The Architecture of Happiness
Four reviewers comment on philosopher Alain De Botton’s book
Alain de Botton is a brave and highly intelligent writer who writes about complex subjects, clarifying the arcane for the layman. Now, with typical self-assurance, he has turned to the subject of architecture. The essential theme of his book is how architecture influences mood and behaviour. It is not about the specifically architectural characteristics of space and design, but much more about the emotions that architecture inspires in the users of buildings. Yet architects do not normally talk nowadays very much about emotion and beauty. They talk about design and function. De Botton’s message, then, is fairly simple but worthwhile precisely because it is simple, readable and timely. His commendable aim is to encourage architects, and society more generally, to pay more attention to the psychological consequences of design in architecture: architecture should be treated as something that affects all our lives, our happiness and well-being.
Alain de Botton raises important, previously unasked, questions concerning the quest for beauty in architecture, or its rejection or denial. Yet one is left with the feeling that he needed the help and support of earlier authors on the subject to walk him across the daunting threshold of architecture itself. And he is given to making extraordinary claims: ‘Architecture is perplexing … in how inconsistent is its capacity to generate the happiness on which its claim to our attention is founded.’ If architecture’s capacity to generate happiness is inconsistent, this might be because happiness has rarely been something architects think about. De Botton never once discusses the importance of such dull, yet determining, matters as finance or planning laws, much less inventions such as the lift or reinforced concrete. He appears to believe that architects are still masters of their art, when increasingly they are cogs in a global machine for building in which beauty, and how de Botton feels about it, are increasingly beside the point.
In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton has a great time making bold and amusing judgements about architecture, with lavish and imaginative references, but anyone in search of privileged insights into the substance of building design should be warned that he is not looking at drain schedules or pipe runs. He worries away, as many architects do, at how inert material things can convey meaning and alter consciousness. Although he is a rigorous thinker, most of de Botton’s revelations, such as the contradictions in Le Corbusier’s theory and practice, are not particularly new. However, this is an engaging and intelligent book on architecture and something everyone, professionals within the field in particular, should read.
Do we want our buildings merely to shelter us, or do we also want them to speak to us? Can the right sort of architecture even improve our character? Music mirrors the dynamics of our emotional lives. Mightn’t architecture work the same way? De Botton thinks so, and in The Architecture of Happiness he makes the most of this theme on his jolly trip through the world of architecture. De Botton certainly writes with conviction and, while focusing on happiness can be a lovely way to make sense of architectural beauty, it probably won’t be of much help in resolving conflicts of taste.