In Context of Tourism

This page was originally part of the short-lived “Forgettable Buildings” experiment.

Seen in a negative way, a tourist can be described as person who's only superficially curious about their surroundings. Is this inherently what tourism is about or is it a result of how formalized tourism instructs us to assess our surroundings?

Architectural tourism has existed for hundreds if not thousands of years. We seek out places built before our time and visit within a prescribed set of restrictions. Formal tourism is a passive experience directed by someone else's terms and this is more true today than it ever has been.

This is in part due to the value placed upon some — but not all — ruins. Further damage or decay is considered a bad thing due to the value placed upon anything created so long ago that we can romanticise its purpose. (Perhaps I'm just a cynic.)

(Certainly some tourists seek architecture which doesn't fall into the category of 'ruin' but I'd suspect this is the exception to the rule. Frank Lloyd Wright as one of the first 'rock star architects' probably helped start this trend and recent works by Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind continue to fuel it.)

Architecture as a focal point for tourism instructs us to worship buildings created by the 'rock stars' of the time. Whether that's a Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry or Hadrian the emperor, these buildings are rarely common. If tourism only takes us to the celebrated places, then those are the only places we recognize or perceive to be valuable.

Maybe that's why it's so easy for a city to demolish its past to make way for newer mediocrity. It's easy to ignore the everyday buildings of common life. Yet, historically, these are the places that give us the most information about what a place was like.

There's an exception to this: age. If a building manages to survive a few hundred years (or even 75 years in North America), it acquires the status of being a tourist destination, regardless of its original purpose.

For every ancient temple there are vast numbers of houses, shops and apartment complexes to be seen. Just a few blocks from the Colosseum in Rome sits Trajan's Market. While it is seen as an important example of ancient architecture, its fundamental purpose was that of a shopping mall. If we see shopping malls today as just an example of day-to-day consumerism, why should we think that a 2,000 year-old shopping mall should be regarded as a tourism-worthy architectural attraction complete with stories, pamphlets and statistics? Time has a way of making anything interesting.

Photo of the ruins of Trajan's Market, Rome, ItalyThe Ruins of Trajan's Market, Rome, Italy

When it comes to tourism and architectural ruins, the quality of the ruin and the function of the place rarely seem to have any bearing upon the importance proclaimed. Age seems to trump other factors. Something that is older or less understood is more likely to be preserved in its found state.

What surprises me is the public's appetite for visiting pre-packaged crumbling ruins versus the desire to visit modern ones (say, buildings from one, two or three generations previous).

The favoured idea of the ruin has been implanted in our minds ever since we had our first school history lesson — Egyptian and Greek structures epitomized the idea of ancient times and tourism of them has been ongoing for centuries. If such considerable resources are extended towards preserving crumbling ruins, why do we as a society turn a blind eye to the decay of more modern structures?

In modern times, tourism is mostly about marketing. Genuine learning or experience is no longer the chief concern. Could there not be a market for, say, turn of the century power plants or am I too naive to believe that people may want to understand how their world functions? The wholesale cultural dismissal of something because it is not yet old enough leads to an environment where ancient elements are considered sacrosanct but those recently forgotten are cast away.

Tourism itself can also be the generator of places we ignore.

As a place rises up to the status of tourist destination, structures are created to support it. Gas stations, tourist offices, gift shops, and visitor centers. They all find their place relative to the destination. The permanence of their construction reflects the strength of the attraction.

When popularity shifts in a negative direction, these places may find themselves struggling for survival. At various points along the highway leading to the Grand Canyon (the southern rim) you'll find a number of roadside stops to buy jewelry and tourist souvenirs. As you get closer to the destination the density of these markets intensifies and as you move further away you encounter the remains of ones no longer in business.

While I'd be hard-pressed to defend the architectural value of these tourist-support structures, I wonder if my opinion would differ if I learned they were two thousand years old rather than twenty.