The Architecture of Happiness: reviews

Nora Young in the Toronto Star, 24 September 2006 

I’m hooked on architecture and design. I’ll thumb through glossy magazines featuring vintage Eames chairs, cliffside cottages overlooking private beaches, Victorian houses re-corseted to the uncomfortable constraints of minimalism. Not that the sight of an impeccably turned-out living room inspires me, say, to dip a hand in the job jar and repair that chipped paint in the actual living room. Mine is the kind of fantasy projection that makes careers for real estate “fluffers” and lifestyle gurus.

I’m hardly alone. Toronto, in this oxygen-deprived Everest of a real estate market, is obsessed with the nuances of curb appeal and price points. You don’t need to have the bags of cash required to buy a 500 square foot condo these days in order to get all giddy at the mention of such phrases as “lath and plaster.”

The popularity of home reno and décor programs (is there a Holmes on Homes ring tone yet, and if not, why not?) demonstrates how much we care about the look of the place we live. The buzzing about Toronto’s high-profile new public buildings shows how much we care about architecture.

We care all right; it’s just that the “care” is more on the order of a porn addiction than a loving evening by the hearth. We might, then, dismiss this architecture mania as a product of our era’s debt-fuelled hyper-consumption, our love of home reno store shopping sprees merely the postmodern equivalent of the Amsterdam tulip craze.

The Architecture of Happiness, though, shows us why there’s more to it than that, or at least there can be. It’s a breezy yet philosophical book that teases out the relationship between architecture, beauty and our sense of well being.

De Botton is the author of such companionable handbooks of practical philosophy as How Proust Can Change Your LifeThe Consolations of Philosophy and, most recently, Status Anxiety. The connection between architecture and status is something he mostly stays away from in this book, though. This is not a manual of chic architectural trends. It’s an effort to get us to see the built environment around us - and how well it reflects our values - more clearly.

To do this, Swiss-born but English-raised de Botton explores the way buildings “speak” to us. They speak to us in part because of the nature of being human: We tend to anthropomorphize physical objects, for instance. They speak to us as reflections of individual psychology: We are unlikely to be happy in a building if we have unhappy memories of a similar building. We admire in buildings, de Botton argues, what we admire in human beings. Elegance in architecture, for instance, is the ability to make an achievement look effortless.

The buildings around us also speak in a culturally relative way. In some of the book’s most engaging passages, de Botton opens us up to different ways of thinking about beauty. Zen Buddhist thought, for instance, has influenced Japanese architecture. So, in one particularly lovely Japanese house, where residents must walk through an outdoor atrium to get from living to sleeping quarters, the intent is to “remind the occupants of their connection to, and dependence on, nature, and of the unity of all living things.”

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