The Architecture of Happiness - Reviews
Michael Upchurch in The Seattle Times, 6 October 2006
Subtle insights, presented with playful precision - that's what London author Alain de Botton reliably provides in books that address subjects ranging from "The Art of Travel" to "Status Anxiety" to "How Proust Can Change Your Life." While de Botton started out as a novelist (see his wonderful "Kiss & Tell"), he's now a sort of erudite quality-of-life generalist - and in his new nonfiction book, he moves once again into fresh territory.
But what does he mean by "The Architecture of Happiness"? Psychological architecture? Physical architecture? Are we in the realm of self-help here, or interior design?
All of the above, it turns out. In the book's beautiful opening sequence, he brings his maverick brick-and-mortar vision alive with a quiet, luminous portrait of "a terraced house on a tree-lined street" - perhaps his own - that "has provided not only physical but also psychological sanctuary. It has been a guardian of identity."
The architect's task, he elaborates, is "to render vivid to us who we might ideally be." But "who we might ideally be" is a very different thing from who we actually are, and architecture can be as imperfect a reflection of human nature, de Botton concedes, as human nature is imperfect itself.
Given this flawed state of affairs, what can we expect of a building?
The answers are numerous.
We ask not only that it shelter us or serve a particular practical purpose, de Botton says, "but also that it look a certain way, that it contribute to a given mood: of religiosity or scholarship, rusticity or modernity, commerce or domesticity."
With generous helpings of photographed examples and anecdotes from his own encounters with buildings, de Botton explores how our architectural creations have met or failed to meet our personal and societal needs.
"Buildings speak," he insists, "and on topics which can readily be discerned. They speak of democracy or aristocracy, openness or arrogance, welcome or threat."
Alert to the smallest design details, de Botton notes how certain objects - wineglasses, chairs - can strike us as strangely human in personality, even if they aren't human in shape (the book's illustrations confirm this point eloquently). And he extends this anthropomorphic view from the daintiest gewgaw to the largest architectural edifice.
A building, he suggests, is a repository of memory and possibility, of flawed reality and imagined perfection. It shelters what we value; it compensates for what is missing from our lives.
But how is a building supposed to do all this?
De Botton identifies five "virtues" that any building needs to meet the demands made on it: order, balance, elegance, coherence, self-knowledge. Roaming from London to Paris to Tokyo to New York, de Botton comes up with examples that make his points sharply and sublimely (or humorously, in the case of a London house's ill-assembled pastiche of half a dozen architectural styles - an incoherence that, de Botton says, "taught me more about architecture than many masterpieces have done").
De Botton's prose handily matches any photographic image accompanying it. Here he is on the architectural "order" of a Paris street: "The buildings seem to have shuffled forward like a troupe of ballet dancers ... in obedience to the baton of a strict dancing-master." He is just as good on "elegance" and "balance," and he singles out lower Manhattan's Woolworth Building (191