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."


Anonymous said...

My husband is a big fan of De Botton too but I never tried it. Sounds like I'm missing out!

jess said...

I don't read a lot of non-fiction but I just love his writing. Definitely worth trying.

john baker said...

This sounds wonderful. A book for which I'll keep my eyes open. Though I suppose living here, in medieval York in the UK, would take a lot of beating. I saw that girl at the bus stop only yesterday.

Tamara said...

You write such a captivating review, thanks for sharing these images. My partner, having just recently completed a diploma in design, has introduced me to the idea of architecture as beautiful - I suspect he'll like his book too.

Jarrett said...

De Botton's comment about the importance of happenstance is dead right, but it's not particularly his insight. You can find the same idea animating Jane Jacobs's seminal 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and today it's a key underlying ideal driving the idea of mixed use. De Botton is a great, fun writer, but he is a popularizer more than an original thinker. Nothing wrong with that, I say, but it does cause ongoing grumbling about him down in the trenches.

jess said...

John, I agree. I'm sure York would be lovely. How nice to live in a city that hasn't been totally designed with the car in mind.

Tamara, thanks for your lovely comment. Hope you and your partner enjoy the book.

Jarrett, thanks so much for your comment. I had a feeling de Botton might not be the first to come up with these ideas. It's great to hear from someone who knows more about the topic than a cheerful amateur like myself. I do appreciate De Botton's popularism though. It helps bring these ideas into more general debate in society. Hopefully he also leads people to read some of the original texts too.