The Architecture of Happiness: Reviews

Katherine Ashenburg in the Globe and Mail, 23 September 2006

Read at the Globe and Mail website

Alain de Botton only takes on the biggest subjects. Still in his 30s, the Swiss-born author has written eight books on such topics as love, romance, status, the consolations of philosophy and how literature (in his case, Proust) can change your life. Clearly a student of philosophy, but of the most appealing and accessible sort, de Botton always goes back to the basics. In his bestselling The Art of Travel (2002), he asked, why do we want to go to unfamiliar places? What does travel give us? How can we maximize our chances for more delightful voyaging? Now, in The Architecture of Happiness, he considers the connection between our feelings and the buildings in which we work, pray and live.

It’s not news that buildings express values. Nineteenth-century Americans embraced the pillars and pediments of the Greek Revival style because they considered themselves the heirs of Athenian democracy. For the same reason, 19th-century Canadians, stoutly monarchical, avoided the style.

De Botton takes the expressiveness of buildings a step further, arguing that they communicate standards of beauty and morality even when their architects scorn such “romantic” goals. Le Corbusier believed he was making a machine for living when he designed the Villa Savoye west of Paris in 1929. When Madame Savoye broached sullying the architect’s pure space with a chair and two couches in the living room, he scolded her: “Home life today is being paralyzed by the deplorable notion that we must have furniture. This notion should be rooted out and replaced by that of equipment.” But as a machine, the Villa Savoye was a complete dud. Its famously flat roof leaked so much that the Savoyes’ young son Roger contracted pneumonia and spent a year in a sanatorium. And, in spite of Le Corbusier, the house communicated ideas of modernity and rationality that went beyond the scientific and utilitarian: As de Botton says, it was conceived as a stage set for “an idealized drama about contemporary existence.”

In spite of its beauty (something else Le Corbusier thought he despised, but could not help achieving), the Villa Savoye did not make its inhabitants happy. Still, de Botton is convinced that the right kind of building — functional, and with qualities of order, balance, elegance, coherence and self-knowledge — can make us happy. (You must forget while reading this book the indisputable fact that some people remain oblivious to their surroundings, just as some people are colour-blind or tone-deaf. De Botton’s theory doesn’t take account of them, but philosophy often ignores the exceptions.) Why and how does beauty in general, and architectural beauty in particular, makes us happy? The link between the two is mysterious but apparently inevitable, as in Stendhal’s aphorism, “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” For de Botton, it often has an ethical component. “We look to our buildings,” he writes, “to hold us to a helpful vision of ourselves.” At their best, they are calls to excellence, daily embodiments of the grace, poise, strength and calm which we lack but to which we aspire.

If that sounds impossibly abstract and austere, reading de Botton is anything but. Like a good teacher, he knows when to back up and patiently demonstrate how the shapes of teacups and letters can communicate meaning — this one straightforward and democratic, that one courtly and hierarchical — before going on to buildings. He’s particularly deft at demonstrating how much meaning lies in something apparently prosaic, as in his description, in The Art of Travel, of the delightful foreignness he finds in an ordinary sign at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The Architecture of Happiness is full of similar vignettes, attentive readings of fanlights, staircases and streetscapes.

Often his examples are captured in rather muddy photographs, but de Botton’s writing is so powerfully evocative that he scarcely needs photographs. Illustrating Novalis’s precept that “chaos must shimmer through the veil of order” in a work of art, he describes the everyday tension between wildness and regularity in a wooden floor: “We can see eddies, swirls and imperfections, as if the wood were a turbulent but frozen river. Irregularities remain — a knot that hasn’t been planed down, or a dip or buckle that hasn’t been smoothed — and yet these features are gracious rather than threatening, reminders of complexity, for they are neatly contained within a series of calm parallel lines and right angles, fixed in formation by long iron nails.”

Such a creation, he writes, gives us the pleasure of “order without danger of boredom and vigour without the shadow of anarchy.” One last thing aboutThe Architecture of Happiness: De Botton’s books are the literary equivalent of the Slow Food movement. They demand to be lingered over, not because the concepts are difficult but because they are rich and deep. Be prepared to put down your book frequently and turn his last few sentences over in your mind, testing his theses against the rooms and buildings you know well. If you are one of those for whom he writes, exhilarated and dispirited in turn by your built environment, this book probably won’t change your life, but it’s guaranteed to sharpen your brain and eye.

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