November 2006

Joanne McNeil


An Interview with Alain de Botton

If Alain de Botton could live anywhere, it would be in Tavole’s Herzog and de Meuron stone house. He flipped through a copy of his new book, The Architecture of Happiness, to point out a photograph of this rustic oddity. The quant irregularly layered stones look somewhat like tweed, but the geometric severity is modern. It could be the home of an extraterrestrial farmer. “It’s both obviously modern and yet very in tune with the local tradition of the Italian Alps. I love it.” De Botton said.

Good architecture depends on cultural context: a designer should pay respect to the past as well as anticipate the future environment. The many buildings that fail -- either excessively nostalgic or coldly utilitarian structures -- not only provide an eyesore but a poorer quality of life for all spectators. As de Botton writes, buildings “talk” to onlookers about our values and needs.

In addition to examining architecture’s aesthetic qualities, de Botton exposes the political and psychological underpinnings. For this reason the author was invited to speak at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies in Washington, DC. I had the chance to talk with Alain de Botton before the SAIS lecture.

The US and overseas publications of your book have very different covers. What does that say about our corresponding aesthetics?

I think that American so-called quality fiction and nonfiction often veers towards a more nostalgic root. I remember being struck as a child when I first came to the United States by the way that cars in America had a lot of fake wood on the dashboard and on the driving wheel and etcetera. [But] European cars were just made of plastic -- and that is fine.

I think it may be because America is so modern that it looks nostalgically back towards things countries that are really old don’t bother with. There’s something about reading which people associate with book-lined studies, cigars -- you know -- the old world, the old life, before things got noisy and rough. I think that still infuses the way things are laid out. So my publisher made a book that definitely looks a bit old world, whereas actually the book [looks quite new world] made in the old world with exactly the same content.

What do you think of New Orleans?

[Now] that it’s been blown down it’s going to be very, very expensive to rebuild. So one idea is: “Well, we could just rebuild the whole thing and meticulously recreate it.” And another view is: “Well, we could just build something equally nice but a bit different.” And that really panics people. People think, “Well, what on earth could we build that would be as nice as New Orleans?”

It’s really sort of striking. There is a terrific loss of confidence about our ability to create really special things. I think it’s worth thinking about just how unsure we are about this. It explains our obsession with restoration and preservation, and the fact that in old districts you can’t change a window -- that kind of thing. It’s all protected.

This to me seems to be the lack of confidence of our architects. I’d all be for letting some things collapse. Say, “Look New Orleans suffered and disappeared into the sea, so let’s try to build something else.”

But New Orleans was a unique city in a country of homogeny.

Sure, but I guess I’d say, let’s create something new that is not homogenous, but happens to be new -- that represents everything that remains independent and all the other things that New Orleans was famed for -- but in a modern language. Because otherwise the danger is it’s going to look like the seaside in Florida. That’s the danger. Some of the charm of New Orleans was that it was always sort of decrepit and slightly collapsing. So the idea of that all new is a bit disturbing.

How do you feel about a place like Nashville that regulates exterior designs and bans neon signs?

I’m a real believer in authoritarianism when it comes to architecture. I think a good city is about a good community. What that means is getting a lot of people to agree on certain things. And often you don’t get that agreement without a lot of effort.

It might be a carrot and a stick: getting people to follow a kind of code. Many of the world’s great cities have done just that. They forced people to use only certain materials, respect certain heights… In the olden days many of these restrictions weren’t, as it were, explicitly stated -- they were simply the result of things like it was impossible to build more than eight stories or it would collapse. And you had to build out of brick because otherwise it would burn down. Now that many of these restrictions are gone there is a tremendous freedom to build in every possible way. And that has led to real problems.

It can be done really badly -- like all restrictions -- but I think good restrictions can really be wonderful. Look at a city like Jerusalem that forces all of its new buildings to be faced in the limestone -- “Jerusalem stone” as they call it -- it has hugely helped the appearance of that city in the modern age. So certain kinds of restrictions -- done well, intelligently -- can help us.

But that seems to emphasize the difference between being a spectator versus being the resident of a building. You might be looking at a building but you don’t have to live there.

Well, I think you can live in a building that you have no hand in designing and still feel at home there. There is no necessary relationship between a good house and a house you built yourself. It’s rather like literature, some people might go, “I’m bored of reading other people’s books! I want to read my own books because only my own books will express my own unique character!” And then you start to write a book and it becomes terrible and then you start to realize often it is the books of others that are best able to express your own individuality.

The same is true of architecture: that you can get buildings, which are not built by you, but nevertheless can speak to you and can speak much better than anything you could do. So this issue of individuality is multifaceted.

What do you think of graffiti?

I think of graffiti a little bit like I think of garden gnomes -- I respect the kind of impulse, but I think the result is often very poor. So the impulse to graffiti is about asserting your own individuality, it’s about coloring your neighborhood, it’s about adding life to a place that can seem lifeless, etcetera. But on the whole, most graffiti ends up looking aggressive and frightening to most people. It’s a closed language. It’s not, generally, very welcoming or interesting.

But it’s worth thinking about why people do it. Could there be a better version of what people are trying to do with graffiti? It’s a response. People tend to graffiti horrible places. That tells us something

Do you think the flavorless urbanity of Tokyo is the inevitable future of the world cities?

Optimistically, I’d say it was what the 20th century was about, and optimistically, perhaps some lessons have been learned. This vision of the clean lines of office buildings -- people realize those place are dead. They are dead places. They don’t have the qualities we like.

And in terms of real estate, they’re not even that valuable because people don’t really like them. They’re efficient but they are soulless. If you’re trying to site an advertising agency or film studio or anything vaguely creative -- they’re not going to want to work there. They’re going to want to work where there is life. So hopefully through market mechanisms people will realize this.

Take Frankfurt, which is really ugly, just a series of towers. Frankfurt is one of these least visited cities in Germany -- never a tourist hotspot anyway. But it’s particularly a no-go because it’s so ugly. The mayors of cities realize this. They sort of think, “Hey, why is it people go to Amsterdam? It’s not that great!” Hopefully they realize there is a raffish street-life there. There is life and that is what people want.

Your descriptions of Japan were among the more memorable -- the mock Dutch village in particular.

[Yes,] there is a strange Japanese businessman that built an entire Dutch village in Nagasaki -- a fake Dutch village. It looks very odd and anyone who goes there immediately thinks, “Hmm, it’s kind of weird.”

And I wanted to explore that feeling of, “Hmm, it’s kind of weird” because I think it goes right to the heart of something we want from architecture, which is that it should in some way be attuned both to its place and its time. It should pick on certain themes that are both local and of the particular period. Otherwise it can sound as weird as someone who loves Shakespeare turning up in a wig and garters and wandering around.

It’s not to do with disrespecting the past -- not simply wanting to mirror old buildings -- but to acknowledge that time changes. The interesting thing about the Romans and many people who believed in the classical tradition: they actually didn’t believe that times changed. Or if they did change it wasn’t important change, it was incidental change. Nowadays we very much do believe that times change. We talk about decades and centuries as having particular characters.

We are changing now; very, very fast. It can be useful if buildings are alive to that. Not desperately alive -- not trendy or up-to-date in the most vulgar way -- but it should keep its ears open.

So how is that idea of change different from your request for balance -- the idea that oftentimes aesthetics compensate for a cultural lack of some quality?

All ages are unbalanced and lacking things. It just depends on what happens to be lacking in a particular age. At the moment in Russia, the dominant taste in interior design is very golden, ornate, and excessive. Give Russia another twenty years of prosperity and that style will really go out the window. We’ve seen very much a boom-years style.

My Eastern European friends always joke that it’s because they never had the '80s.

But American had its '80s before the '80s -- the 1880s -- there are always boom times and retrenchments.

And now Americans “go green.” What do you think of the environmental movement?

It has gone from a minority interest to something anyone other than the mad are concerned with. That being said, I don’t believe the only thing a building should be doing is saving energy… My view is that all buildings should be green, but that doesn’t mean they should look green. A school of Australian architects will, for example, put the water tank on the roof and the solar panels are made very obvious. They are trying to make the equipment of green architecture visible and part of the appeal. That’s kind of interesting but that’s not the only way to go.

It’s like when central heating came in. There’s no need for a building to be all about central heating. You want the central heating in there, but you don’t want that to be all the building is communicating. And the same is true of a green building. You don’t want a building only talking about its “greenness.”

What is also interesting about architecture is that, like fashion or graphic design, it is requires compromise with clients.

That’s right. It’s very odd and ambiguous. That would drive me mad... Imagine a writer who is trying to write a book for an editor and the editor keeps say, “Oh, but I don’t really like this….”

So there is a very high level of intervention. So no wonder architects have a slightly authoritarian manner, because actually they are so lacking in authority in their day-to-day life. They are so at the behest of their clients. Many architecture in private will chuckle and say how nice the world would be if only there were no clients.

Your later chapters seem to take cues from Jane Jacobs. Who were some other influences?

Yeah, Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl -- a Danish urbanist -- the thing is when it comes to ideas about how cities should be built, there are all sorts of writers, and what they say is almost common sense: it’s all about not splitting residential from working spaces, narrowing widths of streets. Many people have written on that and they are all absolutely right, but it is striking that in the mid-twentieth century those lessons were so dramatically forgotten with such huge effects. Cities like Los Angeles will be horrible for centuries because of those misunderstood lessons.

Do you consider Washington, DC a sprawling city?

It is interesting. Its center owes a lot to the idea of the urban park, the way that buildings are dotted in a parkland setting [because of] people like Ebenezer Howard and the Garden movement. But the suburbs of Washington, which spread on and on, are something else entirely, and they’re just part of the North America sprawl and suffer from all its problems -- chiefly to do with getting people around. The commuting times become so long. And you get these kind of dead communities in the day. So Washington is intriguing. It is the center of the empire and does its symbolic function quite well. It does let the visitor know it has arrived at the center of power and that’s what it was designed to do.

You wrote, “It is perhaps when our lives are most problematic that we are likely to be more receptive to beautiful things.” Did you write this book at a problematic time?

My life is generally always problematic. I have a wonderful ability to make my life problematic even when perhaps from the outside it shouldn’t be. In that sense I’m always receptive to works of art -- but I guess I did reach a stage in middle age -- I’m now 36 -- I realized certain problems don’t really go away ever. When I was younger I thought that all problems of my life could eventually be sorted out with effort.

Progress can be made in certain areas but there remain things you never sort through. That has made me more patient and humbler. It made me more interested in the smaller things of life be that gardening or cooking or just clouds -- everyday things I might have been too busy changing the world to notice. It comes from resignation, but the upside is it’s a richer happiness.

I can only imagine while writing it you were more sensitive to your home surroundings. 

Oh yes, it is because my home surroundings weren’t very nice that I got the impetus to write the book. I live in London, which is a hideous city, I think, and I live in a part of London that is especially hideous. I’d love to just blow up the whole place and start again. It is out of that frustration that I partly wrote the book. It’s good to have a grievance in order to write a book. And I definitely had my grievance in my surroundings.

When you are writing a book, do you have other book ideas in the back of your mind?

I’ve got a general backlog of topics I want to address, but don’t know how to address. There’s a real journey to take between “I am interested in something” and knowing how to turn that into a book. There are a lot of things I’m interested in, but wouldn’t know how to turn into a book.

Are you working on something now?

I am working on something now -- but I can’t really discuss it. It’s sort of tender and vulnerable right now.

Do you ever worry someone might read a book of yours -- for example How Proust Can Change Your Life -- and think “Well, now I don’t need to read Proust”?

No, I have so many fears, of so many kinds, but I can honestly say, I don’t have that. I don’t see myself as a teacher, I see myself as an essayist, a nonfiction prose writer, who bounces off the texts of others and tries to find in them ideas and attitudes of interest to me. Whether someone does or doesn’t read Proust -- it’s really up to them. The best I can do is to impart why I think certain ideas are valuable. It’s hard enough to persuade someone where to have dinner, let alone persuade them what to read or how to live their life. So one has to start modestly.

Do you still believe in the Stendhal quote, “Beauty is the promise of happiness”?

I think it’s a very handy way of getting to the core of something. When people go “Oh, that chair is beautiful,” or “That table is beautiful,” really what we are saying is, you imagine being happy around that chair. It’s a nicely psychological -- and in a way -- literary way of looking at the visual. It is making up little stories about it. I can imagine a happy little story. It’s what happens with people as well, when you see someone who looks attractive, very often you think, “This is someone I could be happy with.” You invent a short little story with what life could be like with that person. The same thing happens with visual objects: chairs, paintings, buildings…