The Architecture of Happiness: Reviews

Hugh Pearman in the Sunday Times, 23 April 2006

Read at the Sunday Times website

Do buildings talk to us? Can they communicate something directly to our psyches? If so, and if we can learn that language, then how come there is so much awful architecture around us? Shouldn’t it be possible, after all this time, to guarantee that a new building will be both beautiful and useful?

Well, clearly not. Nor does Alain de Botton’s latest book make itself a hostage to fortune by attempting a new list of commandments on how to build. Too many before him have failed in that task. The book is more in the nature of a quest, as much a journey through its author’s mind as through the matters of style, patronage or typology which are the more usual concerns of writers on architecture.

De Botton tries a different tack. He wants to get into the bones of architecture and find out what makes it go right or wrong: not so much aesthetically, though that is clearly important, as psychologically. Because our notions of beauty constantly shift. What is ugly to one generation is lovely to the next, and vice versa.

But certain buildings share something. At one end of the spectrum you get the Royal Crescent in Bath, say. At the other end you might find one of the better buildings by Norman Foster, or Swiss superstars Herzog and de Meuron. Somehow these buildings can talk to each other across the centuries, and fulfil some need in us. We are satisfied by them, they feel right in some way. But what way is that?

De Botton ponders why it is that the flexible rules of Palladian neo-classicism, so successful in Britain from the 17th to the 19th centuries, should somehow not offer the same all-purpose solution today? If adhering to the rules laid down in the Italian Renaissance by Andrea Palladio were all it took to guarantee excellence, how come a late 1980s Quinlan Terry villa in Regent’s Park, which follows these rules, is so uninspiring?

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