The Architecture of Happiness: Reviews

Andrew Rutherford in the Australian, 13 May 2006

Perhaps the most famous modern intersection between architecture and philosophy is the austere house Ludwig Wittgenstein spent three years constructing for his sister. I once asked directions of a grand red-headed dame at Vienna’s tourism office to the Wittgenstein house, to be met with the question, “Are you an architect or a philosophe?”

So it was that I uttered words no Anglo-Saxon ever uttered before: “I am a philosophe.”

Alain de Botton, a more professional philosophe, treats Wittgenstein early on, quoting his reflection: “You think philosophy is difficult but I tell you, it is nothing compared to the difficulty of being a good architect.” (Good architects seldom believe the converse; rather, many have found a determined loopiness of thought a spur to productivity.)

The layout of The Architecture of Happiness, the short, numbered, loosely connected sections, might owe something to the form the publication of Wittgenstein’s later cultural writings took, when he found doing philosophy easier but completing philosophies impossible.

The book is not a sustained argument but a series of reflections, more or less informed by traditional problems of aesthetics, always connected to specific buildings or architectural features: a kind of amateur criticism in a philosophical style, which might help fellow amateurs to clarify their feelings about architecture.

De Botton’s quarry is aesthetics in general, though. He makes cross-form comparisons from the first, suggesting, for instance, that architecture shares with literature the absence of any guaranteed methods of achieving quality despite millenniums of practice, or that the abstract but implement-like sculptures of Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth can alert us to the design in everyday things such as door knobs.

His reflections on architecture are intense and considered. But part of what makes it interesting to him is the unavoidable connection with the human. An aesthetician starting with architecture should be less tempted by formalist definitions of quality because buildings are or were lived in or otherwise used, and show an idea of life.

Of course, de Botton is conscious of the ways architecture is atypical of aesthetic objects. Buildings have a central engineering component – they’re made of lots of stuff and have to stay up – which has led to the temptation of functionalism, of taking some particular engineering solution as natural simplicity, as well as the virtue of elegance, which might be most clearly found in monumental bridges.

He can be good on the experience of living buildings: he leaves the McDonald’s in an above-average concrete and glass building near London’s Westminster Cathedral – great for solitary dining after being stood up for lunch, not so great when a boisterous party of Finns turns up – for the strange Byzantine-style cathedral, and finds in himself a willingness to believe its owners’ otherworldly dogmas because of darkness, incense and confident iconography. (I once made the reverse trek from Westminster Cathedral to McDonald’s, to read the copy of The Tablet I’d bought at the cathedral, with similar feelings, minus the Finns.)

Or the lively Paris cafe where he avoided the Bibliotheque Nationale (a dreary building, though that wasn’t why he was avoiding it) in an area Le Corbusier had slated for the kind of high-rise future world whose main living relatives are in the banlieu slums of Paris and the inner suburbs of Melbourne.

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