on April 26, 2006
I'm a big fan of Alain de Botton's writing, so when I saw that his newest book, "The Architecture of Happiness" would not be released in the US until October 2006, I ordered it directly from Amazon.uk. I read it in two or three days and was not disappointed. Botton has a great way of connecting the writings and thoughts of the great minds of world civilization to everyday human experiences. In this case, to the kinds of buildings (public and private) we build or aspire to build, or conversely, tolerate and settle for. The book is amply illustrated. As nice as these photographs and illustrations are, Botton's writing is so precise and illustrative in its own right that the illustrations are not always necessary.
In contrast to "The Art of Travel" and "The Consolations of Philosophy", Botton's new book does not rely on quotations from ancient and modern philosphers and theorists to make its points. Quotations are few, but apt. In compensation, though, I feel Botton is exposing the reader more directly to his own thoughts, observations, and assessments. He is less melancholic than in his earlier works; also, less clever and cute. He's as interesting as ever; just more authentic, exposed, and confident in his own voice. As I was reading I found that the sentences I wanted to underline were mostly Botton's own, not those of someone he was quoting. One of these should give you a good idea of where this book will take you: "We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need--but are at constant risk of forgetting we need--within. We turn to wallpaper, benches, paintings and streets to staunch the disappearance of our true selves." (p. 107)
It's hard to remain a sleepwalker after reading one of Alain de Botton's books. An they always bear re-reading. (A sticker on the cover of the book identifies "The Architecture of Happiness" as the inspiration of the TV series "The Perfect Home." I hope it's a show that gets picked up in the US or comes out on DVD.)
on November 26, 2006
Have you ever read a book that was so good that you flip through it trying to find a representative passage that you would like to share with others, but you end up seeing that you are faced with the dilemna of re-writing the whole thing from page one because all of it is so indispensibly rich and worthy of regurgitation?
This is what is happening to me, here at Starbucks, having just finished reading Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness.
Oh, such an amazing book.
Recently, I met a group of friends at [no surpirise] a Starbucks and because I arrived early, I brought my book in and read for a while. Soon they showed up and I set the book aside. My pal picked it up and read the title, flipped through it a bit, and promptly looked at me as though I had three heads, and all of them were Martian!
"What the hell are you reading this for?" he asked.
"I am totally immersed in the topic," I said. And went on to explain....
It's not about architecture, as in, how to build things. It's about the appreciation of the art that surrounds the process of all creative effort, architecture included.
The author discusses the development of so many things, from teacups to chairs to vending machines. Windows, bridges, water faucets, theatres, entire plans of cities, tables, factories, empty fields... the way we think [or don't think] about all of these things. Of course, buildings, from homes to skyscrapers, being perhaps the most prominent aesthetic consideration in our day-to-day field of vision, these get the most attention.
Why do we build as we do?
What is the history, the genesis and evolution of what we have now come to consider as architectural norms?
Architecturally speaking, in what ways have we progressed? In what ways have we regressed? Or, [most intererestingly] have we done both things?
Having defended myself thus, I looked back at my friend as though he had three heads, all of them very architecturally interesting!
I cannot help it. I must offer the following excerpt. Here, de Botton was discussing the topic of beauty in strength, or the "elegance" with which so many of our magnificent structures and machines are constructed...
"It follows from this that the impression of beauty we derive from an architectural work may be proportionally related to the intensity of the forces against which it is pitted. The emotional power of a bridge over a swollen river, for example, is concentrated at the point where the piers meet but resist the waters which rise threateningly around them. We shudder to think of sinking our own feet into such turbulent depths and venerate the bridge's reinforced concrete for the sanguine way it deflects the currents which tyrannise it. Likewise, the heavy stone walls of a lighthouse acquire the character of a forbearing and kindly giant during a spiteful gale which does its best to pant them down, just as in a plane passing through an electrical storm, we can feel something approaching love for the aeronautical engineers who, in quiet offices in Bristol or Toulouse, designed dark grey aluminum wings that could flex through tempests with all the grace of a swan's feathered ones. We feel as safe as we did when we were children being driven home in the early hours by our parents, lying curled up on the backseat under a blanket in our pyjamas, sensing the darkness and cold of the night through the window against which we rested our cheek. There is beauty in that which is stronger than we are." [p.205]
Every page of this book is magnificent like that.
Throughout, the author is critical of the non-critical acceptance of architectural norms. Especially toward the latter sections of the book he continues to remind the reader of the importance of being wary of unquestioningly adopting societal dictates, regarding architecture. He cautions [and I wildly paraphrase] that in order to appreciate architecture as we ought, we need to cultivate and maintain a similar ability to appreciate the beauty of an empty field. "We owe it to the fields," he says, "that our houses will not be inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness." [p.267].
Because our own culture will tend to dictate the aesthetic style we should adhere to, we ought to be diligent in expanding our horizons beyond that which we have always seen, and always known. We should beware the veneration of the regular. [? My summation].
So much of our sense of artistic appreciation is either innate or injected into our being as a result of our cultural conditioning. But there is this other thing to consider..... that it is possible to train ourselves "to appreciate a beauty that we were not born seeing. And, in the process, we will puncture the simplistic notion, heavily promoted by purveyors of plastic mansions, that what a person currently finds beautiful should be taken as the limit of all that he or she can ever love." [p.261]
To train ourselves to appreciate beauty.
Reading this book is, in itself, a great step in the direction of such an accomplisment.
To read De Botton is to go on a journey to places at once unexpected yet familiar; for example, one point is supported by reference to a diagram of nose shapes and sizes. His books teach rather than exposit; they do not lack for a direct thesis--they make arguments and reach conclusions. In this book on architecture the point is made that we have a responsibility to create something that is worthy of the natural surroundings that will be altered by the creation. We have the ability and resources to transcend mere engineering concerns and the argument is made in this book that we have a duty to do so.
Obviously we cannot live the modern life stuck out in a meadow, no matter how beautiful the scenery--but our author argues that is equally difficult (or pointless) to live in a community of soulless boxes, that architecture which fails to honor aesthetic ideals is a failure even if it keeps the weather out. Good architecture is the result not of adherence to classical ideals, budget measures or engineering goals but of a balance achieved among the almost infinite range of available architectural choices.
The author understands that in order to bring his reader to an appreciation for balance in architecture that he must provide a context--he has to demonstrate when things are out of balance. De Botton excels in providing just the right amount of history, pictorial evidence, contemporary example and discussion--in fact, his presentation is itself artfully balanced and perfectly suits his theme. There may be disagreements about the thesis; however, I think that the quality of the writing is worthy of any superlatives. Anyone familiar with Michael Palin's travelogues knows that they can't be missed regardless of the destination--Mr. Palin is unfailingly respectful of tradition but never misses an opportunity for a witty remark. So likewise are Mr. De Botton's books. Regardless of his chosen subject, he has earned my trust--I'll read whatever he chooses to print.
on March 4, 2006
[Notabene: this is a review of the Dutch translation of this book.] I have read only one book by Alain de Botton so far, namely his eminently readable but highly imaginative and evocative 'The Art of Travel'. I was so enamoured by that particular book, that I highly anticipated his 'The Architecture of Happiness', and bought it without any doubts as what to expect (and so should anyone else who loved his 'The Art of Travel, I believe ;-)
This book is - to my eyes - a pure little gem of often seemingly simple and evident (so often a sign of greatness), but at the same time deep insights into the ways in which architecture reflects (and influences) all of our grandest - and at the same time all of our smallest - aspirations, ideas, hopes, wishes and pleasures. Reading 'The Architecture of Happiness' is ever so often (like his 'The Art of Travel') an 'Aha-Erlebnis': to your feelings and experiences, when reading his book, Alain de Botton's insights and observations could only be so, as it were :-)
For example, one of the author's most important observations comes about a quarter on the way, at the end of the second chapter. Forming the basis for the rest of his discourse, is his central statement (in fact his main conclusion) that [NB: following is my own, probably not very accurate translation from the Dutch translation!] "every designed object will give an impression of the psychological and moral standards it upholds", going on to say that "designed objects and architecture essentially tell us about the way of life that would be most appropriate in their vicinity. They tell us about the moods they would like to encourage and strengthen in their users. Except that they keep us warm and that they offer us practical support, they also stimulate us to be a certain kind of people. They speak of certain ideas of happiness." In other words, de Botton stresses the 'values' that buildings propagate, and it is his belief that discussions about 'fitting' architecture should center more around this issue of values (the ways that architecture speaks to us, stimulating and encouraging us), than about any "strictly visual aspects", making the goals of our discussions about what is 'fitting' architecture much clearer.
To understand why we love a certain architectural style more than another, we need to understand the psychology behind taste (which is based on psychological needs), thus de Botton. He furthermore stresses the need for a deeper understanding of the many different 'esthetical virtues' (a direct consequence of those psychological needs), to help us in our discussions about 'fitting' architecture.
Anyhow, in this book the author displays his enormous gift of relating - in colorful, sometimes almost poetic, prose - all kinds of economical, political, social and artistic developments to architecture, connecting them - interlaced with delightful humorous observations here and there - with philosophical thoughts and associations about the ways architecture taps into our values and emotions (what do we 'feel' or 'need' when experiencing specific forms of architecture?), thereby opening up new and delightful insights into the deep relevance and connection of architecture to ALL of us ...
Well, all of this doesn't help any would-be buyer or reader much concerning the actual 'contents' of this book from 'chapter to chapter, paragraph to paragraph', but anyhow, that would only spoil all the fun for any future reader of this delightful book. I would like to say: please, do yourself a favour and buy this book from Alain de Botton, and let him take you on an interesting, wonderful journey, a sort of 'philosophically inspired architectural travelogue', from the comforts of your own home, and enjoy it when you also enjoyed, like I did, his 'The Art of Travel'. Anyhow, you will simply be delighted and surprised!
on May 8, 2007
If you read just one book about architecture, this might make sense or feel complete, but it really restates a lot of earlier work that others have done, and misses a lot of possibilities. For example, in the book, the author wishes for "a dictionary" to help explain things that make good architecture. This is exactly what architect Christopher Alexander created 30 years ago in "A Pattern Language", and related books. (He called it a "language", not a "dictionary") Sarah Susasnka's "The Not So Big House" covers similar ground for residential architecture.
The photography of this book does shine, though. This book provides complete visual documentation for the words on the page.
The manifestation of personal happiness through architecture is far more than looking at a building that may be pleasing to your eye, according to erudite author and true Renaissance man Alain de Botton in his finicky but enlightening new book. Taking an approach similar to the one he takes in "The Art of Travel", he brings his idiosyncratic touches to an extensive architectural history tour encompassing all the major styles through his meticulous analysis of representative buildings. The author shows how the most public of arts reflects a sense of shared values among us. In both Roman and Renaissance times, the beauty of buildings came from a classical sense of order epitomized by symmetry and proportion. Sometime in the 18th century, however, de Botton points to a turning point when the consensus broke down into several distinctive styles that represented and ultimately polarized individual tastes. The net result is that each building has a specific message, and the ones we like the best are the ones that most reflect our own values.
The special talent that de Botton brings to his book is how he can take buildings as diverse as the Doge's Palace in Venice to a McDonald's in London and bring out human characteristics through his descriptive prose. Buildings speak to him about the desires that emanate from not only their designers but from their inhabitants as well. In fact, he states that we search for an antidote to the often harsh world we inhabit through our own personal domiciles. The author surmises that many of us who work in modern, glass-encased skyscrapers seek comfort in residences that may be marked by more traditional forms of architecture simply to escape the grind and sterility of the workplace. These contrasts are important to us, and the bottom line is that we cannot live in our current world without embracing the various styles which represent chaos and order. One style simply cannot negate another no matter how much we like one over the other since all of them provide value to somebody.
Particularly resonant to me is one key example that de Botton describes, the Huis ten Bosch theme park and residential district in Sasebo, Japan, which was built to be an exact replica of a Dutch village. The exacting detail and scale of the complex is impressive, and it speaks to a palpable desire by the Japanese populace to display accurately rendered European-style architecture within their borders. However, there is much disagreement over the beauty of such an extravagantly laid out area otherwise disconnected from its original inspiration. As de Botton clearly elucidates, people will disagree on what constitutes the best constructed environment in which to enjoy life as much as what constitutes the best life there is. Even though he can get carried away with his sometimes pedantic imagery, his book is a provocative and well-written read, as much as his treatment of intellectual wanderlust in "The Art of Travel". There is also the added benefit of a clean layout and a number of helpful photographs of the buildings referred to by the author.
on December 1, 2012
This book asks a question that has interested me for a long time -- what makes some buildings beautiful? Unfortunately, the author does not provide much in the way of answers. He does discuss some interesting ideas, notably the fact that ideas of beauty in architecture change over time. But he passes over this to go on to more timeless issues -- balance, elegance, etc. It all sounds very nice -- Mr. De Botton's prose in unfailingly elegant, sometimes irritatingly so. It just doesn't add up to much.
on February 2, 2007
I just finished reading this book and felt inspired to express my appreciation for its content. I am always intrigued by those who claim to have new ideas for dealing with our existence as humans in more adaptive ways. (the title includes happiness in it after all) Our perceptual strategies create the world we experience yet most of us are never aware that we are the architects of our psychological homes. The author, through a beautifully written series of comparisons and parallels just might awaken some of us to the builder within.
on April 1, 2007
Like Tom Wolfe before him (see "From Bauhaus to Our House"), De Botton has produced one of the finest books of architectural theory and criticism by a non-architect. By that I don't mean that "he did all right for an amateur and a dilletante;" rather I mean that De Botton has written one of the best books of architectural criticism in recent memory, period. The fact that he is not an architect or critic only enhances this book's appeal, because it is written in plain language, with lovely illustrative phrases that allow the reader to inhabit his prose in the imagination. This is not "Architecture for Dummies," by any means, but De Botton's argument is accessible and understandable to architects and non-architects alike. This book is richly illustrated to bring home the salient points, and De Botton seems to have traveled enough to speak with authority about the places he writes of. This charming volume should be read and studied by every architect, would-be architect, architecture student, client, and design review board on the planet. Humanity would be well served if it became a standard text.
on March 8, 2007
I was mesmerized by the writing, able to only read a few pages at a time, before my heart was so full I couldn't read more, every line was memorable. a real treasure.