Sad plastic cactus in the author’s Airbnb

(my thanks to Real Life, who I shamelessly stole this format from)

I’m currently staying in an Airbnb in SoHo, London. It’s one of those Airbnbs that is managed from afar by someone with quite a bit of money – the decor includes an unused Squier guitar, a pair of stork statuettes in the bathroom draped in strands of what appear to be real pearls, and many empty Louis Vuitton shoeboxes lined up on a bookshelf like trophies. It has also clearly never been lived in. The fixtures are pristine, the plants fake, the art uninspired and matchy-matchy like it was all procured from the same store at once. You can tick off the cliches on your fingers – vinyl wall decals of origami cranes and crystals, prints featuring macro close-ups of leaves, a coffee menu in the kitchen with a curlicue font from a cafe that never existed. The typography tryptich on the wall in my room spells out LAK, which I don’t think is anyone’s initials and appears be the result of a random bulk order. There are no extra rolls of toilet paper to be found anywhere in the building. This is peak AirSpace, the well-documented phenomenon of identical spaces all over the world catering to the affluent, aesthetics-oriented traveler in the same way a Starbucks or a McDonald’s does – the same wherever your go.

Last night, the friend I am traveling with met me in the hall to hand off the house keys, and a strange mania overtook us. Spotting a row of decorative tins on the windowsill, each of us quickly grabbed one, then another, to pop off their tops and take a look inside. We found a gum wrapper and a spare screw. These discoveries were unsatisfying in that they were things, but they weren’t significant things. They weren’t real. They weren’t things that anyone would claim as a belonging.

There is a certain kind of rummaging that happens in places like this, a checking of the pulse for signs of life. Small containers are opened, surveyed for odds and ends. Fridges are raided. Drawers are pulled open, slammed shut, one after another. We want mess. Detritus. Personal effects. Did someone ever live here? Was this space designed for the comfort of real people, or was the intention always a facsimile of human life, the veneer of familiarity with nothing inside? Were these books (always design or self-help) put here to convey personality, or did someone actually read them? Did someone select these weird little twine balls because they enjoyed them, or because they saw them in other Airbnbs attractively taking up tabletop space without being functional or interesting in any way? Does anything in this space exists because someone liked it, or because the space itself was just based off the meme of other spaces like it?

The point of AirSpace is that the decor never says anything about its curator. The house is one step removed from home, presided over by investors and housekeepers. It’s house-as-waystation, comfortable enough but not cozy, personable but lacking personality. When you enter AirSpace you’re entering the uncanny valley of interior design. Not the kind of place where one could settle in, amass belongings. You aren’t supposed to get too attached to AirSpace. You’re only supposed to move on.

What does it say about us as creators and consumers, that we saw that a place was monied, white and sterile, and decided to perpetuate it ad nauseum with algorithmic precision? Why are we proposing entire districts based on this model when existing districts have already become perpetual, barely-navigable AirSpaces? Perhaps maintaining a sense of place and purpose betrays our decorum as privileged travelers, because it forces us to feel like guests in someone else’s space. It’s the notion that another resident has been displaced to accommodate us – something that is often the case with homeshare schemes. Maybe this discomfort should be the price we pay as travelers – forced to live amongst the belongings of someone not present, to consider the human cost of our leisure.