Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Architecture of Happiness

This morning I finished reading Alain de Botton's thoroughly enjoyable book, The Architecture of Happiness. I've realised that I've become a big fan of De Botton's clear, thoughtful writing after loving The Art of Travel and now finding this book as good, if not better. He has a nice way of simplifying complex ideas and making clear the relationship between philosophy and ordinary, every day life.

The Architecture of Happiness is, obviously, about architecture. De Botton explores why we find certain buildings beautiful and why they might make our lives better. As in The Art of Travel, the text is accompanied by simple black and white photographs that look unassuming if you just flick through the book, but which compliment the text in clever and thoughtful ways as you read. De Botton covers a lot of material and I almost feel I could read this again just to soak up the ideas a little more thoroughly.

Some of the most interesting points in the book for me came towards the end. De Botton describes how the great architect Le Corbusier had what seems in hindsight to be an absolutely crazy plan to flatten parts of central Paris and replace the buildings with a vast parkland studded with enormous high-rise tower blocks of apartments. Rather than dismiss the idea, De Botton examines its rather idealistic motives and compares them to the reality of how people live and interact with urban landscapes. In doing so, he articulates some of the unease I feel with the city I live in- one which was planned in the early twentieth century with similar ideals about modern living in mind:
A city laid out on apparently rational grounds, where different specialised facilities (the houses, the shopping centre, the library) are separated from one another across a vast terrain connected by motorways, deprives its inhabitants of the pleasures of incidental discoveries and presupposes that we march from place to place with a sense of unflagging purpose. But whereas we may leave the house with the ostensible object of consulting a book in a library, we may nevertheless be delighted on the way by the sight of the fishmonger laying out his startled, bug-eyed catch on sheets of ice, by workmen hoisting patterned sofas into apartment blocks, by leaves opening their tender green palms to the spring sunshine, or by a girl with chestnut hair and glasses reading a book at the bus stop.

When I read this I instantly had a way of putting into words why, despite the fact that the city I live in has lots of open space and parkland, a high standard of housing, good roads with little or no traffic problems, and excellent facilities, I will never feel the same excitement and sense of possibility and even happiness here as I have in London or New York or even Sydney. While I'm not about to up sticks and move out of here right now, I feel a sense of relief in being able to explain why I don't really love the town I live in. For me, it is a great achievement of a book when it can clarify thoughts the reader already had but couldn't articulate.

De Botton gives voice to the idea that good architecture deeply affects us, that it can make us better, happier people. I've always felt quite sensitive to my surroundings and whether they make me feel comfortable or inspired and I don't think I'm at all alone in this. De Botton tries to break down this sensation and explain it in a rational way, and in doing so charges architects with the responsibility to use their skills to create a better world. De Botton explains, architecture is as much a kind of psychology- bad architecture being a failure to understand people and how they live. Beautiful places are, however,
"...the work of those rare architects with the humility to interrogate themselves adequately about their desires and the tenacity to translate their fleeting apprehensions of joy into logical plans- a combination that allows them to create environments that satisfy needs we never consciously knew we even had."

Monday, December 08, 2008

Falling Hopelessly Behind

My blog posts have become sadly infrequent (well, sadly for me at least, as I really enjoy posting here). This is for all the usual reasons of things both within and beyond my control. But now that reports are written and the long summer holiday is tantalizingly within reach, I'm determined to get back into it and once again crank up this delicious solitude.

I've got lots of Australian books to write about, including a couple of crime novels. I've also re-read and loved Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas after seeing a great documentary about Hunter S. Thompson. I'm hoping to write about The Architecture of Happiness, another Alain de Botton book that I'm finding fascinating, and as always, I'm enjoying a Margaret Atwood collection of stories, Good Bones.

But first up I've got to get out there and catch up on my blog reading which has also been sorely neglected. I'm sure you've all been far more diligent than me, and I have to hear about your reading.

Watch this space for more posts soon...