The Architecture of Happiness - Reviews
John Massengale in The Wall Street Journal, 18 November 2006
Close to halfway through "The Architecture of Happiness," populist philosophe Alain de Botton finally gets to his central point, when he quotes Stendahl: "Beauty is the promise of happiness." For much of the 20th century, Modernism denied this connection between beauty and happiness. But in the 21st century, architects, artists, scholars and critics are returning to the subject. Mr. de Botton's book is an interesting and perhaps important addition to the debate over the emotional effect that our cities and buildings have on us.
Thinkers have begun approaching the subject from many directions. Christopher Alexander, an architect and mathematician, explores the intersection of beauty, the senses and feeling in his four-volume series "The Nature of Order." Israeli architect and professor Yodan Rofe walks people around his country's cities, recording their emotions as they stroll. The result: Specific locations routinely elicit certain emotions. In a book called "Emotional Design," computer science professor Donald Norman analyzes, as his subtitle has it, "Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things."
Now joining this burgeoning area of study is Mr. de Botton, the Swiss-born author of "How Proust Can Change Your Life" (1997), a fixture on British television who lives in London. Taking architecture seriously, he writes, means acknowledging the importance of our surroundings, even "conceding that we are inconveniently vulnerable to the colour of our wallpaper." The buildings we admire, he says, are ultimately those that refer, whether through materials, shapes or colors, to such positive qualities as friendliness, strength and intelligence.
Our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of a good life are intertwined, Mr. de Botton observes. We seek associations of peace in our bedrooms, metaphors for generosity and harmony in our chairs, and an air of honesty and forthrightness in our water faucets. We can be moved by a column that meets a roof with grace, by a Georgian doorway that demonstrates playfulness and courtesy in its fanlight window.
The buildings we create today often contradict these ideas of harmony, happiness and beauty. In 2001 in Berlin, the architect Daniel Libeskind made an aggressively angular and intentionally upsetting building for the Jewish Museum, to record what he calls the "displacement of the spirit" that took place during the Holocaust. That's appropriate for a Holocaust memorial, but Mr. Libeskind inappropriately used the same disturbing geometries for art museums in London and Denver.
Mr. de Botton registers the unhappy legacy of so many inhospitable structures and discusses at length why we need more optimistic buildings today, maintaining that one role of architecture is to supply the qualities missing in a particular society at a particular time. Ancient Greeks had no need to bring nature into their cities because nature was all around them, at close quarters. But in the 19th-century industrial era, when cities grew by leaps and bounds, we romanticized nature and created great urban retreats like New York's Central Park. Mr. de Botton cites the 18th-century German philosopher Friedrich Schiller, who thought his countrymen were in contact only with their flaws and thereby prone to melancholy and self-destructive poses. "Humanity has lost its dignity," he wrote, "but Art has rescued it and preserved it in significant stone." Schiller wanted, instead of art that affirmed society's flaws, an "absolute manifestation of potential," like "an escort descended from the world of the ideal."