Alain de Botton: Nice buildings don't always make us better people

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The Independent Online

I remembered thinking that architecture really mattered quite a lot when I spent time in a building which perhaps taught me more about the power of architecture to influence who we are and how we feel than almost any other I have been in.

It was the Travelodge Hotel just near Colchester, where I happened to stay. I was staying in this building, and it is not particularly architecturally distinguished, but I remember thinking that everything about it was having a very big impact on me.

The bedspread was conspiring, together with the carpet and the lights, to suggest that life was essentially a meaningless and rather cruel exercise, best done with rather quickly. I remember thinking, dreaming, as I lay on that bedspread, how much happier I might have been if only I had been here in the Villa Rotunda, built by Andrea Palladio.

For better or worse, it really does matter where you are and the quality of the building is going to have an impact on you. For example, the view from my window in Shepherd's Bush in West London, is of a tower block built by a spectacularly unsuccessful architect called Sidney Kay. The problem with really unsuccessful architects is that what they do hangs around for a very long time – this will probably be with us for another 300 years. In other words, architecture is a serious business, and I do think that it impacts on our state of mind.

Of course, it is possible to take architecture so seriously that your love becomes a little bit ridiculous. There are lots of claims upon our time and our resources, and it is almost as though, if you put beauty in architecture at the top of your list, it is in danger of unbalancing your perspective on things. For instance, people who love beautiful things often make the huge claim that if you gather together a sufficient amount of beautiful things and put them in beautiful surroundings, people will become better.

It is a lovely argument, but I do not think it is actually true. Hermann Goering lived in one of the most beautiful houses of all the Nazi hierarchy, surrounded by devotional images from the Middle Ages that he had plundered from museums and private collections. But, of course, all of this beauty did not do him any good.

This has led some people to think that beauty therefore does not matter at all – that there is nothing we can do and people will never become any better. I would not go so far as saying that. Beautiful objects and places make suggestions to us about how we might behave. They are not ironclad laws, they are not medicines, but they are suggestions. We are free to take up those suggestions, or to reject them, but nevertheless, I do think that they do have a kind of beguiling and suggestive effect at their best.

This is an edited extract from a lecture given at Gresham College as part of the City of London Festival