The Architecture of Happiness

By Alain de Botton

Architecture, it has been said, is art we live in. It is also art with a public face, and most of the critical commentary and analysis of architecture is directed at its public manifestations – enduring big-budget touchstones like cathedrals, war memorials, government buildings and art galleries. The Architecture of Happiness takes this side of things into account, but it’s also something a bit different. Alain de Botton’s engaging primer on architecture-as-art is not as interested in monuments of industry and power as it is in aesthetics on a human scale. That is, the home – art for living in. De Botton sees architecture’s core aesthetic value as happiness, which is a personal response to beauty. Mass architecture speaks with a bullhorn and megaphone. For de Botton a building “offers suggestions instead of making laws . . . invites, rather than orders.” It speaks in a private voice (or voices), as part of a conversation. The subject of which is the good life.

Happiness being a mental and emotional state, de Botton’s aesthetic is psychological. “Bad architecture,” he writes, “is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design.” In making this point he builds on Worringer’s explanation for the “psychological mechanism behind taste.” In a nutshell, Worringer’s theory was that a society’s aesthetic values are determined by its own sense of what it is lacking. De Botton individualizes this: “We can conclude . . . that we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient.” As Yeats had it, all happy art describes the hollow image or lineaments of fulfilled desire. The work of art is the mask, or anti-self (tragic if it expresses “the poverty or exasperation that set its maker to the work”). The architecture of happiness, then, is therapeutic, returning us to a sense of balance and equilibrium, one of the virtues (along with order, coherence, elegance, and self-knowledge) of good building. And it is also a form of self-commentary, if not spiritual biography. The Casa Malaparte is like any good home in being “a self-portrait in stone.”

De Botton needs to invoke that human element because so much of the theory of architecture ignores it. People get in the way of the ideal, and idealization is one of the ends of art. There are over a hundred photographs of buildings here, none of which has a human figure in it (even to demonstrate scale!). Of course the best-known whipping boy in this regard is Le Corbusier, and de Botton doesn’t spare the lash, documenting the well-known failings of the elegant yet unworkable designs for the Villa Savoye and Radiant City. But the impulse behind Le Corbusier’s antiseptic forms is endorsed. By presenting a vision of the good life, an understanding of the happiness that is beauty, architecture is inherently idealistic. It doesn’t hold a mirror up to nature, though it may borrow a pleasing shape or expressive line from nature’s copybook. Its speech is not mimetic. It gives voice to aspirations and suggests possibilities. The question isn’t whether you’d actually like to live in a Le Corbusier home, but whether you’d like to be the kind of person who’d like to live in one.

Given the psychological bias of this approach, it’s hard to resist putting the author himself on the couch. If Worringer’s compensation theory is right, then de Botton must be a mess. His ideal is firmly classical, seemingly inspired by a world-weary desire for calm, harmony, and order amid life’s chaos, stress, and unease. His architectural avatars eschew romantic agony. The same values inform his decision to focus on the domestic rather than the civic – the architecture of the beautiful, happy home offering a soothing retreat from noisy public life. Even the texture of his prose – calm, balanced, decorous – has an anodyne quality. Not yet 40 when he wrote this book, his vision of the good life gives the impression of a young man imagining a comfortable retirement.

The Architecture of Happiness is not without original insight, but its main function is to offer a brief general introduction. It never strays far from very basic first principles of art appreciation, such as how even the most abstract forms communicate meaning. There is little new in all of this, but the various arguments are presented with economy, grace and clarity. One can dive in at any point and be immediately hooked and carried along. A happy gift when it comes to writing about art.

Review first published online May 20, 2008.

%d bloggers like this: