Among the most cogent defenses of abstraction in art and architecture comes from Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, which I am rereading. How does a building speak? How should people read houses? I have long believed that architecture – which above all must be practical – does not have quite as much to say as many of its advocates contend. De Botton takes an impressive crack at arguing otherwise.
He takes inspiration from Barbara Hepworth’s 1936 sculpture Two Segments and a Sphere, at the Tate Gallery, in Cornwall, and critic Alan Stokes’s inferences as to the simple sculpture’s meaning. “The mobility and chubby fullness of the sphere,” de Botton writes, “subtly suggest to us a wriggling fat-cheeked baby, while the rocking ample forms of the segment have echoes of a calm, indulgent, broad-hipped mother. We dimly apprehend in the whole a central theme of our lives. We sense a parable in stone about motherly love.”
He reaches two conclusions: first, that it “doesn’t take much for us to interpret an object as a human or animal figure” and, second, that “our reasons for liking abstract sculptures, and by extension tables and columns, are not in the end so far removed from our reasons for honouring representational scenes.” He adds:
Once we start to look, we 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 even in our dining-room tables.
No doubt, but he leaps to illogic when he transfers this insight to architecture, and urges us to consider abstract buildings to be as beautiful as traditional buildings. After all, he says, when the public decries a modernist skyscraper as a “cheese grater,” maybe the average viewer of architecture should repackage that derisive moniker as insight, even as beauty.
Thus perceived, it may be impossible for a work of abstract art or of modern architecture to fail. It is true that we can find meaning in anything. Many of us discovered this as college sophomores sprawled on our dorm carpets at 2 a.m. But, to follow the logic of de Botton’s (and Stokes’s) thoughts on Two Segments, does the incline of a gabled roof truly mean aspiration (“Climb every mountain!”)?
Does it matter that we see a penguin in a water jug if the artist did not? Perhaps not. But what if the designer of a house with a gabled roof did not imagine that he was channelling Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music? Does it matter that different people might channel different things when they see the same building?
It may not, but don’t forget that architecture is viewed not just by people who choose to visit a gallery or a street to sample its aesthetic offerings. Architecture cannot be avoided by the public. It speaks not just to people trained to listen to its murmurings but also those who cannot read its mind or whose ears are not plugged into its vocabulary.
Not everyone is as deft as de Botton at teasing ideas from abstractions. And the fact is that the qualities that cause people to like or dislike architecture are the result of more basic kinds of cogitation. People like a house that looks like a house, a bank that looks like a bank, a church that looks like a church. They consider architecture that seeks to defy our ease of typological categorization to be an imposition on our patience. We are all busy people. Most of us do not believe we should be forced to have to try to figure out what a building is, or where its front door is located, let alone what meaning it wants to convey. Above all, many people look kindly – via human instinct and personal subconscious intuition driven by millennia of neurobiological survival training that we no longer need but which is still active in our brains – upon buildings that make their purpose clear.
De Botton’s book is a masterpiece of projection. He takes his own capacity to discover meaning and assumes that everyone else has the same ability. But they do not, or they do not choose to refine whatever capacity they have, or to direct it at the question of meaning in architecture. At bottom, the appreciation of traditional architecture is natural while the appreciation of modern architecture is learned. And because so many of us are untutored in that specialized language, we don’t appreciate it. And because it makes the demand that we appreciate it anyway – or take its value as given – modern architecture is properly conceived as an improper imposition on our minds.
In short, it is ugly. It is not always ugly but it is ugly as a rule. Its beauty is an exception to the rule – almost accidental, certainly rare. Alain de Botton’s mind is supple enough to perceive this truth, and he hints at it again and again in his book, which is why it first struck me as a roller coaster of a reading experience. But he refuses to remove the blinders to reason installed by the ideology he serves. Still, his book is fun and worth reading. Many readers will enjoy filling the margins of their copy with rebuttals to his assertions. The Architecture of Happiness is not a roller coaster but a debate with himself that he loses.