Feeling at home in old and new design

It’s important to revere the past, but it is equally valid to revel sometimes in the pleasures of modern life. So I was fascinated to learn recently of the organisation Living Architecture, which was set up at the instigation of philosopher and writer Alain de Botton.

In de Botton’s recent book The Architecture of Happiness, he discusses the theory that a concern for architecture and design is too often described as frivolous, even self-indulgent.

Living Architecture is a response to this: a collection of modernist properties that are available to rent so that those unfamiliar with new buildings (other than the airports or other public spaces they may pass through) can experience the allure of the new.

Properties available for rent include Grayson Perry’s recent build A House for Essex, which is both an artwork in itself and the setting for a number of his works exploring the special character and unique qualities of Essex.

The building has been designed to evoke a tradition of wayside and pilgrimage chapels. It belongs to a history of follies, while also being deeply of its own time.

In that way, it is surprisingly similar to the properties of the Landmark Trust, an organisation that makes available to let historic houses. They are inspiring in a more traditional way yet I do not think they are any less interesting for being old.

The Landmark Trust owns (and has restored) all kinds of quirky buildings such as the Gothic Temple at Stowe, Lord Dunmore’s exuberant pineapple pavilion near Stirling, and the 23 buildings and fragile eco-system of the isle of Lundy in the Bristol Channel.

Bringing its properties up to date, the Trust’s rescue from utter dereliction of Astley Castle in Warwickshire has seen the fusing of medieval and modern in a bold new scheme.

Rather than pitting old against new, I wonder if we should simply acknowledge the glory of all these special buildings. As Frank Gehry said: “Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.”

This, after all, is the true test of design. Do we value its intrinsic qualities, its sense of internal space, its curves and straight lines as much after four years as four hundred years? Brilliant architecture can revisit the old in the new, predict the future while being rooted in the past. A house is always alive and interactive; we help to shape it while fulfilling our need to call it home.

The irresistible lure of nature

When I learned about plans for a Garden Bridge to span the River Thames like an arbour of greenery linking north to south London, I was fascinated. The bridge – originally an inspirational idea of actor Joanna Lumley – seemed like a fantastical scheme, perhaps even an impossible one.

Its award-winning designer Thomas Heatherwick, whose visionary work includes the London 2012 Olympic Cauldron and the UK’s amazing “Seed Cathedral” Pavilion for the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, has stated that he believes The Garden Bridge will be “an extraordinarily special place, either to race across, relax in or look back at the rest of the city’s sights”.

Certainly, the creation of these five garden glades with more than 100,000 new shrubs and flowers, and 270 new trees growing out of two specially designed planters, could be used by some as a new park to relax in. It will surely also act as an extraordinary super-sized window box for many who live on both sides of the river and have no outdoor space of their own.

The real appeal may lie in the plants that The Garden Bridge supports, the choice of award-winning horticulturalist Dan Pearson. Because whatever remarkable towers, cathedrals, castle and other physical structures we create, humans throughout the centuries have revered their gardens just as much.

Indeed, the drive to contain and perhaps even control nature is as strong today as it was at the time of the Shang Dynasty 3,000 years ago. We know that large enclosed parks were established then for kings to hunt game with their friends, in the valley of the river Huáng Hé. Spaces were designated for growing fruit and vegetables, platforms or terraces were built so that the king could survey his lands, and ponds were dug for boating and fishing.

Incredibly those traditions and human preferences seemed to have remained constant throughout the past millennia. Think of the micro-managed yet vast gardens of Versailles, which took 40 years to lay out, or the Grade 1-listed “rooms: of Sissinghurst Castle’s estate, designed by Vita Sackville-West.

It seems to me possible that we enjoy gardens because we experience, almost like some minor deity, the thrill of creation and control? In a landscaped garden, it is us that must decide what must grow where, sometimes paying less attention to nature’s own designs.

Or is our enjoyment perhaps the converse confirmation that we are so very human, that we must always give over control to a higher power when we work with nature – be it God, Buddha or a simple cry of Hope. We can plant a seed, water it and care for the young plant which may grow. But the very finest gardeners know well that one can only do one’s best, that nature may have other ideas for our grandest of designs. Gardening is sometimes simply the truest expression of the triumph of hope over experience.

Dangerous castles in the sky

When Glenn Close first appears on stage at the London Coliseum as troubled silent movie star Norma Desmond, the audience goes into raptures of delight. Close first played Desmond in Sunset Boulevard in LA, and then New York, a production I was lucky enough to see. Now she is back, making the dreams of fans come true.

But while fans’ wishes are fulfilled, they know as aficionados of Sunset – whether the original Billy Wilder movie, or this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical – that Desmond’s own dreams, thwarted and crushed, can lead to the most terrible tragedy.

The fictional Desmond has in her youth been a poster girl for the dreams of millions; but her nightmare develops when she loses the power to inspire those magical illusions. Trapped in her mansion, surrounded by self-portraits, living in an egocentric world, her fantasies are stoked by the adoration of Max, her beloved factotum (and first husband). Meanwhile, he pours his own dreams for her into the preservation of the Desmond myth, thus allowing it to keep growing, and grow out of control.

We should all be aware of Max’s errors: he is enabling Desmond to stay stuck in her fantasy and won’t help her to face reality. This isn’t hard to understand: very often, we give in to what our loved ones want, not what they need. It’s such a difficult balance to strike between our desire not to hurt the people we love and the importance sometimes of delivering true protection through some difficult home truths.

Joe Gillis, the young scriptwriter who narrates the story from beyond the grave, has his own fantasy problems. His dreams have been dashed so frequently that he has turned cynic. The stage is set for an inevitable clash as Joe cannot live through Desmond’s illusions any more than he can live out his own.

The mistake I feel is to accord such grand fantasies any importance in the first place. In Buddhist teaching, the state of sleep is sometimes used as a metaphor to describe the state of being ignorant (literally un-awakened). And the dreams we have while sleeping can symbolise fleeting desires for the unobtainable or pointlessly ephemeral, whether it be material success or the adulation of others.

We need to shake off these “dreams” by living fully in the now, not anticipating some glorious future or harking back to some marvellous past. Enjoy the illusions on stage, but be grateful for real life when the curtain falls.

A golden age of philanthropy

I hope and believe that we are embarking on a golden age of philanthropy among Chinese business people.

It has been said in the past that government regulations almost make it more difficult to give away money in China than to make it. Certainly it has taken the passing of a new charity law by the National People’s Congress earlier this year to make giving truly practical.

The new rules enhance tax incentives and make it easier to establish charitable trusts in the manner of the long-standing American tradition. They also demand that charities are more transparent too, to boost confidence in the emerging Asian Third Sector.

Last autumn meanwhile saw the China Global Philanthropy Institute established in Shenzhen. And a recent Harvard report showed that China’s top giver (in absolute terms) was billionaire He Xiangjian, who showed enormous magnanimity through donating more than US$60 million to social welfare causes.

So where do the philanthropists engage with the world’s needs? Some of the Chinese billionaires who attended the recent Global Philanthropy Leaders Program in London are interested in supporting education by providing scholarships or building schools. Others will find common cause with the arts, universities, disaster relief funds, the environment or by supporting government-backed charities.

While the modern connection between great wealth and philanthropy is a relatively new one for China, the tradition of altruism is strong in its people.

It makes me think of Ren, the moral principle of Confucius which he considered one of society’s highest ideals. To hold to Ren means fulfilling one’s obligations and responsibilities to society and to be kind-hearted to others. It begins with familial love, but is particularly important when practised by officials and those in positions of power.

In his collected sayings, known as the Analects, Confucius says: “Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others.”

I believe that in modern philanthropy we are interpreting this quality of Ren for the 21st century. I am fascinated at how these old truths seem to span the centuries, and are reinvigorated as a result.

We may not live in the courtly age of Confucius, but we are much freer to become successful, regardless of our backgrounds, and then to decide how we want to share the fruits of that work. If it is easier to establish ourselves, it is also easier to “enlarge other”. This may look like the growth and flowering of a new approach to philanthropic capital, but the roots were inside us all along.

Warmth and wisdom of the monarch

What comes to mind when we think of Her Majesty the Queen, who has just turned 90? For some, they will focus on her status and dominions, the centuries of tradition which she embodies so gracefully, her position as the figurehead of a nation, her historical place in arguably the most famous line of Kings and Queens.

Others may think of her in the context of her heirs as well as her illustrious ancestors. They will point to a very modern queen whose children and grandchildren are being raised to navigate the complexity of a world which has changed dramatically since she was crowned in 1953. Among them, particularly, the Prince of Wales, whose devotion to causes as diverse as the environment, history, literature and spirituality, suggest he in turn will be a monarch of real substance and relevance.

For myself, I think of her majesty’s strength and integrity, qualities which she has displayed from childhood, and which have carried her through her father’s early death, and a life which has known many challenges including among her immediate family. This is something she has acknowledged, saying: “Like all families, we have our share of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements.”

This is one of the reasons why I am honoured to support the Outdoor Trust, which aims to create 100 Walkways in all seventy-one Commonwealth Nations and Territories. These routes will be designated with special bronze markers bearing The Queen’s cypher – EIIR – as they are intended to celebrate Her Majesty in a subtle yet inspirational way. Walkers from around the world will be alerted to more than 10,000 highlights along the routes.

This global project reminds us that the Queen’s pledge of “duty” – made at her coronation – has led her into almost constant contact with statesmen and women from around the globe. The preparations that she makes for these contacts and of course the time she spends meeting people worldwide must make her one of the most well informed and knowledgeable people on Earth.

She imparts that wisdom without fanfare, but with a very deep concern for the improvement of all lives. And her advice is constantly drawn on not by successive prime ministers from the UK, and politicians and religious and community leaders from around the world.

The Queen has said: “I know of no single formula for success. But over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration to work together.”

Is she herself the most perfect catalyst for compassionate change? I believe so. And I think this is something we can all learn from and admire. A walkway to follow for life.



Parental love should be expressed through the gift of time, not money

Recently I was in a restaurant enjoying conversation with friends when I saw nearby a family of five all sitting mutely at their meal. Instead of taking the moment to share their day or enthuse about the delicious food, each one was staring individually at an iPhone or iPad. I was quite amazed: the adults were avoiding a connection with their own children.

Of course, you often see adults checking their mobiles at parties, living in a virtual state rather than engaging with other humans and really connecting with people. And I have to admit, I have been one of them. It’s easy to get carried away with some fascinating piece of content or video clip on your phone. We’ve all done it.

But what left me saddened by the restaurant scene was the way that the adults in this case seemed to be avoiding connecting with their own children.

Buying expensive screens to entertain youngsters is no substitute for affection. Nor, for that matter, is dressing your children in designer clothes, often in the same fabric and cut as the adult versions. These children, groomed to be customers of the future in a sophisticated marketing exercise, may feel like charming miniature versions of their parents. But they can unwittingly appear instead to be unwarranted further expressions of their mothers’ and fathers’ pursuit of wealth and status symbols.

It is easy for a child to articulate his or her desire for material goods, often under intense peer pressure for the best playground gizmo. It is far harder and more unusual for children to articulate their need instead for their parents’ time and attention, but that is what they crave the most. Even before we are old enough to express this, we understand that love is a motion as well as an emotion. A moment of genuine interaction trumps the most expensive gift.

I may be being harsh on my fellow diners, and perhaps they had been having a wonderful interactive time before I arrived. But parents must fight the impression that a material gift means love. Otherwise they risk having children whose value system is skewed.

The scenario is not new. Tales through history have warned us of this: in the Brothers Grimm tale of King Thrushbeard, a beautiful, spoilt young princess cannot see love as she is too shallow. She must undertake menial work and know poverty before she learns her lesson about materialism.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl deals with the spoilt children who win golden tickets to see inside Willy Wonka’s world. Veruca Salt is particularly singled out for her demanding nature (and ultimately thrown out with the rubbish).

Even so, Dahl makes it plain where the blame lies: “A girl can’t spoil herself, you know. Who spoiled her, then? Ah, who indeed? Who pandered to her every need? Alas! You needn’t look so far To find out who these sinners are. They are (and this is very sad) Her loving parents, MUM and DAD.”

Yes, if we are fortunate enough to be able to do so, it is wonderful to introduce children to fashion and creativity, the worlds of technology and communication. But we must be careful to do so with modesty, and not to mistake gifts for grace.


Our salvation lies in hard search for honesty within


It is difficult but important to watch Denise Gough’s astonishing performance as the self-destructive Emma in Duncan Macmillan’s new play People, Places, Things. She is engrossing, enthralling and utterly infuriating.

No wonder that Gough has just received the Olivier award for Best Actress, with critics hailing her performance as a tour-de-force. The play, which I am happy to sponsor, is enjoying an extended run having transferred to the Wyndham Theatre from the National thanks to the reaction from critics and the public.

The quality of the production from acting to set is undeniably high, and it is superbly directed by Jeremy Herrin, artistic director of the touring theatre company Headlong. But I believe audiences are reacting to far more than just a well-staged night at the theatre.

It seems to me that the play itself dares us to search within and ask how we feel about the truth. Can we ever be completely honest with ourselves and do we understand what redemption truly means?

Emma is an addict entering rehab and fighting every step of the way. She is too clever to be helped, too tragic, too self-important, too busy. She is manipulative, demanding and hollow. And the hardest truth she claims to face is that life without highs is meaningless, saying: “I want to live. I want to live vividly and make huge, spectacular, heroic mistakes.”

The doctors and fellow recovering addicts must help her to open up, and take herself apart, so that she can begin to understand what recovery means. And this is what Emma finds hardest; trusting others with your true self requires enormous courage.

Trust requires us to make a bond – forged in truth – or else relationships remain sterile and one must continue on a lonely existence, without support or safety net.

This is not just applicable to romantic relationships but also to those friendships we develop through work or shared passions. It is also particularly relevant to families as Emma discovers. Unable to be honest with her own parents, she cannot rely on them for support when she needs it most. Her endless lies have corroded their desire to help her.

The one gift left that they can give is a jolt of self-knowledge so fierce she cannot hide any more and has to be honest with herself. Can any of us manage that? There can be no lasting love or happiness without honesty; our salvation is surely worth the attempt.

Wabi-sabi and the beauty of transience

Visiting a friend’s home recently, I was impressed by its appearance: despite its owner’s sophisticated tastes, it was modest and serene.

This was due, I believe, to the way it was designed to reflect the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi: the established aesthetic which praises a beauty that is incomplete and in progress.

For those who appreciate this style, there is pleasure in specifically reclaiming wood to build furniture or even walls and doors. This is not about restoration, but a deliberate appreciation that imperfections are a record of the passage of time and should be celebrated for what they can bring to the overall feel of a creation.

Moreover, artefacts must be designed to be simple enough for their function to be obvious, and for the function of an object to suggest its form.

The Victoria & Albert Museum offers good examples in its Japanese collection including basketware which exemplifies wabi-sabi. The bamboo from which it is made is easily identified and close to its natural state; the technique of weaving is also obvious.

This consciousness during manufacture is also evident in some textiles such as kimono and lengths of hemp and cotton fabric made by the kasuri process, where the yarns are resist-dyed before being woven, which gives the patterns on the fabric their characteristic fuzzy edge.

Perhaps not surprisingly, wabi-sabi is becoming increasing fashionable in the design world for its zen-like calming qualities, its appreciation of tradition, and that overall sense of harmony, balance and order.

The passion for wabi-sabi, which is drawn from Buddhist teachings on the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering and emptiness, has led to exciting collaborations of modern craftspeople, including a group in Kyoto called Japan Handmade which proudly draws inspiration from a 1,000-year old tradition of artisanal work.

Yet the principles behind this passion are not so different to Western sensibilities that are perhaps better known. For example, the popular Scandi tradition, of bleached wood and clutter free rooms, also prizes honesty in materials, and a sort of soulfulness which comes from the sincerity with which items are made, often by craftsmen who themselves may make a virtue out of blemishes in materials.

It is interesting to reflect, to ask why we enjoy this simplicity and honesty in our surroundings. Why do we respond so well to seeing items which are not overly perfect?

Perhaps it is because of the physical reminder that we must accept impermanence in ourselves before we can find true peace. We need to embrace changes rather than fight them or fear them.

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho said: “Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever finally comes to realise that nothing really belongs to them.” With this knowledge and sense of acceptance we are helped to find peace inside ourselves.

The unfashionable value of Western antique furniture

William Shakespeare’s widow Anne Hathaway was no doubt delighted that the playwright left her in his will – as has become famous – his “second-best bed”. Though this seems to us funny, and rather insulting, I recently read that on the contrary, this was a great compliment. The best bed would have stayed in Shakespeare’s house, and the separate “second-best” bequest shows the playwright’s heartfelt desire to ensure Anne’s comfort after his death.

Frankly, in the 16th century, any bed would have been welcome and cherished. Our forebears had an association with their possessions that often seems lost with today’s disposable modern furniture. Millions across the world shop for modern designs that are affordable and practical but not built to survive the centuries. And heritage furniture, as I noted at the recent Maastricht Art and Antiques Fair, is no longer in fashion.

Indeed, as I explored the Fair, I was interested and saddened to see fewer antique furniture dealers than before, some having reduced the scale of their business, others having closed down altogether. Recently, I have seen a kilim dealer selling off his collection of rugs and textiles at Sotheby’s, and another dealer in Paris change his focus from furniture to Old Masters and Contemporary Art.

No wonder figures quoted in the Financial Times, from Art Market Research Developments, show the value of high-end antique furniture dropped by 9 per cent in the year to the end of 2014 and plummeted almost 30 per cent over the past decade.

I understand of course that large mahogany tallboys and dining tables with curved legs, which seat 20, do not fit the lifestyle of many these days. Indeed, they simply do not fit physically into people’s homes. And there is much contemporary designer furniture which is exquisite – and some of it will surely be cherished in centuries’ time.

But for me there are wonderful treasures to be found in the warehouses that store antique furniture. I applaud the craftsmanship, the artistry and design which turn household objects into heirlooms. And I believe that sometimes these pieces choose their owners quite as much as we pick them. Are we perhaps drawn to reclaim heirlooms from a past life? Sometimes it seems the only way to explain how people amass the most extraordinary collection of pieces – from different periods, and many countries – and yet, they fit together in beautiful synergy.

Chinese collectors are apparently among the groups turning their backs on Western antique furniture. I wonder if this is because many of my countrymen are more focused presently on buying back Chinese furniture, especially Ming dynasty pieces which are prized for their precious wood, comfortable design, simple decoration and superb craftsmanship.

Here, prices have risen substantially, reflecting collectors’ pleasure in the ergonomic and graceful qualities of the work.

For writer Jung Chang, Chinese furniture has a deeper purpose – to provoke an understanding of history. She says: “I like to have Chinese furniture in my home as a constant and painful reminder of how much has been destroyed in China. The contrast between the beauty of the past and the ugliness of the modern is nowhere sharper than in China.”

Perhaps that strong connection to our history – even when it causes distress rather than joy – is what will drive buyers back to choose and treasure Georgian and Victorian pieces. Such items have a beauty that comes in part from years of use, an emotional resonance beyond the patina of the wood. They are living history, part of the story of civilisation, and they outlive us all.

Gregorian chant’s link to meditation and healing

The 20 adult singers and 30 boy choristers whose voices ring around the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican are probably the finest singers of Gregorian chant in the world. As the Pope’s own choir, they are in a privileged position to perform under the watchful eyes of Michelangelo’s angels, while in turn inspiring worshippers to find peace.

The tone and texture of the music itself, which has barely changed since the Middle Ages, is uplifting yet calming. No wonder, Gregorian chant is so often used to assist meditation away from church.

Partly, I believe this is down to Gregorian chant’s unique form: its tonal quality is quite unlike anything our ears are accustomed to in normal life. Typically, there are frequent skips, with one note jumping to another, seven places higher on the scale, rather than a full octave as it would in modern music. This slight, subtle discord is part of what pleases our senses; it sounds off-key to us. Gregorian chant is full of unexpected pleasures that bring the attention back, over and over, to the music.

Chanting is also very repetitive. Because there are no accompanying instruments to force a beat, the singers create the rhythm. And when it is sung in Latin, the words have their own musicality and emotion ­– it adds to an overall mood of mystery.

For Roman Catholics, Gregorian chant “shows you what theology sounds like”, says British baritone Mark Spyropoulos, who is the first British full-time member of the Sistine Chapel choir. “It is the message of the Church expressed through its music.”

I am excited to learn that there is increasing evidence Gregorian chant may be useful for medicinal purposes as well. Recent studies have shown that the calm state induced by chanting and meditation may have real value for the cardiovascular system.

One of the biggest studies of its kind, presented to the American Heart Association last year, found that patients with coronary heart disease who practised meditation and chanting had nearly 50 per cent lower rates of heart attack, stroke and death compared to non-meditating subjects.

Another study last year of students at Georgetown University found that chanting helped lower blood pressure after three months of regular practice.

Most curiously, there is anecdotal evidence from France that suggests chanting may not just be calming but also energising. In 1967, Alfred Tomatis, a French physician, psychologist and ear specialist, learnt that the centuries-old schedule of a Benedictine monastery had been disrupted when a new abbot had tried to modernise his monks. The Benedictines had been used to sleeping only a few hours a night, and chanting six to seven hours a day. The abbot cut out the chanting, only to find his monks had become lethargic and sleepy.

No rest was enough for the lethargic monks. But when Dr Tomatis was called in, he reintroduced the chanting, believing that the monks “had been chanting in order to ‘charge’ themselves”. 

The result? The monks soon found the energy to return to their normal schedule. Harmony – in every sense of the word – was restored.