The Architecture of Happiness - Reviews
Michael Dirda in Washington Post, 15 October 2006
While happily reading Alain de Botton's graceful musings about architectural beauty, I was suddenly struck by the photograph of the Edgar J. Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, Calif., designed by Richard Neutra in 1946. I turned the page to see what de Botton had to say about it:
"The bourgeois couples who lived in Richard Neutra's mid-twentieth-century steel and glass pavilions in California may at times have drunk too much, squabbled, been insincere and overwhelmed by anxiety, but at least their buildings spoke to them of honesty and ease, of a lack of inhibition and a faith in the future."
That was all. Odd, I thought. De Botton never points out that this same Edgar J. Kaufmann commissioned the most beautiful private home in America, Fallingwater. He was. Nor, I discovered after checking the index, does he mention its architect, a certain Frank Lloyd Wright. Not once.
There's no obvious reason why the author of How Proust Can Save Your Life and The Consolation of Philosophy should leave out Wright. Perhaps he simply decided to challenge himself, to see if he could manage the trick, just as the French novelist Georges Perec once published a perfectly readable novel in which none of the words contain the letter E. Certainly, de Botton otherwise reveals his usual wide learning, lyrically deployed. He discusses the neoclassical influence of Palladio, the impact of Horace Walpole's Gothic extravaganza Strawberry Hill on 19th-century building in Britain, the austere concrete housing of Le Corbusier (who once dubbed his sterile tenements "machines for living"). But mysteriously, almost tantalizingly, he avoids the vastly influential, world-famous Wright, whose houses are so serenely beautiful to look at and yet almost impossible to live in comfortably -- at least if you slouch, have children or collect anything. Not surprisingly, The Architecture of Happiness is itself a carefully designed book, tightly constructed around the photographs that appear on virtually every other page. (Another mystery: Which came first, the images or the text?) There are pictures of castles, cathedrals, office buildings, private homes, bridges, hallways, windows, chairs, ironwork. De Botton visits a theme park in Japan built to resemble 17th-century Amsterdam, shows us a 30-foot-high obelisk memorializing a beloved pig, interprets the monumental elegance of the Royal Crescent in Bath, and discusses both the early modern pursuit of functionality and the ancient Japanese esthetic of wabi , which "identified beauty with unpretentious, simple, unfinished, transient things."
Throughout, de Botton argues that the buildings we walk by, work in or come home to affect how we feel. They influence our mood, our sensibility, our very character. No one is likely to disagree with this, especially those of us who dispiritedly sink down into our windowless office cubicles day after day or vainly yearn for just one room, let alone an entire house, like those in Architectural Digest. Alas, much of the time we must simply accept what we are given or settle for what we can afford. For at no point does de Botton seriously address the economics of architecture and interior design. Even if you do it yourself, construction of any kind, especially the highly individualized, is almost prohibitively expensive.
This reality, however, doesn't undercut de Botton's essential point: "Buildings speak -- and on topics which can readily be discerned. They speak of democracy or aristocracy, openness or arrogance, welcome or threat, a sympathy for the future or a hankering for the past." In short, "they speak of visions of happiness