The Architecture Of Happiness

It’s a good idea, when looking at an apartment tower, a bungalow or a bridge, to strike up a conversation with it. The Chrysler Building, the Trump Tower, your own home and the furniture in it: all of them are dying to have a little chat. Even the chilliest-looking modern building has feelings, Alain de Botton insists in “The Architecture of Happiness,” and oodles to tell us about ourselves, the kind of life we want and the kind of people we want to be.

All architecture and design is intensely personal for Mr. de Botton. Buildings have temperaments, vices and virtues. They look upon the world with an almost human face. A pillar holding up a freeway overpass can strike Mr. de Botton’s sensitive eye as a sedentary, cheerful woman, while another seems likes a punctilious, nervous accountant. The letter “f,” in sleek Helvetica type, exudes optimism, while the same letter, in Poliphilus font, seems sleepy, sheepish and pensive.


“In essence, what works of design and architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them,” Mr. de Botton writes. “They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people.”

Architecture reflects back to human beings their best selves and their highest aspirations. For those who know how to listen and see, teacups and skyscrapers “speak of visions of happiness.”

“The Architecture of Happiness” is the latest installment in Mr. de Botton’s continuing philosophical pub crawl. He has mused over Proust in “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” the human urge to see new places in “The Art of Travel” and the perplexities of social class in “Status Anxiety.” The approach is always the same. Mr. de Botton offers a linked series of meditations and wispy aperçus. He swaddles banal observations in inspirational greeting-card prose. He moons. He spins intellectual cotton candy.

Now architecture gets its turn. The argument, such as it is, is unremarkable. Buildings embody social values. They express, or seek to elicit, feelings. More than any other art form, Mr. de Botton argues, architecture invites the kind of personal response normally reserved for other human beings. “What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end so far from what we search for in a friend,” he writes.

This warmly humanistic approach can be appealing, and the discipline of dealing with physical objects forces Mr. de Botton to drop some of his affectations. When he is not delivering sententious commonplaces or indulging in heavy whimsy, he makes an agreeable guide. He has an observant eye and good taste, and his modest text has been well served by his publishers. Nearly every point or observation is illustrated by a photograph, neatly placed in just the right spot. When Mr. de Botton explains why an old building on Manchester Square in London pleases and the new one next to it, in the same style, does not (it’s a subtle matter of the window treatment), a side-by-side photograph at the bottom of the page provides the conclusive, damning evidence.

Mr. de Botton wants architecture to ennoble. For this to happen, its intended audience needs eyes and ears, and the willingness to enter into a psychologically complex relationship. A good building makes demands. It reminds us of something lacking, in ourselves or in the culture at large, and proposes something loftier to which we may aspire.

If this sounds hopelessly romantic and old-fashioned, Mr. de Botton counters that even the most daring modernists, consciously or not, believed it too. They spoke the language of science and engineering but, as Mr. de Botton puts it in one of his better lines, “their domestic buildings were conceived as stage sets for actors in an idealized drama about contemporary existence.”
The search for truth, beauty and happiness takes Mr. de Botton far afield, geographically and chronologically. He has all sorts of thoughts on the Doge’s Palace in Venice, Le Corbusier’s housing project for French workers, Albert Speer’s pavilion for the 1937 world’s fair in Paris, Eames chairs and the Woolworth Building. He leaps, without warning, from Neolithic Pembrokeshire in England to 21st-century Japan, where he reflects, insightfully, on the difficulties of trying to find modern forms in which to express the traditional features of a culture.

As he moves along, Mr. de Botton makes perfectly sensible comments on form and function, the importance of balance and clarity in architecture, the relationship between materials and their surroundings, and other important issues. Most of it has avery familiar ring, but the examples are well chosen, and when he is not dishing out soppy sentiment (“A perplexing consequence of fixing our eyes on an ideal is that it may make us sad”) or dispensing fog, Mr. de Botton sometimes lives up to his pretensions.

Happiness in architecture is no easier to find than it is anywhere else, apparently. Buildings of stone and steel rest on the fragile foundation of human emotions and confused desires. “Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design,” Mr. de Botton writes, shrewdly. “It is an example expressed through materials of the same tendency which in other domains will lead us to marry the wrong people, choose inappropriate jobs and book unsuccessful holidays: the tendency not to understand who we are and what will satisfy us.”

(c) New York Times


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