I’m a big fan of Brendan O’ Connor. I’m a big fan of his television work, his easy way with guests on his former Saturday night show covering items of frivolity or high seriousness. I’m a big fan of his Cutting Edge series where he elicits all manner of insight from a wide array of guests. Then there is his unmissable work in the Sunday Independent every week. I get the distinct feeling Brendan O’Connor could converse just as competently about a cabinet reshuffle as he could about his favourite Led Zeppelin album.
Brendan can do a lot of things and do them all, it seems, very well. He can get down and dirty in the boring trenches with the best of the pol corr types, writing a two-thousand-word piece analysing the vagaries of some Oireachtas sub-committee or other and then he can re-emerge, unscathed into the actual world and write something wonderful. Which is what he did last Sunday. Something about textures.
He spoke about his tendency, given that facts are becoming more and more unreliable, to pay more attention to the texture of things. He cited a recent trip he made to Lisbon as the trigger for his musings on this thing, texture. I sat up and took particular notice because I too spent a few days in Lisbon recently. What I noticed but didn’t really bother articulating is similar to what Brendan noticed and articulated very well in a national Sunday newspaper.
Articulated thus: “What I saw in Lisbon was wonderful old textures – the cobbles, the side streets and alleyways, the dark, wooded little bars, the old buildings with the layers and layers of time on them. It felt good. It was texture that you could feel. It felt exotic, slightly Moorish, rich, ancient and sensual. Even the writing I didn’t understand felt like part of the exotic texture. And the feel of it all made me feel good. Reality. Time. Terroir. The lives of millions of people and their stories, all etched and engrained into this organic texture, layers and layers of it.”
It is evocative and very familiar. It speaks to how we gravitate to history, to a story. We crave stories, we crave the streetscapes, buildings and settings that can tell us stories. We are curious creatures, we want our landscapes to speak to us, to enlighten us, to bring us news of all that’s gone before us via “layers and layers” of texture.
And it prompted me to cast my mind way back to my college days and my first encounter with the term ‘genius loci’. In classical Roman religion, a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. In the design context, it has come to mean the prevailing character or atmosphere of a place.
Everywhere has an essence and a spirit. A spirit created by various things; the age of the place, its use, its story whether joyful tragic or neither, its patrons users and inhabitants, its location and proximity, its context, its features, its topography, aspect. The list could go on and on. The point is that we instantly absorb a sliver of the sense of the combination of all these things when we encounter a place or a setting. We encounter genius loci.
Back to Brendan in Lisbon “I noticed another texture too; hard edged, minimalist, metallic, clean, bland. It was the texture of globalisation and it had been imposed over the ancient patina of Lisbon”.
So much of the texture we live with now is this, the texture of globalisation.
We have become estranged from the rich, the ancient, the sensual textures heaving with history and time. We have relinquished them in pursuit of regimen, order, convenience, routine, familiarity, all day parking, hygiene.
The unyielding textures of the modern world are making us sick and unhappy. We need more stories, more layers, more history, more patina. Think more old Lisbon, less Liffey Valley.