The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton
Botton is a Swiss-born Jew based in England, a philospher who writes on a variety of subjects, in this case, architecture. It’s interesting that James Howard Kunstler, practically a one-man Culture of Critique of American architecture, is also Jewish. There are some based Jews with good aesthetic sense, regardless of the degenerative Jewish influence in modern art, so effectively sent up by Tom Wolfe in Back to Blood.
Kunstler is a voice crying out in a devastated wilderness of American architecture. His “Eyesore of the Month” is a picture of some dehumanizing architectural abomination accompanied by severely rancorous commentary. H.L. Mencken noticed America’s general indifference, at best, active hostility at worst, to a humane landscape in an essay titled “Libido for the Ugly” (1927), where he notes,
Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth. The etiology of this madness deserves a great deal more study than it has got. There must be causes behind it; it arises and flourishes in obedience to biological laws, and not as a mere act of God. What, precisely, are the terms of those laws? And why do they run stronger in America than elsewhere? Let some honest Privat Dozent in pathological sociology apply himself to the problem.
Botton, however, writes from Europe, which is a completely different world. Instead of Kunstler’s howling rage and frustration, we get a sensible discussion of architecture and what makes for good architecture. After all, there is more than enough good architecture in Europe, so one can be more sober about the whole matter.
Botton begins by contemplating the significance of architecture. The upshot is that good architecture is notable by not trying to be overly significant. Good architecture is important, but not too important–it should not be drawing great attention to itself (which makes architects prone to pursuing novelty). However, bad architecture can have an all-too-great influence in one’s life. In sum, good architecture will allow humans to flourish and thrive, and bad architecture can sorely afflict the human spirit. This assymmetry in the good/bad of architecture leads to ambitious architects–those who strive to make great architecture– often making bad architecture by sheer dint of too much effort, and especially with novelty to add “significance”. Good architecture requires humility and subtlety. Apparently, it’s a balance that Americans have completely lost.
I also like Botton’s focus on human interaction with architecture in our living and working places. Architecture is best pursued as a way to help make us feel human and at home–to be happy. It should meet our needs and desires–but our needs and desires with respect to architecture are relatively modest. But Botton asserts that architecture is no guarantor of happiness.
Botton considers what constitutes a beautiful building. He traces some of the history of architectural styles in the West–of which there are sundry good examples in Europe. He notes the rise of engineering in the 18th Century as a major shift of influence–primarily in a retreat from attempts at beauty and a move towards functionality. Le Corbusier is a prime example of this school of thought.
He continues with a discussion of how buildings and objects communicate meaning. Essentially it’s by prompting associations, by evoking memories. He says architectural and decorative styles “become, for us, emotional souvenirs of the moments and setting in which we came across them.” He even delves into modern art, but has the good sense to avoid abominations like Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (that’s the urinal).
He proceeds into elaborating the virtues of buildings–what makes for good architecture. Order, balance, elegance, coherence, and self-knowledge each receive a detailed treatment. A digression into Japanese architecture is particularly interesting, because of the contrast with Western style.
He concludes with a meditation on time, how a field changes to a housing development. Clearly his concern is to restrict a reckless construction that barrels on without consideration for past, future, or context–or enduring beauty.
This is a good introduction to the subject, and offers more hope than Kunstler ever could. He has been criticized for stating the obvious, so if you know your architecture, this book may be redundant. I don’t know much but what Kunstler has said, so I found this enjoyable and informative.