It was Shepherds Bush that did it. “I used to walk past this block of flats,” says Alain de Botton, “and wonder who could have built that? What were they thinking? What were they trying to do?”
The postwar block stars in his new book The Architecture of Happiness, in which the philosopher turns his sights from why we’re all so worried about our place in society (Status Anxiety) and why we go on holiday (The Art of Travel) to architecture, or, more pointedly after the biggest DIY weekend of the year, why we spend our lives struggling to control the physical world about us by putting up shelves that always look wonky. It continues the same themes, he says, of “what makes us happy and why”, a vital question in a world so chaotic.
Why hifalutin philosophy should concern itself with spirit levels and surveyors he answers with a quote from Wittgenstein. “You think philosophy is difficult,” he said, after a particularly trying episode with the builders on the Viennese house he designed. “It is nothing compared to the difficulty of being a good architect.”
“Building should be simple,” says de Botton. “A building is just a box. Yet the process is semi-medieval. You can understand why Wembley Stadium went so wrong.”
Studying architecture, he says, meant studying the connection between thoughts and actions. No matter what Utopian dreams we have, carrying them out is a different matter. Just watch Grand Designs on television. Hence our rage when shelves aren’t straight, when we can’t get planning permission for our extension, yet some stupid tower block is built next door.
Bad buildings make us angry; they speak of our inability to control the chaos beyond our heads. A trip across London can drive us mad with its ugliness. The smallest annoyances, a cracked pavement, say, grind you down, like a nagging pain and build up, until the cries of our inner Victor Meldrew coincide as a chorus of general societal pain. “We don’t believe it!”
There is, suggests de Botton, a correlation between the health of our streets and mental health. “Bad architecture,” he writes, “is as much a failure of psychology as of design. It is an example expressed through materials of the same tendency which in other domains will lead us to marry the wrong people, choose inappropriate jobs and book unsuccessful holidays: the tendency not to understand who we are and what will satisfy us.”
Yet buildings can make us happy, or, rather, “suggest” happiness. That’s why we do DIY, why we build cathedrals: to make order, sense, a home in the world — shelter, that basic architectural need, but beautiful shelter. “Beauty is the promise of happiness,” wrote Stendhal and, adds de Botton, “the search for happiness is the underlying quest of our lives”.
Beauty is a word long absent from architectural debate, a hangover from Modernism, when such fripperies were thought to be beside the point of providing functional shelter. A return is overdue, says de Botton: “By finding something beautiful, we are saying: ‘I like the attitude towards life it suggests’.”
This is culturally variable, of course: in Japanese aesthetics, for instance, nature’s mutability is respected; in Western aesthetics it is challenged. Thi