Why the million-dollar view is bad for our body and our soul

Xing Ruan, associate dean and director of architecture at UNSW, recently wrote about the dilemma of being strangled inside while the freedom of space outside is irresistible.

Ruan joined the University of New South Wales as professor of architecture in 2004.

Architecture and Design spoke to him about his essay on million dollar views (see above 'Related'), the task of being happy and an all-round education for architecture students.

You recently wrote about how a million dollar view is the bait of a modern trap. What prompted you to write the piece?

The spur was the mammoth amount of distraction facing our modern life and the subsequent diminishing of a precious inner world, which, ironically, should be the hallmark of modernity. So “the million-dollar view” is a metaphor in this larger context.

I teach A History of Housing to masters students. Too often students are surprised to learn that houses (and increasingly other buildings), which are designed to work almost like camera viewfinders, are a recent phenomenon in human history. Those splendid 16th century villas built by the Renaissance master Andrea Palladio started to show this fascinating dilemma: a vista to the distant horizon versus a domed (or vaulted) lofty hall.

But the ancient Romans had no such problem: a villa at the outskirt of Pompeii was positioned to have an ocean view, but the external exedra was separated from the internal atrium and peristyle that open only to sky.

What country is the worst when it comes to this problem?

Although very few of us have “million-dollar views,” aren’t we all surrounded by smartphones and iPads? It does seem rather tough in this country, for the sparkling waters and the brilliant world out there are always calling.

Some years ago I read an interview in the local newspaper: Before returning to Scotland, an art festival director was asked what he thought of Sydney. The Scotsman sincerely, albeit a little dutifully, listed beautiful beaches, ideal climate, warm people and sumptuous food. He then paused and asked: “But where do you go in Sydney if you feel a little melancholic?”

To be perpetually happy has become almost an obligation of Sydneysiders, which is a big ask.  

How would you like this to be changed in Australia?

If we are talking about wrapping our buildings with floor-to-ceiling glass, the criminal environmental effect aside, perhaps we should learn a lesson or two from history about the art of the window.

From where I live, there are no harbour views. When my architect wife and I designed and built our house, we took much care to tweak the windows and tune the daylight let into the house. The result, for us at least, is quite therapeutic.

As for one’s inner life, one can always try to build a certain degree of “enclosure” for oneself, and be very judicious about opening “windows”. There is always a caveat though when you open up your “inner world”: Qian Zhongshu, the author of the novel La Forteresse Assiégée (Fortress Besieged), nonetheless reminds us of the Shakespearean analogy of a window: “Eyes are the windows of the soul, through which we see outside, but we in the meantime let people outside see our hearts.”

None of the above is easy; so we may have to let the la forteresse assiégée syndrome run its course, and hope a collective backlash will arrive sooner.   

What general comments do you have about the students studying architecture at the moment?

Architecture students ought to remember that, yes, they are receiving a professional training that requires them to be competent in a range of skills and technical knowledge necessary for practising as an architect. But they are also getting an education – that is, to become an all-round whole person in the humanist tradition.

One may shake one’s head and dismiss this as being too abstract and highbrow. What exactly is an all-round humanist education? Let us listen to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: “We ought to observe that even the things which follow unexpectedly from the things that are produced according to nature contain something pleasing and attractive. For instance, when bread is baked some parts are split at the surface, and these parts that thus open are open contrary to the purpose of the baker’s art, and yet are beautiful in a peculiar manner; and they in a peculiar way excite a desire for eating.”

This is what an all-round education does to us – it enables us to get more out of life and savour it slowly in day-to-day living. Isn’t this essential for the education of an architect?   

How does their approach to architecture differ from those of students 10 years ago?

How about 30 years ago when I was an architectural student in China? We were rather idealistic, and at times hopelessly romantic; we were also activists fearlessly advocating for the social and political good. After 1989, the rest is history. But we did not learn much of architecture in the school, knowing one day we would teach ourselves.

These days we worry too much whether or not students learn enough or will be skilful enough to be employable. I think the future architects will be fine, as long as they learn the basics, and in the meantime imbue themselves with the desire to live a good – not just happy – life.    

If you weren't involved in architecture, what would you be doing?

I would be hosting a book reading show on the local radio. Would it not be just marvellous to make a living from reading books and having endless leisurely conversations with others who also read? But then, I guess, I won’t be employable because I am a terribly slow reader.