Here is my column “The architecture of happiness” from Dec. 7, 2006, about the book of that name by Alain de Botton. The author has produced a video about London that is excellent, but which seems to contradict his own preference for modern architecture.
The Architecture of Happiness is a roller coaster. Again and again on this ride, we readers endure a tremulous pull up the mountain of a bad idea, harder and harder to sustain as we approach the top, then, suddenly, whoosh! We head down the mountain or, you might say, the other side of the coin. By the time we reach the bottom, the bad idea is laid to rest and we feel safe again.
When I mentioned this book at the end of last week’s “Ask Dr. Downtown” column, I had no idea that reading it would be so much fun. I say so even though I don’t much like roller coasters.
The Architecture of Happiness, by the Swiss-born Brit TV commentator Alain de Botton, was a book whose title made it a sure bet to please me. The cover (and I always judge a book by its cover) had a sweet little cottage on top of a sterile modernist house. The point could not be missed. Or so I thought.
De Botton writes lyrically about the way buildings affect people. He once wrote a book called How Proust Can Change Your Life. Marcel Proust, the French novelist, famously took several chapters just to wake up and get out of bed. Not that de Botton’s sentences run on endlessly; they are beautiful, and his book is only 268 pages. Rather, he gets into your mind and plays around with your psyche, as if he were a cat toying with a mouse. And yet by the end, you feel that you have never really noticed buildings before, or realized how they could affect your life, or at least your mood. No book on architecture has ever done this better, so far as I know.
That said, de Botton’s style of writing, or at least his way of making a book, is to rile you up then calm you down. For example, in an early chapter in which the history of architecture is traced, he describes how it evolved through various stylistic periods, finally arriving in the early 1900s to a point where modernism came to dominate and style was, readers are told, no longer important. “Exchanging discussions of beauty for considerations of function promised to move architecture away from a morass of perplexing, insoluble disputes about aesthetics towards an uncontentious pursuit of technological truth, ensuring that it might henceforth be as peculiar to argue about the appearance of a building as it would be to argue about the answer to a simple algebraic equation.”
(Okay, maybe that sentence was a bit Proustian. Be that as it may, in the margin I wrote “Not!”)
So, after riling me up, de Botton proceeds to calm me down by assuring me how idiotic it would be to consider architecture by function alone. Whew!
In his discussions of honesty in architecture, the mood swings of buildings, why styles go in and out of favor, whether Le Corbusier was nuts to recommend tearing down Paris, etc., de Botton would rile me up then calm me down. I would scribble furiously in the margin, only to find the author making my point more calmly, with nary a furrow in his brow.
Some of his ideas are somewhat batty, in my opinion. Weakest was his notion that we like architecture that balances out our psychic profile. If we are messy, he says, we tend to prefer our buildings orderly. In fact, de Botton counts orderliness as among the marks of good architecture, though he believes order requires complexity in some degree to be tolerable. At St. Mark’s Square in Venice, the Doge’s Palace epitomizes “the pleasure of order combined with complexity,” while the Procuratie Vecchie (a photograph of which backgrounds my computer “desktop”) represents “the tedium of order.” What does this say about me? Let’s just say I don’t think de Botton has got that particular idea quite right.
Complexity epitomizes The Architecture of Happiness, but it’s a sweet and, after all of the ups and downs, a rather unthreatening complexity, rather more ambiguous, in fact, than complicated or abstruse. I’m still trying to decide whether the book is as “deep” as it seems to be. By the end, I actually thought he kinda sorta agreed with me. Indeed, I was largely in the dark regarding de Botton’s stylistic preferences until I read a review in the Sunday Times (of London) on Monday morning: “Given that his own known personal preference is for modernism, this attempt at neutrality is commendable.”
Commendable, surely. I would call it Herculean. But in the end the book amounts to an elegant and subtle restatement of the fallacy that what matters is not the style of a building but the quality of its architecture (both are important). That’s where de Botton ends up. So for me, getting there was more than half the fun. Maybe I had the roller coaster backwards after all. Most readers will still be dizzy about buildings after reading this book, but a good time – and much learning – will be had by all.