ARCHITECTURE OF HAPPINESS
As I write this review, I am house-sitting for a friend in a suburb-to-remain-unnamed. Despite the house’s possession of sturdy walls, a sound roof, and a seven-figure price tag, I am left feeling unsheltered. The protection I seek is not from nature’s elements, but from the demons of ennui, apathy, and bourgeois complacency. This morning, in an effort to write, I moved from the bedroom to the study, from the study to the living room, and then from the living room to the kitchen. But as I did, my agitation only intensified. I could not concentrate; I paced the floor, my heart pounded with the brutal urgency of a jackhammer at 7:00am. With no choice but to flee, I headed for the nearest freeway.
You might think that my problem is psychosomatic rather than architectural. However, if Alain de Botton is right, the buildings that define the human-made landscapes of our cities and homes are not irrelevant to the lives we lead. More than protection from rain or cold, our dwellings are the outward expressions of what we aspire to inwardly and—as such—serve to remind us of who we want to be. To live or work in a badly designed building is to be without an important source of guidance and inspiration.
In works such as The Consolation of Philosophy and How Proust Can Change Your Life, best-selling author de Botton has repeatedly shown the perspicuity of writers one reads in college. It should thus be no surprise that the unspoken theorist behind de Botton’s new entry, Architecture of Happiness, is Aristotle.
Aristotle was one of the first ethical philosophers to develop a moral system based in the possession of good character rather than in abstract rules or duties. Positive character traits––“virtues”––express the “golden mean” between opposing vices. Courage, for example, is the mean between rashness and cowardice, and generosity: that between stinginess and extravagance. To be happy, in Aristotle’s view, is to be maximally virtuous, to live a life which is in every way balanced.
What is original about the Architecture of Happiness is the ingenious way it applies Aristotle’s line of thinking to architectural criticism. Taking his cue from Stendhal’s remark that “Beauty is the promise of happiness,” de Botton analyzes the perceived attractiveness of architectural works in terms of their facility at drawing one closer to a balanced, happy life. Whether one finds a building beautiful depends on whether one finds in its design the inspiration to live the life one desires––a life that is abundant in those ways one’s present life is lacking.
Viewed in this way, perceptions of beauty are largely relative to time and place. Thus Classicism, with its emphasis on order, balance, and proportion, flourished in an age that suffered from the threat of natural and social chaos. Gothic architecture, known for its ornate transcendentalism, was revived at a time when the shape of modern urban life had become numbing. Even Modernism, which saw itself as a repudiation of all frill and fuss for the sake of function––an abandonment of the very pretext of beauty in the name of clean, lean engineering––was inspired by a yearning for a simpler way of life.
If buildings indeed bespeak the good life, in which language do they express themselves? In one particularly fascinating chapter, de Botton analyzes the psychological, biological, and historical idioms that enable boxes of wood, stone, brick, and mortar to come alive and address our deepest spiritual concerns. Finally, as though there were no end to this capacious essay, de Botton catalogues those virtues that all well-designed buildings (and thus, presumably, all well-lived lives) would express: “order,” “balance,” “elegance,” “coherence,” and “self-knowledge.”
It would be hard to overstate my praise for this book. De Botton is a graceful and engaging essayist, miraculously combining both levity and profundity. For anyone such as myself, who is appreciative of architecture but not especially knowledgeable, this is the perfect initiation. The book itself is beautiful, with over a hundred illustrations. If you have never thought about the importance of the buildings that provide the settings for our lives, The Architecture of Happiness will change that fact forever.
What is more, de Botton seems to be right. Having fled the suburb-to-remain-unnamed, I arrived at the Los Angeles Central Library. Suddenly, I felt myself at home. Despite the sweaty odor of a few hygienically lax library patrons, and an unsavory looking gentleman viewing pornography on the Internet, the environment granted to my mind enough repose to allow me to imagine the life I desire to lead.
The building embodies the right mixture of security and openness, loft and earthiness, tradition and modernity. I feel liberated to live and work the way I want to. And the words begin to flow…