Opinion: after returning from a two-week break, Sam Jacob reflects on the phenomenon of the modern beach holiday and argues that it is just as artificial as everyday working life in the city.
The summer is almost out of reach, the sun setting over vacation idylls and planes pulling their wheels up over the bleached industrial outskirts of a Mediterranean city. They accelerate into the sky, contrails arcing northwards, to deliver their payload of over-ripened northern Europeans back to their slate-grey natural habitats. They emerge from the airport still incongruously clad in espadrilles, shorts and straw hats.
Ah, holidays. The ten-ish days off from the normal pattern of life where we can kick back, get back to nature, soak up the sun and otherwise encounter the world in a different way to our usual nine-to-five. But although we often describe them as a "break", holidays are actually a product of organised labour, products of the industrial revolution as much as the production line.
These bubbles of paradise, where the wind blows through your hair and you feel the prickle of the sun’s heat on your bare skin, are as artificial as the suspended-ceilinged, contract-carpeted and air-conditioned environments you spend the rest of the year holed up in.
Nowhere is this strange version of artificial nature more apparent than the beach. A beach might be a product of coast line geology, of sea levels and tides, of the forces exerted by the sea on the perimeter of the land, of rocks and shells worn down into grains of sand. But really the place we go isn't this; it’s rather a highly-wrought cultural phenomenon that just happens to look (sometimes) completely natural.
The idea of the holiday is derived from holy days, still ghostly present in the word itself. Secularised and industrialised, the holiday remains a symbolic event, an act full of ritual. The beach is the ground on which we conduct this performance, aided by outfits and props. All those things we identify with beachiness - from the traditional British seaside fare of kiss-me-quick hats, donkey rides and Punch and Judy shows to the exotic cocktail-in-a-pineapple from a thatched beach bar, even the virgin, unspoiled sands of ultimate luxury beachiness - all of these are props and scenarios that allow us to commune with an idea. Walking down the promenade, in other words, or pulling on your Speedos, blowing up a deranged-looking inflatable sea monster... whatever you might find yourself doing is a way of participating in collective ideas about nature and society.
Think of all those highly specific items we drag down there: the special towels, buckets in the shape of miniature candy-coloured castles, lilos, umbrellas, tiny cricket bats, balls that catch the wind as though they thought they belonged to the sky. Think of the clothes we wear, think even of that June magazine favourite, the beach body (and how to get one). All of these point to the beach as a place that holds a very special meaning.
The very idea of a beach holiday is relatively recent. It is essentially an eighteenth-century invention, a combination of science (the beach as sanitarium) and changing attitudes to the landscape after urbanisation (which might fall under the catch-all term of romanticism). These ideas of health and romance still run through our contemporary notions of the beach like the words through a stick of rock. These combine with modern notions of leisure, with money, with images of family and/or relationships. All baking under an ozone-depleted sky, doused in gallons of SPF.
"Ha," you might say. "Put down your cultural studies notepad, throw off your tweeds and join us frolicking in the shallows. You’re taking this far too seriously; it’s all just a little fun!" But that’s the point: the beach’s syntheticity is so absolutely absorbed into its landscape that it’s almost impossible to distinguish it from nature, even when it really is manufactured.
Beyond the vast infrastructures that holidays command - the engineering, logistics, complex finance and construction that enable travel, highways, hotels - to name but a few items necessary to enable us to go somewhere - beaches are themselves unstable places that shift with wind and tide. These erosions are often held at bay by civil engineering such as groins and breaks. Sand is rearranged in acts of "beach nourishment": sometimes as simple as scooping it up from one end of a bay and putting it back at the other; other times as extreme as replenishing a beach with sand from somewhere else entirely. These acts of great geological shuffling mean that beaches stay in the same place against their natural inclination.
The slogan "Sous les paves, la plage" rang out in Paris in 1968. It imagined that beneath the concrete veneer of the city was something as apparently liberated as the beach. But far from being something opposite, the beach is part of the very same landscape as the city.
Sam Jacob is a director of architecture practice FAT, professor of architecture at University of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, as well as editing www.strangeharvest.com.