The Architecture of Happiness: Reviews

Robert Campbell in the Boston Globe, 14 January 2007

It’s rare that you can recommend to the general reader a book about architecture. Too many books on that topic are clotted attempts at philosophy that read as if they’d been mistranslated from the German. Or they’re sales jobs, plugging some single architect or point of view. Or they’re stuffed with too many facts and dates. Or they’re overpriced picture books.

It’s a joy, therefore, to applaud a new title that’s none of those things. Well, almost new — I’m late getting to it. “The Architecture of Happiness,” by Alain de Botton, a Swiss writer who lives in London, is the best introduction to architecture I have ever seen.

De Botton isn’t an architect himself, nor a historian of art and architecture. He seems, in fact, to write about everything. I hated his last book, which was inanely titled “How Proust Can Change Your Life.” I don’t much like the title of this one, either, because it makes architecture sound like some New Age blissfulness drug. One reviewer called the book “cultural Valium.” Don’t believe it.

What de Botton tries to do is figure out why there have been, and still are, so many different styles of architecture. Why do some of us like one thing — let’s say, glass-and-steel modernism — while others despise it? Why do so many Americans in 2007 wish to live in copies of the red-brick-white-trim Georgian architecture of the 18th century?

The author understands that sometimes we seek what is familiar, orderly, and predictable in the world we build, as in that Georgian house. But he also understands that sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we seek the new, the shocking, the slightly crazy.

Both reactions are fine with de Botton. He’s not interested in pushing one or the other. Instead he wants to figure out where our different tastes come from.

His answer is that every building embodies a message. It billboards a certain set of values.

“Buildings speak,” he writes. “They speak of democracy or aristocracy, openness or arrogance, welcome or threat, a sympathy for the future or a hankering for the past.” He could have added more such words. Buildings speak of risk-taking or cowardice, of individualism or conformity, of nature or artifice, of wealth or poverty, of handicraft or machinery, of the local or the global, of representation or abstraction, of permanence or change. And so on. We admire the buildings that speak our values — or, at least, the values we wish other people to perceive in us.

De Botton is not the first person to notice that works of architecture talk about cultural values. But for him this is a discovery and, as discoverers do, he writes about it with an engaging freshness.

The author makes one other major point. It’s an obvious one, but it’s often overlooked. It’s simply that we seek, in our architecture, an antidote to the world we otherwise inhabit. That’s why CEO s in Denver, who work in modernist glass-box downtown towers, drive home to traditional mansions that look like — and sometimes are — equestrian estates. That’s why guys who work all day in a welding shop seldom want to live in a building that the architect, who has a crush on the “honesty” of the industrial look, has designed to resemble a factory. Each “either” needs its “or.”

De Botton likes both order and disorder. More than that, he wisely argues that you can’t have one without the other. “Just as we cannot appreciate the attractions of safety without a background impression of danger, so, too, it is only in a building which flirts with confusion that we can apprehend the scale of our debt to our ordering capacities.”

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