Monday, January 08, 2007

Book Review: The Architecture of Happiness

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton

Eclectic author and philosopher Alain De Botton - who's previously tackled such subjects as status anxiety, the art of travel, and love - here takes on architecture and its relationship to happiness. When De Botton speaks of happiness, what he's really talking about is beauty, a descriptor that has kept a stigma in architectural circles for the last one hundred or so years as technology, engineering, and Modernism supplanted prescriptive, Classical principles of architecture. This stigma is at the root of the author's albeit enigmatic argument in this book: that beauty - and therefore happiness - in architecture should be discussed.

The impact of architecture on our lives is an undeniable part of De Botton's argument that he takes pains to explain in the early portion of his book. This makes The Architecture of Happiness as relevant to the general public as those within the architectural profession, perhaps explaining why the book is much more widely discussed than most books on the subject. Much of the criticism levied at the book takes aim at its conservative tone, as De Botton calls for architects to have the "confidence and kindness [and humility] to be a little boring," and takes aim at Le Corbusier for being out of touch with the common man. But throughout the book the illustrations speak to not only conservative tastes but also those more progressive. These seemingly polar opposites are presented (in many cases) side by side to illustrate that beauty is not purely a matter of taste, it is how the architecture embodies humanity. Buildings done mainly for profit (that therefore express such), for example, are the type that De Botton would like to change.

For this reader, the author's argument is ultimately conservative, not in terms of architecture but in terms of urban design. While the latter is much harder to pin down than the former, urban design does clearly extend beyond the single building or development to encompass streets, squares, and so forth. Much of what De Botton criticizes are these sorts of things: the abolishment of the street in Le Corbusier's theories versus the composed boulevards of Paris, for example. Perhaps what the author is calling for, though doesn't explicitly state, is for something that mediates between the building and the city in today's age of democracy. The urban gestures of past monarchies clearly cannot be duplicated today, but some democratic equivalent could occur, perhaps stemming from more and more people understanding how the built environment shapes their lives and therefore taking a greater role in its outcome. This book may be a step towards that, whatever those future shapes may become.

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