The Architecture of Happiness: Reviews
Lisa Gray in the Houston Chronicle, 8 October 2006
Can a building make you happy? I’m susceptible to magazines that promise it’s true: that the right house, equipped with the right furniture, will propel me to a level of serenity and joy previously experienced only by Martha Stewart and Oprah. A couple of times a month, I loll with my house porn on my bedraggled, unfashionable futon, studying those photos of perfection so intently that I don’t notice that my toilet is running, or that dirty clothes are overflowing the kids’ hampers. I can dream.
Alain de Botton, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy, doesn’t scoff at that yearning. Lord knows that he could: He’s European, after all, a guy born in Switzerland and living in London, a philosophy-spouting, three-language-speaking Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. You don’t expect a heavy-duty intellectual to give serious attention to exposed beams and farmhouse sinks. But that’s the satisfaction of this book.
De Botton sweetens his lessons in architectural history and philosophy with lots of jokes and chaste black-and-white photos (not as luscious as my house porn, but far more respectable). He begins by admitting that no, a building alone can’t make you happy. You can fall into a petty argument in a museum by Renzo Piano; you can hate your job even in an office designed by Philip Johnson. “The noblest architecture,” he writes, “can sometimes do less for us than a siesta or an aspirin.”
But he takes seriously the notion that “we are, for better or worse, different people in different places.” Fluorescent lights and worn-out carpeting inspire a gloomier frame of mind than high ceilings and well-placed windows. You feel different in a cathedral than in a skyscraper, different in a bunker than in a bungalow. Architecture’s task, de Botton writes, “is to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”
Of course, we don’t all want to be the same person: That, he writes, is why architectural arguments heat up quickly. We’re not talking just about Victorian vs. modern, or lot-size restrictions or setbacks: We’re talking about who we are at our cores, and what we believe is good in life. Those Big Issues usually fall to religion, which causes its share of fights, too.
De Botton notes that, curiously, though we often disagree on architectural minutiae, we tend to agree on larger issues. People asked to name the world’s most beautiful cities usually list Paris, Rome and San Francisco; Houston and Frankfurt rarely make such lists, and tourists don’t flock here. Why exactly is that? What, precisely, makes some places beautiful and some butt-ugly? De Botton bravely asserts that beautiful places possess particular virtues: order, balance, elegance, coherence and self-knowledge.
For a Houstonian, that chapter is both satisfying and painful: It gives you the vocabulary to express what it is that hurts so much. Order and coherence are particularly useful notions here, where only a handful of neighborhoods manage to get them both right; most tend either toward eye-numbing sameness or higgledy-piggledy chaos. Self-knowledge seems even rarer here — but it’s a higher-order virtue, and maybe we should start by pursuing the easy ones.
You occasionally wish that bookish, reserved de Botton would cut loose with a little James Howard Kunstler-style invective, that he’d call three-story McMansions something like “zits on the face of the city.” But maybe de Botton’s reserve isn’t all bad. Over the years, that bile seems to have eroded bracing old Kunstler, who now yowls and rants mainly about subjects other than architecture. Good-natured, academic de Botton still believes the world can be fixed, that our cities can be beautiful, that a building can make you happy.
In other words, he can dream. And it’s lovely to dream with him.