The Architecture of Happiness: Reviews

Maria Cook in the Ottawa Citizen, 29 October 2006

As I write this review, I am sitting in a living room lined with windows. Afternoon light spills onto the gleaming hardwood and plays on the white walls. Can better writing result from working in a beautiful space rather than in an office cubicle? Yes, or no, I feel happy here.

The many magazines, TV shows and newspaper sections devoted to furnishing and renovating houses testify to the fact that where and how we live gives shape and delight to our lives. This is one of those self-evident truths that only become difficult when we try to explain it.

Alain de Botton in The Architecture of Happiness sets out to do just that. “An ugly room can coagulate any loose suspicions as to the incompleteness of life, while a sun-lit one set with honey-coloured limestone tiles can lend support to whatever is most hopeful within us,” he writes.

Born in Switzerland in 1969, de Botton lives in London, England. He has written on love, philosophy, travel and status anxiety.

We are glad to have him as a guide and interpreter. He is observant, articulate and is trying to open up a conversation rather than nail down the facts. His novels, essays and non-fiction works draw on his own experiences and ideas, as well as those of artists, philosophers and thinkers.

Ancient Greece, 20th-century European modernism, Venice, 18th-century Bath and London, contemporary Japan and many other places — both modest and grand — contribute examples to this entertaining illustrated book.

Domestic beauty is hardly controversial. We spend much time, effort and money surrounding ourselves with our own concepts of beauty and comfort. But it is curiously difficult to make the case for beauty in public buildings.

Why then are we much less rigorous and demanding of what we build for ourselves publicly? Why for instance, has the focus of discussion of Ottawa’s light rail project been cost, rather than attractive design of trains and stations and elegant integration into city streets?

“Beautiful architecture has none of the unambiguous advantages of a vaccine or a bowl of rice,” notes de Botton.

Taking architecture seriously, he says, requires that we open ourselves to the idea that we are affected by our surroundings.

In his book, he compares the experience of seeking shelter from rain in McDonald’s in London, then in the nearby Westminster Cathedral.

In McDonald’s, “the harsh lighting, the intermittent sounds of frozen fries being sunk into vats of oil and the frenzied behaviour of the counter staff invited thoughts of loneliness and meaningless of existence in a random and violent universe.”

In contrast, upon entering Westminster Cathedral with its cavernous dark hall, candles and mosaics, “the facile din of the outer world had given way to awe and silence. Everything serious in human nature seemed to be called to the surface.”

De Botton has a way of making connections between buildings and ideas and emotions which we recognize from our lives. Even if we have never consciously thought of architecture, he helps make sense of the experiences we have had and not articulated.

For instance, he describes the pleasure of a house north of Stockholm. One feels a “modest, tender-hearted kind of happiness” stepping onto the raw wooden floor boards and parting the delicate curtain folds to look out at the garden. After the small talk and bureaucracy of a working day “we can slowly resume contact with a more authentic self … we can, in a profound sense, return home.”

Architecture described as a purely esthetic experience can get bogged down in issues of taste and style, and is quite inadequate to the many roles buildings play in our lives. Instead de Botton asks what buildings talk about.

“John Ruskin proposed that we seek two things of our buildings. We want them to shelter us. And we want them to speak to us — to speak to us of whatever we find important and need to be reminded of,” he says.

“Of almost any building, we ask not only that it do a certain thing but also that it look a certain way, that it contribute to a given mood: of religiosity or scholarship, rusticity or modernity, commerce or domesticity.”

By suggesting we consider the values embodied in architecture, rather than merely how buildings look, de Botton teaches us how to evaluate buildings. Architectural history is thus understood as a social history of ideas and cultural values rather than one confined to developments of style, theory or technology.

In the 20th century, the architects of the modern movement “wanted their houses to speak of the future, with its promise of speed and technology, democracy and science.”

With his twirling central staircase in the Villa Savoye house, Le Corbusier was trying to do something more than simply carry people to an upper floor, says de Botton. “He was trying to prompt a state of the soul.”

If we don’t have a clear idea of what beauty is, or more broadly the happiness that can be fostered by architecture — and why this might matter — it is hard to make the case for it. And, it is hard to defend against cuts which have the strong, reassuring but not necessarily correct backing of economy. Witness the recent cuts by the Harper government to heritage building restoration, the National Portrait Gallery and small museums.

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