The Architecture of Happiness: Reviews
Ethan Gilsdorf in the San Francisco Chronicle, 2 October 2006
Something is wrong with the building.
Perhaps it’s the vinyl siding. What the homeowner chose to cover up 25 years ago, wooden clapboards sheathed and sightless underneath, and forgotten, is worrisome. Or the problem might be the anachronistic attempt at re-creating an Italian garden with cheap materials: cement lions and clay urns, faux-aged to look classical, when anyone can tell they came from Home Depot.
You can’t exactly put your finger on it (Is it the relationship of the window frames to the amount of glass? Or the width of the column to the weight it supports?), but it is all wrong, and the building makes you dissatisfied, or angry, or just plain depressed.
But why? Can that unease even be expressed? And when a building manages to give us solace, or a door seems harmonious, or a home reinforces a state of mind, what is the formula that explains their success?
Such is the quest embarked upon by “The Architecture of Happiness,” Alain de Botton’s erudite and readable treatise on the aesthetics of architecture. The book shifts between showing how buildings can be beautiful and work well, and when they (or rather, the architects behind their drafting tables) fail to meet our most basic needs. Like few other art forms, architecture commands and demands our attention, but it is, in de Botton’s words, “perplexing, too, in how inconsistent is its capacity to generate the happiness on which its claim to our attention is founded.”
Here, the London author’s strategy is similar to his previous outings, “The Romantic Movement,” “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” “The Art of Travel” and his last, “Status Anxiety.” Each book has taken on a broad subject — love, literature, place, society — with the neophyte’s curiosity to conquer fresh terrain and the unselfconsciousness to ask obvious questions.
Thankfully, “The Architecture of Happiness” is not arranged chronologically as a tour through the history of architecture or by era, but rather by peripatetic musing. De Botton’s broad themes include meaning, intention, order, ideology, balance and memory. The book is as much a psychological investigation as an aesthetic one, plumbing the emotional content of buildings, how they touch us and silently alter our moods; which ones please us and which we find detestable.
But the argument never becomes a rant against ugly buildings. In de Botton’s mind, the issues are too complex to simply criticize bad design: “nothing in architecture is ever ugly in itself; it is merely in the wrong place or of the wrong size.” For example, the author isn’t as interested in passing judgment on the architect Le Corbusier, whose minimal designs revolutionized the field, as he is in showing us how his buildings have been changed by their users. De Botton takes us to a complex of stark, Modernist concrete workers’ homes, built by Le Corbusier near Bordeaux, France, which since 1923 have grown shutters, pitched roofs, wallpaper and other homespun touches, to prove that despite (or to spite) an architect’s lofty ideas, people’s private tastes trump all.
With originality, verve and wit, de Botton explains how we find reflections of our own values in the edifices we make (when we’re not busy “blowing things up,” that is). Thus, “it is human integrity that we see in unvarnished wood, and a human hedonism in gilded panels.” The beauty of a delicate bridge spanning a valley is found not only in its form, but its bravery to risk destruction and withstand the forces of nature. Skyscrapers, monuments and tunnels appeal to us because they “compensate for our inadequacies.” Nearly every page offers such insights, written in carefully laid-out prose and illustrated with corresponding photos, that accrete into pearls of almost axiomatic wisdom. “There is beauty in that which is stronger than we are,” ends one paragraph on elegance. It’s as if de Botton were writing for future editions of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.”
If de Botton has a blind spot, it is his reliance on Western architecture to prove his points. Other than a side trip to Japan, he doesn’t wander much further than Europe and America. Similarly, his examples tend toward grand palaces and architectural commissions. There’s not much discussion of vernacular barns, huts or modest homes.
What’s also missing is the connective thread of personal experience de Botton unspooled more liberally in previous books such as “The Art of Travel.” Having a little anecdote for the reader to hang his identification on from time to time helps ease the absorption of information. When de Botton shifts from his slightly presumptive “we” (as in “We need the discipline offered by similarity, as children need regular bedtimes”) to “I” (“I might as well have been in Frankfurt or Detroit”) the reader, or at least this reader, breathed a sigh of relief.
Gently pleading that we all take a closer look around us, de Botton’s book is an altogether satisfying introduction to architecture’s more vexing aesthetic problems. We should demand more from our built world, and from the architects who foist their designs upon us.