Alain de Botton's modernism for the masses

Is the philosopher's new scheme to popularise contemporary architecture trivialising world-class design?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The best-selling popular philosopher Alain de Botton is directing a "revolutionary" (De Botton's word) project called Living Architecture. Significant architects – including Peter Zumthor, the winner of architecture's Oscar, the Pritzker Prize – have designed unusual houses that he describes as "the best of contemporary architecture". And five houses in Suffolk, Kent and Devon are now becoming available to rent as holiday homes. Presto. A Landmark Trust for edgily discerning post-modernists, or those who need their discerning done for them.

This is a potentially important and influential project. But just as Living Architecture begins to bear fruit from a thick, carefully composted mulch of media coverage, one can't help wanting to punch the delete button and have the whole project re-birthed in a way that would pay absolutely no lip-service to the demands of gormless product-launch strategies. The way Living Architecture is being rolled out makes De Botton complicit in the tendency to trivialise architecture – which is precisely what he is against.

In the 1970s, the godfather of rap, Gil Scott-Heron, declared sardonically that "the revolution will not be televised". Nearly four decades later, revolutions – including supposed architectural ones – are always televised. So, too, are they on Living Architecture's website. What could have possessed the articulate and thoughtful De Botton, the author of Status Anxiety and The Consolations of Philosophy, to approve the mostly crashingly banal interviews with the architects Sir Michael and Lady Patty Hopkins, Alan Pert of Nord, Winy Maas of the Dutch practice MVRDV, and Hakon Vigsnaes of the Norwegian practice Jarmund/Vigsnaes Architects?

De Botton asked not one interesting question of the Hopkinses' Long House scheme in Norfolk; Winy Maas's interest in the rural setting of MVRDV's Balancing Barn in Suffolk – "you're not allowed to touch [the landscape] because there are frogs on it, or whatever, and highly protected insects" – seemed of minimal importance compared with his search for spectacular architectural effect ("clad in elegant silver tiles, the house dramatically cantilevers over the landscape").

Alan Pert was clumsily presented as having one core idea for the design of Nord's Shingle House in Dungeness, Kent – that the floorboards and carpets would be purple to match the colour of flowers that grow on the shingle for one month a year; Hakon Vigsnaes' explanation of the "floating" Dune House near Thorpeness in Suffolk was, at best, drily logical. But what are these designs really about? Why are these houses notable?

The Swiss master, Peter Zumthor, was either shrewd enough or lucky enough to avoid his three televised minutes of De Bottonised fame, though that didn't stop the philosopher's scriptwriters from describing Zumthor's forthcoming Secular Retreat near Salcombe in Devon as "a veritable haven from the pressures of modern life, a space dedicated to calm, reflection and perspective – and in which one will be liable to feel some of the same sense of serenity and well-being as in an ancient monastery or abbey".

What if one made the veritably frightful blunder of failing to sense the architecture's mystically monkish tectonics, and merely loved the atmosphere of the house? Were the copywriters unwittingly compensating for describing Jarmund/Vigsnaes Architects as one of Norway's "most reknown" practices?

Architectural revolutions are not only televised but driven by idealised visions of the client-base. Thus, each of Living Architecture's five retreats is in a supremely fashionable spot and "set in some of the most stunning locations in Britain"; as if it would be a threat to the one-eyed god of good taste to build these houses in anything less than minted, upmarket countryside murmuring with the discreetly comforting burble of migrating greater crested four-by-fours, and the tweets of the aspirationally genteel.

"Relaxing break, Tarquin?"

"Stunningly laid-back, actually."

"And how was the place you stayed in?"

"Totally shock-of-the-new. Portia and I are stunned and revolutioned-out."

De Botton wants to make interesting contemporary architecture more accessible. Yet he has sanctioned a degree of oleaginous media-speak in a project that, by definition, should have nothing to do with superficial claptrap. Even leaving aside Winy Maas's faint damnation of "Reader's Digest" cottages and "cute" Suffolk beaches, it's hard to see how De Botton's platoon of advisers – ranging from the admirable Dickon Robinson, the former director of the charitable Peabody Trust, to Brett Steele, the director of the Architectural Association – remained mute when shown the front end of a Living Architecture campaign which has lip-glossed this potentially influential project.

Most of Living Architecture's houses seem to be highly engaging examples of domestic architecture that have put local vernacular styles and materials through various post-modern architectural re-examinations. Nord's Shingle House, for example, is contextually savvy, yet also subtly provocative; its materials and general form suit the ad hoc edge-of-the-world vibe of the buildings here, and a year or two of weathering will make their scheme seem as if it's been there for a decade.

Jarmund/Vigsnaes' Dune House, with its disembodied, floating upper level and asymmetrical roof pitches, may seem surreal, but it's actually a homage to the legendary House in the Clouds, which is raised considerably higher in the same coastal Suffolk village.

Peter Zumthor's Secular Retreat will unquestionably be first choice among holiday-home seekers already aware of this great architect's unique ability to use materials, space and light to create extraordinary atmospheres. His Kolumba Museum in Cologne, for example, is one of the most beautifully crafted fusions of new and old architecture in recent memory. It's clear, incidentally, that the Secular Retreat will be perfect in its key details: Zumthor is famous for getting exactly what he wants in terms of materials and finishes.

Materiality and refinement of detail will also be evident in Michael and Patty Hopkins' Long House near Blakeney. Craft quality in both natural materials and highly refined modernist detail is likely in the Long House. The other point about any Hopkins building is that its environmental performance will be notable: Hopkins Architects Partnership has been the leader in environmentally sophisticated British architecture for more than a decade.

But that notable fact triggers a final caveat about Living Architecture. At the recent launch of the project, a member of the audience asked what the environmental strategy had been, and De Botton admitted that exceptional environmental performance had not been strongly emphasised in the design briefs for the projects. There was no call, for example, for zero-carbon design.

This is a stunning, if not revolutionary, omission. Does this mean that Meredith Bowles, a champion of environmental architecture and one of De Botton's Living Architecture advisers, is implicitly surplus to requirements? Perhaps not, but it's hard to imagine that he was profoundly satisfied with the design of the steel frame and big anchor-foundations for the Balancing Barn that looms over "the frogs, or whatever".

Please do create many more of these interesting holiday homes, Mr De Botton. But please do not present potentially significant architecture as if it were just another consumer item to be ticked off along with the groceries from that terribly convenient but reassuringly expensive supermarket in Saxmundham, Suffolk, that many of your holiday-home clients will undoubtedly use. I'm certain that you do not wish to add to our status anxiety, or take us even further away from the consoling alchemies and resonances that can arise from building, dwelling, and thinking.

Living Architecture (