I’ve had Alain de Botton on my to-read list for awhile, but hadn’t been in the right mood to try him until a couple weeks ago. He is a contemporary philosopher, and writes on a variety of subjects such as love, work, happiness, travel, and beauty. When I was at the library I debated for awhile between The Architecture of Happiness and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, as both topics intrigue me. I decided on The Architecture of Happiness in part because the opening page engaged me more:
A terraced house on a tree-lined street. Earlier today, the house rang with the sound of children’s cries and adult voices, but since the last occupant took off (with her satchel) a few hours ago, it has been left to sample the morning by itself. The sun has risen over the gables of the buildings opposite and now washes through the ground-floor windows, painting the interior walls a buttery yellow and warming the grainy-red brick facade. Within shafts of sunlight, platelets of dust move as if in obedience to the rhythms of a silent waltz. From the hallway, the low murmur of accelerating traffic can be detected a few blocks away. Occasionally, the letter-box opens with a rasp to admit a plaintive leaflet.
The house gives signs of enjoying the emptiness. It is rearranging itself after the night, clearing its pipes and cracking its joints. This dignified and seasoned creature, with its coppery veins and wooden feet nestled in a bed of clay, has endured much: balls bounced against its garden flanks, doors slammed in rage, headstands attempted along its corridors, the weight and sighs of electrical equipment and the probings of inexperienced plumbers into its innards.
In The Architecture of Happiness, de Botton explores the question of what makes a piece of architecture beautiful. His premise is that structures suggest a particular way of life, evoking different emotions and associations depending on the materials, shapes, and images they contain, and that we are attracted to the structures that promote things we want to be reminded of – the things that we lack in our lives. For example, if our life feels busy and chaotic, we might be more likely to be attracted to a simple, symmetric building than to a complicated, ornate one.
Through many photographs as well as written descriptions, de Botton demonstrates the ways in which buildings “speak” to us. He examines the things we look for in a “home” and where such desires stem from in our psychology. He also digs into the history of architecture a bit, looking at the ways in which the ideal has changed through the years and how that relates to what was going on in the society at the time. I am intrigued by the way in which he drew out commonalities in creating a definition of beauty, even though in the end different people will find different buildings beautiful, due to their individual life experiences.
Overall, I found de Botton’s writing engaging and easy to read, but I did feel at times that he got a bit repetitive, stating the same idea multiple times in slightly different words. This didn’t bother me too much as it is a pretty quick read – the book looks longer than it is due to the photographs throughout. My only other complaint is that his examples and perspective were definitely Western-centric. He examined Japanese architecture a little bit, but most of the focus was on Western architecture. I do think that his premises are universal, but it would have been nice to have more diverse examples.
However, I don’t mean to leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. I found The Architecture of Happiness fascinating and I highly recommend it (even if you didn’t once want to be an architect like I did 🙂 ). I definitely intend to read more by Alain de Botton. I’ll leave you with a few more quotes to whet your appetite:
We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need – but are a constant risk of forgetting we need – within. We turn to wall paper, benches, paintings and streets to staunch the disappearance of our true selves.
Once we start to look, we will find no shortage of suggestions of living forms in the furniture and houses around us. There are penguins in our water jugs and stout and self-important personages in our kettles, graceful deer in our desks and oxen in our dining-room tables.
To feel that a building is unappealing may simply be to dislike the temperament of the creature or human we dimly recognise in its elevation – just as to call another edifice beautiful is to sense the presence of a character we would like if it took on a living form. What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end so far from what we search for in a friend. The objects we describe as beautiful are versions of the people we love.