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The Architecture of Happiness By Alain de Botton
Dandy for decor - but not for drains
Friday 05 May 2006
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.
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