The Architecture of Happiness: Reviews

Kelvin Browne in National Post, Canada, 27 July 2006

If you believe that caring about the places you live in, or how you inhabit them (a.k.a. decorating), is a frivolous concern and that profound people don’t talk about such things, The Architecture of Happiness is for you. London-based intellectual heavyweight Alain de Botton convincingly asserts that taking architecture and design seriously means you take life seriously.

He insists we are different people in different places and architecture’s task is to reveal who we might ideally be. He also explains how buildings can make us happy, why churches help us communicate with God and where some of our most intrinsic ideas about what make places nice — or not — originate.

In addition to being an effortlessly erudite book that covers architecture from ancient Greece to last year’s trendiest designer, The Architecture of Happiness elegantly mixes philosophy, psychology and sociology with art history.

As with writers such as Andrew Hollingsworth or Adam Gopnik, you catch yourself rereading sentences for the sheer fascination of how he can express complicated ideas so succinctly, poetically and, often, humorously.

While I enjoyed de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy and How Proust Can Change Your Life, this one is about a subject I’m passionate about and seems, well, less about how clever de Botton is and more heartfelt. The book is already a best-seller in England, which is a testament to its finesse. How many books about the philosophy of architecture get to the Top 10?

An example of this finesse is his argument that architecture, even when it’s unglamorous, can influence our lives. De Botton begins by explaining, “More awkwardly still, architecture asks us to imagine that happiness might often have an unostentatious, unheroic character to it, that it might be found in a run of old floorboards or in a wash of morning light over a plaster wall, in undramatic, frangible scenes of beauty that move us because we are aware of the darker backdrop against which they are set.” Read this and you’re smitten.

He says many of the things I feel, but never have quite been able to articulate. Having studied architecture at a school where modernism was the deity, his insight is an antidote to the piety I heard there for years. “Despite their claims to a purely scientific and reasoned approach, the relationship of Modernist architects to their work remained at base a romantic one; they looked to architecture to support a way of life that appealed to them. Their domestic buildings were conceived as stage sets for actors in an idealized drama about contemporary existence.” Remember this when you hear someone talking about how architecture should be functional.

De Botton speaks with equal eloquence about the objects in our lives. The notion that small choices are inconsequential is simply not true. Take, for example, dinnerware. He says, “Any object of design will give off an impression of the psychological and moral attitudes it supports. We can, for example, feel two distinct conceptions of fulfillment emanating from a plain Scandinavian set on the one hand and an ornate Sevres one on the other — an invitation to a democratic graceful sensibility in the former case, to a ceremonial and class-bound disposition in the latter.”

If you’re a compulsive shopper, the book will likely moderate your compulsion. It won’t be as easy to purchase a chair just because you saw it in a magazine; you’ll start thinking about what it represents and what owning it signifies. (Don’t worry, the book is not a non-consumerist rant.)

Our childhood experiences of places and adolescent aspirations shape what we think, feel and want now, be it a house or a cushion. De Botton writes with particular grace about this and it resonates with an understanding of Proust, the great master of interpreting memory and desire. He says, “In so far as buildings speak to us, they also do so through quotation — that is, by referring to, and triggering memories of, the contexts in which we have previously seen them, their counterparts or their models. They communicate by prompting associations — architecture and decorative styles become, for us, emotional souvenirs of the moments and settings in which we came across them.”

The book is infused with the belief that architecture matters because it can shape our lives for the better or, conversely, reinforce the mean and crass. Architecture offers the potential for happiness, not through conformity or status, but via an appreciation of the beauty the fabricated world has to offer and a reverence for all the varied ways talented, driven, passionate and refined people have tried to concretely express this sentiment over centuries.

The next time I’m at a party, and the conversation turns to “serious topics,” like what the stock market did today, I think I’ll suggest we talk about something more important: architecture. I’ll ask the investment banker why he bought the house he did and insist he answer the question. And then I’ll start quoting Alain de Botton.

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