Reading recommendation: The Architecture of Happiness

by Alain de Botton

In the last chapter of his book, when discussing the possibility of evolving tastes, de Botton writes, “It is books, poems and paintings which often give us the confidence to take seriously feelings in ourselves that we might otherwise never have thought to acknowledge.” Certainly this is the achievement of de Botton’s book, to reveal what we may have known but failed to appreciate. His prose is as beautiful as the architectural traits he aims to illuminate. Written for the lay person, this illustrated essay about the power of architecture to inform, cradle, and inspire our true and best selves and thus enable happiness is a delight for the architect as well. It’s as if after years of our professional moaning about the need to educate the public in the language of architecture, someone finally has taken the first auspicious step.

De Botton addresses why architecture is worthy of our attention in the first place. He writes, “Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places -- and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.” What, then, is the relationship between an authentic architectural rendition and a beautiful one, you might ask? De Botton explores the answer with an overview of architectural stylistic claims to beauty.

He points out that in Western culture there was a consensus for a period of time that Classicism as originated by the Greeks and refined by the Romans was the ultimate authority on beauty, and happily there were rules to follow to attain it. Then in the eighteenth century a few pesky souls decided Gothic was the way to go, and there have been a cacophony of styles battling for attention ever since. In the middle of the twentieth century Modernists got up on their high horse and claimed to be above the fray, that their designs were the products of a new technological era driven by function and performance alone. De Botton pulls the rug out from under that spin, saying, “Despite their claims to a purely scientific and reasoned approach, the relationship of Modernist architects to their work remained at base a romantic one: they looked to architecture to support a way of life that appealed to them. Their domestic buildings were conceived as stage sets for actors in an idealized drama about contemporary existence.”

De Botton reframes the quest for architectural beauty this way: “To describe a building as beautiful…suggests more than a mere aesthetic fondness; it implies an attraction to the particular way of life this structure is promoting through its roof, door handles, window frames, staircase and furnishings. A feeling of beauty is a sign that we have come upon a material articulation of certain of our ideas of a good life.”

To understand what that “material articulation” is saying, de Botton walks the reader through a primer on the language of visual communication. He notes our tendency to anthropomorphize what we see, to associate emotion with form, and to recognize metaphorical and historical reference. He observes, “It is natural for us to be as discriminating about the meanings of the objects we live among as we are about the faces of the people we spend time with.”

De Botton addresses what we hope to gain from our buildings. Beyond merely sheltering us, we ask that our buildings reflect our nature to ourselves and to the world while providing emotional balance, respite, and encouragement. He puts it this way: “ its most genuine, the architectural impulse seems connected to a longing for communication and commemoration, longing to declare ourselves to the world through a register other than words, through the language of objects, color and bricks: an ambition to let others know who we are – and, in the process to remind ourselves.”

The author goes on to describe the virtues we look for in our buildings and how they might be expressed. He expounds on the benefits of order, balance, elegance, coherence and self-knowledge as demonstrated in the built form. He understands that the architectural challenge is to consciously communicate the virtues that we unconsciously appreciate in the buildings we admire. He explains, “With virtues better defined and more readily integrated into architectural discussions, we would stand a fairer chance of systematically understanding and re-creating the environments we intuitively love.”

Ultimately de Botton’s message is that we each have our own, evolving vision or architectural beauty just as we have our own evolving vision of ourselves that is shaped by individual and cultural experience. He argues that it is within our capability to understand what makes for beautiful architecture that fosters a sense of happiness, and it is our duty to implement that understanding. He concludes, “We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferior of the virgin land they have replaced.”

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast

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