The Architecture of Happiness: Reviews

Henry Petroski in the New York Sun, 18 October 2006

Read at the New York Sun website

Alain de Botton’s “The Architecture of Happiness” (Pantheon, 280 pages, $25) is an unusual book for one about architecture. It is not coffeetable size, but it is full of big ideas. It is not set in hard-to-read sans serif type. There are no typographical pyrotechnics; the words speak for themselves, with considerable help from the illustrations. The pictures are not too large or too small; their proportions are just right, and so well-selected and wellplaced that the reader is seldom at a loss for one. When Mr. de Botton refers to or even just alludes to a building or a piece of art, a picture of it is usually no farther than the turn of a page away. Seldom has there been a more sensitive marriage of words and images.

Still, this is not a book only about bliss. For an extended essay on happiness, it certainly has a lot to say about sadness. Good art and architecture should make us happy; they should demonstrate the better side of human creativity, endeavor, and achievement. But Mr. de Botton points out early on that our experience tells us that even the best-made building and the most perfectly designed room immediately begin to age and deteriorate.

In his words, “It can be hard to walk into a freshly decorated house without feeling preemptively sad at the decay impatiently waiting to begin: how soon the walls will crack, the white cupboards will yellow, and the carpets stain. The ruins of the Ancient World offer a mocking lesson for anyone waiting for builders to finish their work.”

The truth of Mr. de Botton’s observation is made manifest by the physical book in which his words are written. Archie Ferguson’s dust jacket design is so handsome that I admired it for some time before opening the book itself. But I knew if I left the jacket on while reading the book on a planned airplane journey, it would soon become soiled and tattered, so I left the jacket at home.

For all of its deep insights,”The Architecture of Happiness” is a fast read; I finished it before returning home. The book’s ideas were none the worse for wear sharing space with my laptop in the computer case, but the physical book is not the same one I took fresh out of its wrapper. Like most new volumes that are read page-by-page from beginning to end, the use has given a residual skew to the binding that is saddening. It’s true that I can rewrap the book in its dust jacket and squeeze it between two other volumes on my bookshelf to make it look like new, but I will know that I disfigured it by reading it. Rather than evoking sadness, however, that may remind me of the happiness that lay between its covers.

According to Mr. de Botton, “The more beautiful something is, the sadder we risk feeling.” This explains why being happy can bring us to tears; we experience “a blend of joy and melancholy: joy at the perfection we see before us, melancholy at an awareness of how seldom we are sufficiently blessed to encounter anything of its kind.” But surely the opportunity to experience even near-perfection in architecture or a book or anything else now and then is, on balance, a good deal.

It is understandable that a book on architecture would name a lot of architects.Throughout “The Architecture of Happiness,” a picture of a building is naturally identified in the caption as being the work of its architect. It was thus with great disappointment — bordering on sadness at this flaw in an otherwise perfect book — that the picture of the beautiful bridge on page 202 bears no caption. True, the bridge is described in the text on the facing page as being located in the Alps south of Zurich and its beauty is assessed, but it is not until pages later that the author identifies the graceful structure as Robert Maillart’s Salginatobel.

It does not appear that Mr. de Botton has anything against engineers, for he does allow that “in a plane passing through an electrical storm, we can feel something approaching love for the aeronautical engineer who, in quiet offices in Bristol or Toulouse, designed dark gray aluminum wings that could flex through tempests with all the grace of a swan’s feathered ones.” (Mr. de Botton, an Englishman, was likely riding in an Airbus through that storm.)

But it is more than strength and flexibility that Mr. de Botton admires in an engineered thing. He contrasts Maillart’s Salginatobel Bridge with Isambard Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge: “With its ponderous masonry and heavy steel chains, Brunel’s construction has something to it of a stocky middle-aged man who hoists his trousers and loudly solicits the attention of others before making a jump between two points, whereas Maillart’s bridge resembles a lithe athlete who leaps without ceremony and bows demurely to his audience before leaving the stage.”

There is no question as to where de Botton comes down: Maillart’s is “the more beautiful of the pair for the exceptionally nimble, apparently effortless way in which its carries out its duty.” This quality of “making its achievement look effortless” is what is termed “elegance,” which Mr. de Botton considers a “subcategory of beauty.”

“The Architecture of Happiness” is an elegant book. Though flawed like everything else ever designed and made, it is a book of timeless ideas that help us to better understand how and why we judge one thing to be more beautiful than another. It is a book that should bring a great deal of happiness to its readers, even if here and there they do feel some tears welling up in their eyes because not all books are this good and beautiful.

Comments are closed.