The Architecture of Happiness: Reviews

Karen Long in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, 24 September 2006

Read at the Cleveland Plain Dealer website

A few days ago, I stepped through my back door and noticed the way a dark portion of my neighbor’s roof accidentally — and pleasurably — set off a pine bench angled into a corner of our back yard.

I have hurried past this tableau a thousand times, but I took in this small, domestic grace note because of Alain de Botton’s new book, “The Architecture of Happiness.” It works on a reader like the tuneup of a piano, realigning the mind and eye to pay attention to our built environments.

De Botton’s lively, philosophical and joyful book rests in his conviction that we are different people in different environments. An ugly hotel room, he writes, “can coagulate any loose suspicions as to the incompleteness of life, while a sunlit one set with honey-colored limestone tiles can lend support to whatever is most hopeful within us.”

There are limits to this thinking, of course, and de Botton is quick to acknowledge them, noting early that the “noblest architecture can sometimes do less for us than a siesta or an aspirin.” He concedes that beautiful buildings do not have the force to make us good, illustrated in a photograph of Hitler’s Hermann Goering entertaining dignitaries in his museum-quality mansion. The caption: “The moral ineffectiveness of a beautiful house.”

Wit is one of the key delights of de Botton’s work, and the plentiful, black-and-white pictures that ground nearly all his arguments are another. They carry readers from Nagasaki to London, from sixth-century Byzantine mosaics to the Royal Crescent of 18th-century Bath. Those who liked “The Art of Travel,” de Botton’s poetic and painterly look at the existential reasons for our restlessness, will find additional pleasures here.

“Buildings speak — and on topics which can be readily discerned,” de Botton argues. “They speak of democracy or aristocracy, openness or arrogance, welcome or threat, a sympathy for the future or a hankering for the past.”

Suddenly, the reader intuits why the architecture of Disney World seems unsettling or eerie and why it’s easier to believe in God in Westminster Cathedral than in the McDonald’s restaurant nearby. Perhaps the richest chapter in “The Architecture of Happiness” is called “The Virtues of Buildings,” which amounts to a concise, globe-trotting survey of architectural order, balance, coherence and elegance. De Botton balances his pages with instructive examples of the ugly.

The writer, a Swiss-born intellectual who lives in London, can turn fussy and a bit pedantic. He lashes Le Corbusier and ignores Frank Lloyd Wright. As in early works, de Botton numbers his paragraphs like a class outline.

But even as his passionate, discursive book harbors a few contradictions, and at least one passage of poppycock, de Botton writes so gracefully and with such erudition that the reader longs to invite him to dinner. “The Architecture of Happiness” contains the strut work of many hours of good, illuminating conversation.

Producers at the BBC must think so, because they’ve turned this book into a three-part series called “The Perfect House.” Public television in the United States is committed to airing it in early 2007.

In the meantime, de Botton’s latest book made me miss being able to drop in on the Cleveland Museum of Art. Some 25 years ago, while working nights reporting Cleveland homicides, rapes and traffic deaths, I developed the habit of stopping at the museum before my graveyard shift.

The calm atrium, in particular, offered a kind of fortification, a reminder of beauty, before I took up my grim task. De Botton, I like to think, would have approved. Reading “The Architecture of Happiness” is like throwing open a window. It improves the light and offers us the chance to “become more conscious readers, as well as writers, of our environments.”

Comments are closed.