October 2006

Rachel J. K. Grace

nonfiction

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton

In September, I moved into a new apartment. My three previous apartments had left something to be desired, but this one has everything I want: an open floor plan, an Ikea kitchen, tons of light, a good location, and a terrific view of the city. In this apartment, I feel that life is simple. It’s all manageable. It’s good.

In his latest book of philosophy, The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton turns his attention to architecture’s bearing on happiness and what we can learn about those who create, embrace, or reject certain manifestations of architecture. Beyond a home’s basic purpose (to provide shelter), we all look -- consciously or not -- for homes that reflect and bolster our personal ideals. But the two concepts of function and beauty, happily married in many modern homes, historically have been at odds.

Our appreciation of beauty contributes to our sense of happiness. But according to de Botton, Stoics and other ascetics believed self-denial was the path to moral virtue and eternal bliss. Beauty, therefore, had no place in a virtuous life. Aesthetic pleasure held its own for centuries, when again it came under attack with the emergence of a new field, engineering. The Industrial Revolution transformed buildings from things of beauty into functional structures. This new line of thinking provided a bit of relief from “a morass of perplexing, insoluble disputes about aesthetics.” Architects, too, began to look for a more scientific approach. Even though Modernist architects couched their designs in technological terms, de Botton argues that their work still was a pursuit of beauty.

Architects seek beauty, but they also speak of ideals, beliefs, and values through their designs. De Botton explains that it is these ideals that draw different people to different kinds of architecture: “To call a work of architecture or design beautiful is to recognize it as a rendition of values critical to our flourishing, a transubstantiation of our individual ideals in a material medium.” He also states that bad architecture is a failure of psychology. And because successful architecture is an expression of our ideals and a satisfier of our psychological needs, our homes serve as a reminder of who we are and as propaganda (“the promotion of any doctrine or set of beliefs”) to those who visit it.

In spite of the title, the book was far more about architecture than happiness. No complaint on the subject matter, but perhaps the title is less than perfect just to boost sales? After all, happiness is a popular subject. Universities now offer courses in “positive psychology.” Hollywood offers a bevy of films every year that have absurdly happy endings. Homer Simpson reinserted a crayon into his brain so that he could revert to his happier state. In a recent BBC poll (conducted for The Happiness Formula series), over 80% of respondents thought that happiness, not wealth, should be the government’s prime objective.

What was for the most part an enjoyable and quick read did have a few bumps along the way. I found de Botton’s frequent anthropomorphisms and his way of presenting both sides of an argument to be a tad annoying. Though I generally admired his choice of words, some sentences were a bit too romantic: “We can be moved by a column that meets a roof with grace, by worn stone steps that hint at wisdom and by a Georgian doorway that demonstrates playfulness and courtesy in its fanlight windows.” When I read portions of the book aloud, my listeners commented that de Botton’s writing is verbose.

I was disappointed that de Botton did not interact more with the ideas of other philosophers. Just about every famous philosopher out there has had something to say about happiness and beauty, and there are a whole slew of contemporary philosophers expounding on relevant topics. In spite of my criticism, I think The Architecture of Happiness is a beautiful book. I want everyone I know to read it. I want to invite them over to discuss these ideas with them, to talk about the homes we have chosen and why, and, of course, to show off my new apartment.

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton
Pantheon Books
ISBN: 0375424431
288 pages