The Architecture of Happiness | icon 037 | July 2006

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words Justin McGuirk

I admire Alain de Botton for writing this book because it’s the kind that most writers would be too frightened to write. Frightened, that is, that it might turn out like this one.

The Architecture of Happiness asks some very big questions. How do you define beauty in architecture? Can it make us happy? As a purveyor of pop philosophy (in other words, a digester of “ideas” for the chattering classes) de Botton clearly considers himself the man to tackle these issues. The problem – which is a danger of being a “philosopher” and trying to write a bestseller – is that he flits between the patronisingly obvious and the laughably pretentious.

So, can buildings make us happy? De Botton’s opening gambit is that they can’t: “the noblest architecture can sometimes do less for us than a siesta or an aspirin”. But this is just a feint, because the rest of the book is his explanation of how through the ages mankind has imbued architecture with whatever aesthetic qualities it deemed worth aspiring to, whether the awe of the Gothic cathedrals or the contentment of a cottage. Unfortunately, de Botton is better at philosophical musings on the nature of man than he is at populist aesthetic interpretation (John Berger’s art book Ways of Seeing does this kind of thing much more thought provokingly). And so the book trudges through architecture history like a basic textbook, relying on platitudes and unhelpful generalisations (“From Palladio’s time forward … the creation of houses which could reflect the ideals of their owners became a central ambition of architects throughout the West.”)

There is also a philosophical tongue twister here. De Botton observes more than once that we actually have to be sad or in grief “before buildings can properly touch us”. So, if we design buildings to make us happy but we can only appreciate what we’ve done when we’re sad, then we’re caught in a hopelessly unfulfilling cycle. No wonder de Botton finds it so hard to shake off his melancholy.

Our author is a man of Proustian sensitivity. What other sort could write that “our sense of purpose may be derailed by an unfortunate bedspread”? In a sense, this is his primary qualification in undertaking this book, but it is also what will rob many readers of their empathy. His premise is a truism: that we build, decorate and collect to best represent who we are, or to inspire in ourselves the person that we want to be. However, in his tone de Botton seems oblivious to the fact that we are not all upper middle class aesthetes with the resources or inclination to create our perfect environments. Most of us live in surroundings that fall far short of our idealised selves. A Jean Prouvé sidetable may be the absolute embodiment of our inner poise and nobility but we’re more likely to make do with that old hand-me-down from our parents.

With that socially loaded caveat dealt with, I can move on to de Botton’s aesthetic methodology. Of course it’s true to say that any object has aesthetic qualities that we will interpret in relation to qualities that we recognise in human beings or in nature: elegance, efficiency, ungainliness, solidity. And de Botton suggests that we can educate ourselves about the aesthetic meanings of light switches by meditating on abstract sculpture, but the way he does it makes him sound pompous in the extreme.

I like to picture the author in Homebase (sorry, Alain, I meant Heals) trying to choose taps, with one set giving off a faintly plaintive aura while another offers intimations of the infinite. I’m exaggerating, you say? Well, let’s see: “Inspired by a museum visit we may scold ourselves for our previous prosaic belief that a salad bowl is only a salad bowl, rather than, in truth, an object over which there linger faint but meaningful associations of wholeness, the feminine and the infinite.”

My favourite moment is a hilarious incident where AdB seeks shelter from a rainstorm in a McDonalds and finds his sensibilities so offended that he makes a dash for Westminster Cathedral. There, “everything serious in human nature seemed to be called to the surface: thoughts about limits and infinity, about powerlessness and sublimity.” What, and he didn’t find that in McDonalds?

AdB is especially galling when he tells how he once booked himself a holiday in a Japanese theme-park recreation of the Netherlands (an unusual lapse in taste, surely), tells us how expensive it was and then wonders why he was unhappy. The problem with this independently wealthy dilettante intellectual and latter day flaneur (if you think I sound jealous, you’re right) is that his whole life seems to be about mitigating his various states of anxiety, alienation and ennui. The reason why he is so often unhappy, I would suggest, is that he spends too much time thinking about it.

I like to think of myself as something of an idealist too, and, as someone who feels that most of the current architectural output of this country falls far short of what it could be, I would rather not argue from a position of mere pragmatism. But may I never end a book with a conclusion so daydreamy as to say that it is better not to build at all than to build something that doesn’t promise “the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness”.

The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton, is published by Hamish Hamilton, priced £17.99

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