Architecture and happiness

Illustration by Bill Butcher.

Illustration by Bill Butcher.

In “Why the ‘happiest’ cities are boring,” John Kay of the Financial Times makes a series of very important distinctions between happy cities and great cities, and in doing so he challenges most of the reigning official definitions of happiness and lists of cities where people are supposedly the happiest. He also traces the rise of happiness in cities to the decline (which has not fully kicked in, to say the least) of modernist architecture and planning.

The entire essay is one insight after another strung out with the greatest logic. Here is a string of passages that, predictably, I most enjoyed:

There is evidently a large difference between a great city and a liveable city. That difference lies behind the rise, and fall, of modernist town planning. … The reaction against modernism began in the 1960s with Jane Jacobs’ great book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). … Jacobs’ book began the backlash that finally ended the power of Robert Moses, the master builder (and demolisher) of New York, and halted the decades of rationalism in town planning. … Life in unhappy countries — Myanmar, Syria, Zimbabwe — is not boring, but much of the population desperately wishes it was. Yet boring is not enough.

This collection of lines leads Kay to what are perhaps his most interesting thoughts about happiness:

The most intriguing studies of the determinants of happiness are those of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The moments at which people are happiest are when they are in “flow” — when they are engaged in a challenging task and doing it well: the lecture in which you realise the audience is hanging on your ever word, the tennis game in which every shot takes the ball where you want it to go. For many people, bringing up children is a source of endless demands and frustrations, but taken as a whole it is one of the most satisfying experiences of their lives. There is more to the good life than clean water and trains that arrive on time.

So what kinds of cities offer the best opportunities for happiness? It depends. Stability and security bring a more palpable happiness to some, and the frisson of action, sociability and creativity generate a more vivid sense of happiness in others. Lists of the happiest cities take fatuity to the nth degree. Hard as happiness is to define, it is probably even harder to survey.

But one quality of cities is easier to measure and more evident to the senses of all people. Beauty certainly adds to the prospect of happiness of either sort. It also makes it easier to bear unhappiness. That is no small silver lining for the many around the world who live under dark clouds that seem to stretch beyond even the most distant horizons.

[Tip of the top hat to John Massengale for posting John Kay’s essay to the Pro-Urb list, which discusses the practice of New Urbanism.]

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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