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Review: Architecture of Happiness

Nota bene: This is a post manually carried forward from an older iteration of my blog. It may not match the tone or topic of my more recent posts.

Remembering Who We Are: A Review of The Architecture of Happiness

In The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton, the reader may find several different books intertwined: A cursory glance finds a historic overview of Architecture and its changing sensibilities, while a thorough reading reveals additional forays from the authors point of view as they walk with us through their personal discovery of what they find appealing or disconcerting about the buildings they encounter around the world. Both stories ring true, each contributing to a larger goal, a plea from the author:

We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them in will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.

This book is a short read but carries a heavy weight. De Botton uses concrete examples and personal story to introduce and apply architecture in a way the average reader can take in, resulting in an effective book that I recommend any interested party read. The title of this book can be understood in a few ways: first, one might read it as a suggestion that there is a single best way to display happiness in architecture: that there exists The Architecture of happiness. A better interpretation, I think is found in emphasizing the second word, to read the Architecture of happiness. In this interpretation, De Botton may instead be looking into the framing and structuring of happiness itself. This latter idea is supported from the book:

To describe a building as beautiful therefore 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.

Here the author is using architecture to transcend the physical and move into a metaphysical idea of what buildings provide, and in some ways plays with the idea that truly great architecture has something like a personality, a soul, in which people find resonance. This concept of the soul is further brought into relief by the frank discussion of Architecture as a tool to further ideologies. Though I do not know the author’s faith, his words show an acknowledgement of the power of religious buildings and the effect on any mortal that stands inside, say, a cathedral. Here the author uses a personal story to relay the point. He recalls a time he stopped for a bite at a McDonald’s next to Westminster Cathedral. Inside the restaurant, he found isolation and alienation: “Customers were eating alone, reading papers or staring at the brown tiles, masticating with a sternness and brusqueness beside which the atmosphere of a feeding shed would have appeared convivial and mannered.” After this sapping experience, the Author stepped out of the restaurant and ventured into the Cathedral, where the universe proceeded to shift 180 degrees: “In the presence of alabaster statues of the Virgin Mary set against rhythms of red, green and blue marble, it was no longer surprising to think that an angel might at any moment choose to descend through the layers of dense London cumulus, enter through a window in the nave, blow a golden trumpet and make an announcement in Latin about a forthcoming celestial event.” At the end of this story and this chapter, Alain drops his high-flying diction to provide a powerfully simple summation of the lesson found in his story: “A beautiful building could reinforce our resolve to be good.” As the physical body lives from the oxygen around it, so the mental self breathes in the muse poured out into the world it can sense. In addition to reflections on the impact of Architecture on the person, the author takes time to consider society’s interaction with Architecture. When constructs have such an effect on a person, it would suggest that there is a more effective and less effective style, perhaps a “perfect” style to be derived and codified; then we will all use that style forever and live happily ever after… But this is obviously not so. The style of the day, the author argues, arises as a counterbalance to the pendulum of societal norms:

…we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient.

This would explain the emergence of neoclassicism and its successor, romanticism. In each phase, the style emerges as a sort of retort to the previous popular style. In architecture, gothic style replaces classical, which in turn is usurped by Victorian, and so on. The author takes this idea back to discuss the problem of, “the two great dogmas of aesthetics: the view that there is only one acceptable visual style or (even more implausibly) that all styles are equally valid.” In returning to the book’s main idea, the reader is provided with the idea that there is a “perfect” style to reflect or balance a given individual’s inner needs. And, given that there are 7 billion humans, that suggests there are likely around 7 billion perfect ideas of architecture.
As the book comes to a close, the author spends some words on the virtues of buildings. Particular emphasis is laid on the everyday dwellings and spaces we inhabit, the spaces that ironically receive the smaller portion of architectural scrutiny. Though the immediate reaction is to believe a more concerted focus is needed, Alain comes to the conclusion that a little mundane, a healthy side of normalcy, is in fact the best course for these spaces. He writes, “The architects who benefit us most may be those generous enough to lay aside their claims to genius in order to devote themselves to assembling graceful but predominantly unoriginal boxes. Architecture should have the confidence and the kindness to be a little boring.”
This book is not without its faults. To be frank, a book that seems aimed toward an architectural novice might be better with a less flowery diction. I found particular irony in the author’s use of the word “grandiloquence”, which is defined as “The use of lofty words or phrases; bombast; —usually in a bad sense.” That said, when the author decides to bring a point home, he generally does so with a simple and powerful summation, one that seems to land on just the right words and phrasing, which is commendable. As Mark Twain wrote: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning”. For me, the greatest of these examples in the book comes right at the beginning, when the author writes about a house, “Over the years, its owners have returned from periods away and, on looking around them, remembered who they were.” Bam. That right there holds the best encapsulation of the living breathing beast that Alain argues architecture can be—a beast that devours, or a mighty steed that rushes its rider faster than any man could hope to run. The latter is an exchange between object and person, the person led to interact with, rather than passively admire.
I can’t find where I read it, but one internet review described this book as “a come-to-Jesus moment for architecture.” I read Alain’s gospel, and I will spread the good news: read this book.