Thursday, March 26, 2009

The building code

Here is something I had published Craccum in 2006, a review of Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness. To be fair to M. de Botton, this rather acerbic review should have been paired with an interview. Craccum's Editor, Ryan Sproull, decided that he would take the free lunch and the chat with the author, while I would have the lowly task of reviewing the book. Having lunched, however, Mr Sproull was evidently too weary to share his insights into the author by writing up the interview, so my review was published on its own, save for a note from Mr Sproull saying that he found M. de Botton to be a very nice chap.

Anyway, I am posting the review now because I keep meeting people who have read this book and consequently hold rather odd views about the aesthetics and purposes of architecture.

Sometimes you come across a book which delivers everything that it promises on the cover. This is one such book. The theme of The Architecture of Happiness is that architecture is about happiness. To drive this point home, as it were, the book's publishers have provided the book with a cover picture which tells a story. At an upper window of a modernist home sits a middle-management man, looking out into the night. Below him, his wife stands at the picture window of their lounge, diverted from her knitting and lost in thought. They are clearly unhappy. Implausibly close to their home is a larger and more traditional house in darkness. Perhaps if they had bought the house next door, they would not be suffering this ennui.

Alain de Botton is in the happiness business. His mission is to make the angst-ridden middle class happy, through the medium of best-selling trade paperbacks, each with a tie-in television series. In The Consolations of Philosophy, he mixed together all the cheerful bits of ethics to show how people could live the Good Life. He followed this with Status Anxiety, which told his readers that they were unhappy because they craved status (de Botton's titles are nothing if not self-explanatory) and could make themselves happy by doing something else. Now he has decided that his readers need to know that architecture can make them happy; in fact it should. Of course, Alain de Botton is not an architectural historian, but then he is not a philosopher either and that has not stopped him so far.

For de Botton, architecture is a more encompassing term than it is for professionals. He sees no difference between a Palladian villa and a rustic cottage in the Lake District. It is all architecture to him, whether great public monuments or cosy nooks. The trick of avoiding architectural distinctions is achieved by dismissing all the work of architectural history and aesthetics as irrelevant. The appreciation of architecture is not achieved by looking and thinking, but feeling: "acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us." This is a book which will make any architectural historian just a little bit sad.

Admittedly, de Botton does give his readers a rather bumpy ride through the last five hundred years of architectural history, but this is done only to establish his point that it is no longer possible to talk about beauty. His argument is that once we had one dominant style, Classical, but the certainty it gave fell apart when Gothic architecture was revived. Things went even worse when other styles were introduced, until it became impossible to make a claim for the superiority of any one style. Thus we could not talk about any standard of beauty, leading de Botton to conclude that "the creation of beauty, once viewed as the central task of the architect, has quietly evaporated from serious professional discussion and retreated to a confused private imperative."

Exactly what constitutes a confused private imperative remains unexplained, but de Botton's conclusion allows him to ignore aesthetic discussion of architecture. Throughout the book, the word aesthetics is mentioned only in scorn. Just to be on the the safe side, he also uses his interpretation of the early history of the the Modern Movement to bludgeon questions of aesthetics into submission. As far as he is concerned, Modernists wanted to replace beauty with technology, apparently because they were afraid of aesthetic objections to the appearance of their buildings voiced by adherents of Gothic or Tyrolean architecture. After the Modernist triummph, there could be no more talk of beauty. The fact that early theorists of Modernism were deeply concerned about architectural beauty has eluded him; quite where he obtained his opinion about the threat of the Tyrolean style is a mystery. As noted above, de Botton is not an architectural historian.

Nor is he an aesthetician. Arguments about beauty are too difficult and too inconvenient to his theme to be considered. Speaking for us, de Botton decides that "we should acknowledge that the question of what is beautiful is both impossible to elucidate and shameful and even undemocratic to mention;" presumably, he skipped the Philosophy of Art lectures. Instead of bothering with aesthetics, we should look for values in our architecture. Given de Botton's rather shaky understanding of architectural history and theory, this is obviously a wise course to take. It also allows him to talk at length on his favourite theme, the Good Life.

Free from the bounds of any conventional discussion of architecture, de Botton runs wild. He throws together some of the ideas of John Ruskin (who lurks in the background of much of this book's thinking) with a shallow understanding of the psychoanalytic art theory of Adrian Stokes, leading him to make some childlike ruminations about how buildings have personalities which speak to us. He sees representations of human and animal forms everywhere. One building has weary, sceptical eyes; another is like a beetle; a third like a hedgehog. He is similarly affected by furniture, typefaces and even glassware: "stemmed glasses seem generically feminine, though this category encompasses warm-hearted matrons, nymphets and nervy blue-stockings, while the more masculine tumblers count among their number lumberjacks and stern civil servants." If you are buying de Botton a drink, remember to ask him if he wants it in a nymphet or a lumberjack.

Emerging from this enchanted forest of animated houses and drinking vessels, de Botton leaves behind all sense of buildings being the work of architects whose designs were made to meet specific needs. Instead, he proposes that what architecture does is compensate for various deficiencies in the psyches of its users, going so far as to claim that historical changes in architectural taste were due to developments in the psychological yearnings of entire societies. Buildings are moral lessons, reminding us of our failings and comforting us for our frustrated desires.

To ensure that future buildings will do their essential work of producing happiness, de Botton concludes his book with some architectural 'virtues', the greatest of which is self-knowledge. If architects follow his precepts, they will no longer be artists, but they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they are healers. The City of Tomorrow will be a self-help book for its anxiety-ridden citizens. In its architecture they will find comfort, if not joy.

Despite its florid language and its visionary claims, The Architecture of Happiness is at heart a manifesto for mediocrity. The tepid nature of its thinking can be seen just by looking at its illustrations of contemporary buildings, most of which seem to have been chosen for their blandness. It is not just de Botton's woeful ignorance of architecture and his inability to look at buildings that induces him to choose these examples. He wants architecture to be dull. Originality, like beauty, causes too much trouble and diverts architects from their primary duty of making middling people comfortable with their average lives.

If de Botton succeeds, our buildings shall be virtuous and dull. The future is beige.


Lyndon said...

Silly idea. The purpose of architecture is at achieve immortality.

Jake said...

Hey, it could be worse. You could be studying history history, and have to field questions about Apocalypse Week on the History Channel, or that twat Gavin Menzies.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thanks for that. My ignorance of architecture and its literature is positively encyclopaedic, but I am struck from time to time by the seemingly prevalent contemporary surrender to the idea that we don't do beauty any more, we simply can't. So at best we end up with quirkily memorable pieces of self-conscious ugliness, such as the Beehive or the proposed new airport terminal in Wellers.

It's half a miracle that Hundertwasser won that bid for the public toilet, really.

(Oh, btw, I pre-ordered the Hatherley book. Am I turning into a groupie?)

You could be studying history history, and have to field questions about Apocalypse Week on the History Channel

What, they're taking a break from the usual Hitler Schedule?

Jake said...

What, they're taking a break from the usual Hitler Schedule?

They did. They really did.

And in response to your other question: yes.

Jake said...

That said, I think I'm going to pre-order it too.

Paul said...

Lyndon, good link.

Jake, is it you who is fielding such questions, or some other history history man?

Giovanni, welcome to my world. I would go further and suggest that ugliness is considered a virtue, that beauty is thought suspect.

I shall request the Hatherley for the University Library. I see it as my public duty.

Robyn said...

I read the book and watched the series and the one thing I remember from it was his idea that people build buildings that represent what is missing from their lives. Eg, Britons turning farmland into suburbs build in a mock Georgian style, as if they're not really sprawling and are still sort of living in the countryside.

So I started to think about this in terms of New Zealand houses, and the only thing I managed to come up with is that we are really stuck on the shape of a 1940s state house, and keep building new houses in that style. I'm not sure what this says about New Zealand, if anything.

Paul said...

It says that we are unable to let go of Nanny State's apron strings, despite everything that Sir Rogernomics Douglas has done for us. We are weak, and unworthy of him. ACT supporters, on the other hand, live in Tuscan-style townhouses, made from fibreboard.

Amanda said...

I read the book and watched the program too and I seem to remember liking it- probably the best of all of his "Philosophy for the People" works. I thought the main gist of it was that modern mass housing is crap and not thoughtfully or well designed aesthetically or functionally. I totally agree with this.

sas said...

I can recommend his other book 'The Art of Travel'.

And he has just published another called 'The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work'.

Ryan Sproull said...

Apologies for you not doing the lunch/interview, Paul. I don't recall the specifics, but it probably just never occurred to me for someone else to do it, which goes to show the kind of self-involved space I was in at the time. A belated thanks for doing the review anyway.