Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Cosiness, firmness and delight

Modern architects have often been really bad at creating cosiness. Cosiness is one of the most essential of virtues in houses and yet so often, modern architects fear it as a one-way road to kitsch, which it doesn’t have to be.
Oh yes; it is Alain de Botton again, this time on the NZBC (I know, I should have posted this ages ago; I forgot; sorry). What I want to know of M. de Botton is why he should think that it is only the Moderns who failed to create cosiness in their architecture. Was there any time in the history of architecture when cosiness was considered to be an essential virtue, save perhaps the inglenook-infested Arts and Crafts movement? Could the works of Brunelleschi, Palladio, Vanburgh, Hawksmoor, Adam (Robert and James) or any of the Wyatts be considered in any sense snug? I think not.

M. de Botton's great achievement in the philosophy of architecture (about which I have previously written ) is to mangle philosophy and to ignore architecture. Instead he muses on the homely virtues, those found in the houses his readers aspire to own. It is all about how worn brick courtyards will make you happy. Many people think he is the cat's whiskers, so far as the theory of architecture is concerned. In part this is because the theorists of architecture are obscure and unintelligible, but mostly it is because people want their homes to make them happy. M. de Botton is clever and seems nice. He is a philosopher, or so it is claimed. He offers people the possibility of happiness. So they buy his books, which doubtless makes him happy.

What's more, he likes our houses, with their indoor-outdoor flow and proximity to Nature. This makes us happy, because we like it when people from Overseas say nice things about us. If only M. de Botton knew how uncosy our houses are in winter.


Tim said...

Oh Paul, what shall become of you. Get out the quilts, and have a nice cup-o-tea.

He's such a nice well mannered boy how could you say any ill of him?

Which brings me to quote him: "The worst books are those that somehow neither offend, nor truly delight anyone." Sounds like he's been reading his own stuff.

Uroskin said...

Only uncosy? As a Johnny Foreigner I find the New Zealand obsession with draughts in their homes (usually explained to me as "fresh ear inside") hard to get used to.

Paul said...

I wrote that piece wearing three layers and two pairs of socks. New Zealand's houses were once quite snug, but then polished wooden floors became preferred to carpets, the heavy drapes were removed, new windows were cut out of walls and the kitchen range that kept the house warm all day was replaced by the stove.

Stephen Stratford said...

We don't all live in villas. After spending most of my life in them, I now live in a three-year-old house with polished concrete floor, under-floor heating, modern (i.e. not sash) windows - and no draughts. It is not cosy but it is exceptionally pleasant even in winter. It took five minutes, max, to be converted. We would never live in a villa again.

But yes, de Botton is an irritant. "The Consolations of Philosophy" is a useful introduction but he does seem to be wrong about many things. We do not all, for example, suffer from status anxiety.

Peter in Dundee said...

Alain de Botton (he is thoroughly English mind so the M is superfluous, Dr would do) makes the point explicit in the tv series of Status Anxiety when he cites a study mapping how people use those giant houses the American middle classes inhabit. It found that people scuttle around the edges of those huge rooms and when furnishing them partition the rooms off into cosy zones.

You see the same thing when you go around the various stately homes that festoon the countryside here in UK. The giant drawing rooms are split up, easy chairs form a corner over there with reading lamps. Over there a card table with appropriate chairs, there a marquetry screen makes another cosy nook.

So we may well get architects to construct airy giant palaces for us, but psychologically we organise our lives in cosy niches when presented with living in those spaces. He means living spaces too, not audience rooms, ballrooms, grand dining rooms etc where impressing ones peers is important.

Large rooms are also notoriously hard to heat evenly and are prone to strange draughts, probably part of their reputation for being haunted, not a pleasant environment to inhabit.

Even in those places not given over to the National Trust and opened to the public 'The Family' inhabit a smaller space on a day to day basis.

Peter in Dundee said...

@Steven Stratford

You and I may not suffer (at least not unduly) from Status Anxiety, but that does not mean nobody does. I have worked with people who do worry that their neighbours have a better car than them and what that says about them. They are also not happy people.

The sale of luxury items whose only function is the declaration of status, whether it be jewellery, an expensive watch, designer labels etc also evidences against your assertion.

We humans are status obsessed, like all our fellow social apes as Orwell noted so long ago. Mao tried to expunge it with those green uniforms, except that party members had better quality of cloth very quickly. We also know from studies in Rio that those who live in favellas cheek by jowl with hillside homes with swimming pools and servants are much more highly stressed than matched controls in favellas surrounded by poverty. It is the reminder of the former's low status every time they look up that seems to be the only likely cause of that stress.

Stating that we don't suffer from it, does not make it true. Look around the land of endangered tall poppies sometime and think about what you see. Careful displays of 'ordinary blokeness' down the beach are all part of it as much as the car they drove there in.

stephen said...

We are looking for houses in a desultory sort of way. I'd love to join Steven in a warm modern house, but the leaky building disaster has made us extremely, perhaps even irrationally, wary of modern construction.

Apropos cosiness: one of my very favourite design books is A Pattern Language. The need for small comforting domestic spaces is a repeated theme...

wv: sperbia, the opposite of 'nisity.

stephen said...

Oh I can't believe I mis-spelled Stephen's name.