The Architecture of Happinessby Published 03 Oct 2006
|The Architecture of Happiness.pdf|
One of the great but often unmentioned causes of both happiness and misery is the quality of our environment: the kinds of walls, chairs, buildings and streets that surround us.
And yet a concern for architecture and design is too often described as frivolous, even self-indulgent. The Architecture of Happiness starts from the idea that where we are heavily influences who we can be, and it argues that it is architecture's task to stand as an eloquent reminder of our full potential.
Whereas many architects are wary of openly discussing the word beauty, this book has at its center the large and naÃ¯ve question: What is a beautiful building? It is a tour through the philosophy and psychology of architecture that aims to change the way we think about our homes, our streets and ourselves.
The Architecture of Happiness Reviews
When I was a child we used to have long walks with my parents (both architects) along the streets of my home town and listen to them discuss almost every building, every design choice and ornament we walked pass. Since then I got used to walking the streets looking up at the buildings (this resulted in stepping inside numerous puddles, dogs business and never finding any coins) and I thought that I could really "see" a building.
After reading this book I discovered a whole new way of "looking" at architecture. I discovered that buildings have their own psychology - it's in a way the building speaks to it's surroundings, it's in the way windows, doors, and other elements co-exist.
In this book Alain asks questions like, why we consider some things beautiful. What is elegance. And what buildings say about the times they were build in, and what the don't say about people who live in them.
I think that anyone who deals with aesthetics should give this book a go even if he doesn't find architecture particularly interesting. I can assure you will find this book very stimulating.
I also looked up some of the authors Alain mentions and found some interesting titles to add to my reading list:
Wilhelm Worringer - "Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style" and essays
Rudolf Arnheim - "Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye"
And essays by Friedrich Schiller
One can easily tell from Alain de Botton's writing that he is one of the most genuinely kind individuals on this planet. This is an excellent book on the importance of thoughtful architecture. It would have been nice to have more discussion on the constraints of money, and how working-class folks can build homes the are a net positive instead of the cookie-cutter high-density suburban debacle that many of us are forced into.
A nod to my brother for introducing this book to me. De Botton completely disbunks the notion I'd adopted (from whom? where?) that good architecture is purely functional and anything else is simply the expression of an its designer's overactive ego. NOT. Surely architects are guilty of erecting bombastic works, but it by no means explains why the line of a rooftop or curve of a banister stirs a particular mood and emotion in its viewer. De Botton delves into the how we relate to objects, why one object draws us in, another repels us. A fascinating dissection of architecture and human nature. This book was a revelation to me.
“Tendiamo ad attribuire il nome «casa» a quei luoghi il cui aspetto corrisponde al nostro e lo legittima. Non è indispensabile che le nostre case ci offrano in riparo permanente o che contengano i nostri vestiti per meritare questo nome. Parlare di casa in relazione a un edificio significa semplicemente riconoscere che è in armonia con il canto interiore a noi caro. Casa può essere anche un aeroporto o una biblioteca, un giardino o una tavola calda lungo l'autostrada. Il nostro amore per la casa è a sua volta il riconoscimento di quanto la nostra identità non si autodetermini. Ci serve una casa in senso psicologico oltre che in senso fisico, per compensare le nostre vulnerabilità. Ci serve un rifugio per puntellare i nostri stati mentali, perché spesso il mondo ci rema contro. Ci servono stanze nostre per trovare una versione desiderabile di noi stessi e mantenere in vita i lati importanti, ma evanescenti, della nostra personalità”.
Devo ammettere che questo libro mi ha piacevolmente stupito. Offre un punto di vista assolutamente originale e non banale. De Carlo disse che l’architettura è troppo importante per lasciarla agli architetti. In effetti, De Botton, che non è un architetto, riesce a scandaglire il rapporto tra uomo ed architettura. Un rapporto intimo e profondo. Un rapporto, spesso inconscio, che suscita emozioni, stati d’animo, sensazioni, che non riusciamo a controllare e di cui non ci rendiamo conto. Un rapporto difficile da comprendere perché ha ben poco di razionale. L’autore, in modo convincente, prova ad analizzare i diversi aspetti attraverso cui l’uomo si relaziona con l’architettura (più in generale con l’ambiente da cui è circondato) libero dai paradigmi dettati dalla composizione architettonica e dalle altre disciline accademiche. La scrittura è scorrevole e il volume è ricco di immagini. Non è un volume per tecnici e progettisti, non solo. È un libro per tutti perché tutti viviamo nelle nostre case, lavoriamo in uffici o capannoni, camminiamo per le strade, a volte dormiamo negli hotel, mangiamo nei ristoranti, visitiamo musei e monumenti.
Years ago I listened to a lecture by the Muslim scholar Sayyid Hossein Nasr that described the philosophy of traditional Islamic city planning, some of which still survives today in places like Fez and Esfahan. As Nasr described, these cities and their component parts were designed with the explicit belief that a person's external environment strongly influenced their internal state. A city that at every turn subtly reminded people of the divine reality would in turn help them gravitate towards the divine in their actions and beliefs.
According to this philosophy, Islamic cities, buildings and daily implements were all designed with a view to ornamentation and symmetry on both the macro and micro levels. The harmony of the manmade world was intended to reflect the harmony of the God-created natural universe, so beauty in design was considered every bit as important as physical integrity. Beautiful objects and buildings were intended to speak to people's souls by reminding them of the divine realm of pure beauty and love, considered in Islam to be mankind's true paradisiacal home, towards which it yearns to return. "Beauty is the promise of happiness," Stendhal once wrote, and beauty in the built environment was intended to remind men and women in Islamic societies of the happiness that awaited them at the end of a virtuous life.
I was reminded of this lecture while reading this book by Alain de Botton; in particular while coming across an arresting passage on the Christian philosophy of beauty and its explanation of why physical beauty strangely tends to fill us with both happiness and melancholy simultaneously:
“Christian philosophers have been singularly alive to the sadness which beauty may provoke. 'When we admire the beauty of visible objects, we experience joy certainly,' observed the medieval thinker Hugh of St Victor, 'but at the same time, we experience a feeling of tremendous void.' The religious explanation put forward for this sadness, as rationally implausible as it is psychologically intriguing, is that we recognize beautiful things as symbols of the unblemished life we once enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. While we may one day resume this sublime existence in Heaven, the sins of Adam and Eve have deprived us of that possibility on earth.
Beauty, then, is a fragment of the divine, and the sight of it saddens us by evoking our sense of loss and our yearning for the life denied us. The qualities written into beautiful objects are those of a God from whom we live far removed, in a world mired in sin. But works of art are finite enough, and the care taken by those who create them great enough, that they can claim a measure of perfection ordinarily unattainable by human beings. These works are bitter-sweet tokens of a goodness to which we still aspire, however infrequently we may approach it in our actions or our thoughts."
This was a beautiful passage that recalled to me the important role of physical beauty in cultivating our inner lives, whether we consider ourselves religious or not. Beauty is a repository of our hopes and desires, both for ourselves and the world we would like to see around us. Living surrounded by it can fill us with contentment, while living in an environment devoid of beauty can make us unhappy for reasons we are unable to rationally articulate.
But how does a given person decide what is beautiful to them? As de Botton eloquently argues, what we find appealing or unappealing in a given thing tends to be a reflection of the values that we aspire to include in our own lives. Every piece of art, furniture or architecture embodies certain values that we subconsciously perceive. A regally ornamented building may remind us of grandeur, duty and intellectual cultivation in a world of mediocrity, while a piece of abstract art may remind us of freedom and playfulness in a world of regimented order. A chair could be welcoming, friendly and honest, whereas a lamp could be diligent, loyal and even irreverent. Depending on the person and the society that they inhabit, different pieces of art and the values that they embody may speak to them in different ways.
The values that appeal to us in art are often the values that we feel that our own lives and our societies as a whole are lacking. I think that there is a deceptively powerful message in this. Meditating about the things around you and the values that you perceive them is enlightening on a personal level, but it is also an invaluable tool for improving ones ability to both speak and write in a manner that speaks deeply to the inner lives of those around you. This is a good habit to develop, and one reflected in the genius of the most sensitive writers and artists.
Rather than being "realistic," art and architecture has traditionally had an aspirational quality to it. As de Botton notes, the idealized human forms depicted by the Greeks were intended to offer a reminder of the goals of human perfection in that society, rather than to depict life as it actually was for most people. The buildings and products we make today generally claim to be devoid of ideology, but this is impossible. A lack of ornamentation and grandeur in suburbs and modern cities (to say nothing of mass produced goods) may be said to reflect a certain pragmatism and capitalist desire for efficiency, but they also set standards of mediocrity for the people that inhabit these environments. Meanwhile the identical glass towers of neoliberal cities around the planet seems to speak to a homogenized world, created by and for the deracinated global elite that is able to enjoy a life flitting between them. These insipid environments may explain why so many of us seek to visit "old" places when we go on vacations. We unconsciously seek out the beauty and values embodied in the architecture of antiquity, values which are, in general, painfully absent in our modern cities and suburbs.
Although I'm a layperson when it comes to architecture, I'd argue that it is one field in which laypeople should be afforded at least a qualified opinion, since we all have to inhabit the physical world created by architects. In this book, de Botton makes a strong argument for remembering the importance of beauty in our daily lives and in our social policies. His writing is simple and elegant, and, whether intended or not, it also communicates through its erudition a compelling message about the value of beauty in the everyday. A wise and enjoyable book that was a pleasure to read, I would recommend it highly to anyone.