The Architecture of Happiness
© 2006 Alain de Botton
I never thought much about the meaning of architecture until attending a lecture by James Howard Kunstler, given at my university in autumn 2008, entitled “Peak Oil and the Suburban Fiasco”, or something like that. In that lecture, and in his book The Geography of Nowhere which I later read, Kunstler stressed among other things the importance of a sense of place, and the role our building and street design can play on nor only our own sense of well-being, but our national fate:
“A land full of places that are not worth caring about will soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending,”
In my review of The Geography of Nowhere, I commented that it had me ‘itching’ to read The Architecture of Happiness. I knew de Botton from The Consolations of Philosophy, one of my very favorite books, and I’ve read much of him since. He is an extremely art-ful writer, who can make the mundane seem utterly captivating — who can throw, with pen and ink, new light onto an object and make it seem sublime. I expected great things of The Architecture of Happiness and was not disappointed in the author’s usual thoughtfulness, his explorations into the human condition and illuminated by the buildings around us.
He opens with an apology for the subject, because who cares about architecture? That question is a new one, for the built environment was a subject of considerable importance to seemingly every age but our own. The Greeks, for instance, regarded its study in equal importance to politics and personal virtue. The Christian and Islamic worlds both recognized the importance of both architecture and public design in making the material world reflect the ethereal — they knew how to use buildings to draw the mind to God and elevate the spirit. Somehow, though, in the last century we have become self-conscious about making things beautiful, or indeed — even caring if they are. The Architecture of Happiness therefore addresses the role of beauty in human welfare, not merely how beauty is expressed in our constructs.
de Botton muses that perhaps not everyone shares the same levels of sensitivity to beauty. Perhaps we need to have entered into ‘dialogue with pain’ to realize its value — to be able to realize that a beautiful thing hints at happiness which is the exception to our experience. Our personal interactions with a building, a room, or an object frequently appear here. In the beginning, de Botton observes that a messy environment can coagulate our loose misgivings about our own lives, while a sun-lit one set with honey-colored tiles encourages the hope within us. He wonders later on if we appreciate buildings not for the shared values they express, but the values we wish to possess — those we sense to be lacking in ourselves. Perhaps that’s rugged simplicity in one person, or a touch of refined elegance in another. There’s no simple answer, as we all seem to be walking a tightrope between chaos and order. A building can reflect this: we want too much of neither one. A building like the Palace of the Doges works because it offers both symmetrical order and variety: it is neither chaotic nor sterile.
There’s more to the book — including an interesting discussion of Japanese vs western aesthetic sensibilities — but I’m still chewing over much it. That’s one of the reasons I love de Botton: since my first encounter with him, he’s become a permanent resident in my head, a voice I enjoy returning to again and again. This work is utterly consistent with his usual thoughtfulness, his attention to detail, and artful integration of varying media: this text’s discussion is always accompanied photos that add the finishing touch to the point at hand. I’m glad I finally — after ten years! – -decided to sit with it.
Below follows my favorite quotation from all the various de Botton I’ve read, and I think it summarizes how I feel about his books & authorial voice:
“I explained — with the excessive exposition of a man spending a lonely week at the airport — that I was looking for the sort of books in which a genial voice expresses emotions that the reader has long felt but never before really understood; those that convey the secret, everyday things that society at large prefers to leave unsaid; those that make one feel somehow less alone and strange.
Manishankar wondered if I might like a magazine instead.”