed. Most people think of New York as the home of the sky-scraper, of Chicago as the headquarters of modernism. But these are old paradigms, however extraordinary. Here, our focus is on the new: on places of limitless possibility; on empty pages waiting for stories to be inscribed on them; on places like Albania, which reminded me of China ten years back, of a time when the economy was just starting up. It’s where I want my next Odyssey to take place.
Of course, we needed good copy to sell our package tour. Perhaps swayed by my recent fondness for fiction, then, I asked nine writers to create a story for each destination on our itinerary. Browsing Amazon one day, I discovered a whole genre called “architectural fiction”: Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Edward Carey’s Observatory Mansions, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect. I thought that the stories our writers produced – based on particular buildings or featuring architects – might set your imaginations going more effectively than a travel brochure. It also struck me that the architects responsible might serve as intriguing tour-guides.
In this era of ours – this era of monumental construction – some architects have become cult figures. Take the reclusive ZH, for example (a star so bright I’m not going to bother giving you more than her initials): a woman celebrated for her extraordinary curved creations, who shies from cameras (or from mine, at least), who barely tolerates the globe-trotting that her job forces on her. Though she did agree to comment, through her assistants, on an opera-house she’d designed in China; other architects, too, have offered to give our tourists their own takes on their work. If like ZH, though, you suffer from travel fatigue (alongside development fever, a voguish malady of the new millennium), you may not have much sympathy with our Odyssey. I’ve heard she prefers to stay put: in the converted schoolhouse in North London that serves both as her office and a Mecca to which worshipful young architects from all over the world come to pay their respects.
I’ve always thought there are two sorts of people in this world: those who like to keep moving, and those who like to keep still. Wanderers can feel at home anywhere, but take a kind of incoherent homesickness with them wherever they go. My travelling occupies my mental space – even though it’s been forced on me by my work; I live on the road, I have no other home. Through Odyssey – this trek between city and countryside, between coast and interior, from plane, to car, to boat, to bus – I wanted to give a sense of that restlessness.
Our journey – through buildings, geographies, literary worlds – starts in south China, in Shenzhen, the birthplace of contemporary China’s urbanisation fever. Thirty years ago, it was a fishing village, a river’s width from Hong Kong; now it’s a city of over ten million. From there, we go east and then west, ending up in Pai, a small town in Tibet. Odyssey, we hope, will be an imaginative voyage of discovery: a slice of history in the making. It’s time to set off.
Translated from Chinese by Julia Lovell, University of Cambridge.