I pity architects, I really do. They start out so full of enthusiasm at the beginning of their five-year training, with ambitions to shape our buildings and public spaces, with dreams of being the new Le Corbusier or Norman Foster, with the promise of wealth and happiness and a place in the history books. And yet so rarely does it work out like that.
During the 10 years I worked as a journalist on design magazines, I almost never met an architect who didn't live in what Henry James called a "torment of taste", angry that the world could never live up to their idea of perfection. So highly developed were their aesthetic sensibilities that every trip outside pained them. I remember one architect who couldn't sit in my kitchen, so offended was she with the way I had placed my bin "on axis". Another objected to the fact that I had placed an even number of flowers in a vase. In addition, they were generally eaten up with jealousy of their rivals, paranoid that the next job would be cancelled or snatched away, or that their genius would not be recognised when their project was finally finished. As a result, their personal lives were often in tatters and their relationships with clients regularly ended in tears. In short, never have two such words as "architecture" and "happiness" been more unlikely to come together.
Why the business of architecture should be so fraught has become one of the longest- running cultural debates in history. We know that as far back as antiquity scholars like Vetruvius tried to resolve the stand-off between architects and their public by producing a book of rules for how a good building should look. "Just do it like I tell you," he seemed to be saying, "and everything will be OK." But did people learn? No sooner was Rome finished with its ordered columns and elegant architraves then all those Goths started with their finials and flounces, fan vaulting and gargoyles. And then along came Brunelleschi and it was back to Doric again. Could nobody put an end to this bickering?
Many great minds have tried. And with smart names like Goethe and Ruskin, Wittgenstein and Stendhal already in the ring, it's natural that Alain de Botton should want to have a go. So here in his latest book we have his musings on the troubled history of architecture and his suggestion, if only we would listen, for how the whole thing could be resolved.
De Botton's path is a well-worn one. The fabulously rich and well-educated son of a Swiss banker, he naturally admires the cathedrals of Europe and Haussmann's Paris, but dislikes McDonald's and the high-rise council flats that blotted his view in Shepherd's Bush. In common with almost everybody else of his class and learning, he tells us that he prefers the imaginative contemporary domestic architecture of the Netherlands to the pastiche cottages erected by the Prince of Wales at Poundbury in Dorset.
His credentials set out, he goes on to ask how architects can design buildings which contain the spirit of the places which make him happy, and avoid what he sees as the pitfalls of those which do not. Or in De Botton-speak: "The challenge facing ordinary home-builders is no different from that which faced the architects of Chartres and the mosque of Masjid-I Imam in Isfahan ... Without honouring any gods, a piece of domestic architecture, no less than a mosque or a chapel, can assist us in the commemoration of our genuine selves."
De Botton's solution is that we all need to acquire an understanding of what the Japanese call wabi, which in essence is the appreciation of simple pleasures: "ill-matching sets of crockery... walls with blemishes... rough weathered stones covered in moss and lichen." For him this translates into architecture as a plain concrete house on a Swiss hillside. Basically, what De Botton sees as the root cause of the problem is the lack of education in the people who commission or consume buildings. "After being properly introduced to the true range of architecture, the prospective buyers of a red-brick Neo-Tudor house might look beyond their original wish," he suggests. Few architects, I think, would argue with him, and their souls would soar at the thought of lines of well ordered houses - built to their design, naturally.
All of this has been said many times before of course, if rarely so smartly. The problem, as De Botton's predecessors have found, is that it's one thing to write about utopia, or even to design it, and quite another to get it built. Human nature is contrary, taste is subjective, and construction is a messy and expensive business. I can't fault the selection of fine buildings De Botton has chosen to illustrate his case and we should marvel that they exist at all. As for all the rest, the best thing is to accept them and enjoy the diversity of life they represent. Alternatively, you could move to Switzerland. Whatever you do though, don't let it get to you, or you may end up as unhappy as an architect.