I am cruising through The Architecture of Happiness, wishing I had the time and energy to quote and then rebut its every line. Alain de Botton’s book is a masterpiece, but I have been forced to conclude that it is a masterpiece of dishonesty. Consider the following passage, from a chapter called “On the Virtues of Buildings”:
We might expect that it would, by now, have grown as easy to reproduce a city with the appeal of Bath as it is to manufacture consistent quantities of blueberry jam. If humans were at some point adept at creating a masterwork of urban design, it should come within the grasp of all succeeding generations to contrive an equally successful environment at will. There ought to be no need to pay homage to a city as to a rare creature; its virtues should be readily fitted to the development of any new piece of meadow or scrubland. There should be no need to focus our energies on preservation and restoration, disciplines which thrive on our fears of our own ineptitude. We should not have to feel alarmed by the waters that lap threateningly against Venice’s shoreline. We should have the confidence to surrender the aristocratic palaces to the sea, knowing that we could at any point create new edifices that would rival the old stones in beauty.
Has de Botton not noticed that sometime in the middle of the last century dominance of the fields involved in building cities was achieved by modern architecture and planning? Has he forgotten that, instead of a choice of modern and traditional work, national and city development authorities have sought to delegitimize and even to ban traditional buildings and patterns of urban design? Does he not realize that the movements of preservation and, later, new urbanism arose from “our fears of our own ineptitude” – or, rather, our fear of the will to ugliness that for years now has characterized architecture and planning?
I think de Botton knows all of this very well. His purported confusion is a species of fraud, of rank dishonesty. “In frustration,” he writes, “[architects] have turned against the very idea of laws [of civic beauty], declaring them naive and absurd, symptoms of utopian and rigid minds.” “In frustration”!? Does he not mean “In triumph”? Yet in the long passage above he admits that “at some point humans were adept at creating a masterwork of urban design.” He goes on to argue that a dictionary of building virtues is needed to revive our talent for building beautiful cities, and then pooh-poohs the idea.
“In frustration” is the locution he uses above to purport a sort of sadness among architects that they have lost the ability to create beautiful cities, when in fact, as de Botton knows very very well, it was not lost but banned. Preventing the construction of beauty in cities and working to destroy what was built before are major initiatives in architecture’s top organizations, the American Institute of Architects and the schools of architecture.
De Botton’s rhetorical switcheroo is dishonesty pure and simple, but he is so, so good at it that even I marvel at the sophistication of his prose, and his sly ability to subvert the obvious implication of almost everything he writes. A reader commenting on my last post quoting de Botton tarred him with the word “clever.” The word carries a hint of the idea of seedy manipulation. It is the perfect word to describe him.