HAMISH HAMILTON £17.99 (280pp) £16.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Architecture of Happiness By Alain de Botton

Dandy for decor - but not for drains

What exactly is the meaning of Alain de Botton? How best to understand this meticulous and intricate personality, this finely wrought phenomenon? Personally, I was immediately taken by his first book, Essays in Love. Slightly ephebic in tone, the mock profundity of the title was utterly seductive. As was the high intelligence and gentle style, which may or may not have contained elements of self-mockery.

Then he rolled out a guide to Proust which confounded all assumptions in the book trade. There is something exceptional about Alain de Botton. He has special weapons and tactics in the war on philistinism: he is erudite, but unthreatening, with the curiosity and sensitivity of a very bright child. His reader is taken along a journey with a sense of shared revelation. He neither talks down nor dumbs down.

The Architecture of Happiness has all these elements of a winning formula. But architecture is an even bigger subject than philosophy and status (de Botton's last tours d'horizon), not least because it assumes both. In a spectrum of architectural scholarship, I would certainly put de Botton closer to Nikolaus Pevsner than Laurence Llewellyn Bowen, although there is very little in this book unfamiliar to first-year students in any school of architecture.

We go Classic, Gothic, Victorian, Modern, Post-Modern. There is an obligatory ho-ho at an ugly Seventies tower-block. It is not the work of an architectural specialist, but then that is not de Botton's USP: "a philosopher looks at architecture". This intellectual identity allows de Botton to have a high old time making stylish and amusing judgements, with lavish and imaginative references, but anyone in search of privileged insights into the substance of building design should be warned that when this particular philosopher is looking at architecture he is not looking at drain schedules, pipe runs, thrust paths, strain gauges or circulation plans; de Botton is looking at façades.

He defines his subject as the communicative aspects of architecture and has been greatly persuaded by Stendhal's conceit that beauty is the promise of happiness. How we organise our minds and lives to achieve a state of nerveless bliss has, quite correctly, been a continuing pre-occupation in de Botton's writing. In The Architecture of Happiness he worries away, as many architects do, at how inert material things can convey meaning and alter consciousness.

But although he is a rigorous thinker, de Botton is not innocent of category-error, often making too flip an association between effects and the likelihood of a happy, beautiful result. He gets a bit simplistic with morphology. Nor are all his revelations as fresh as just-poured concrete: the contradictions in Le Corbusier's theory and practice were made familiar by Reyner Banham 40 years ago.

But The Architecture of Happiness is full of splendid ideas, often happily and beautifully expressed. About how idealism - indeed, how beauty - can make us sad because it is so disappointing. Or the way what is on show in a building is most eloquent of what was missing in the designer's imagination. And de Botton's conclusion is a fine thing too: "We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced."

Four cheers for that, but while this is an engaging and intelligent book, it may mislead. Great architecture is mostly concerned with the arrangement of space and light. Palladio's villas are magnificent things to consider, but would be nightmares to live in. What de Botton has done is the equivalent of literary criticism based on jacket design: a very interesting idea, but not the full story. Since Geoffrey Scott and Darcy Braddell there has been a need for a popular, non-partisan, unifying aesthetic of architecture. This is not it, but it gets close.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee