Title: ‘The Architecture of Happiness‘
Author: Alain de Botton
Publisher: Vintage, 2008; 288 pages; $18 list
Recently, I showed a home to a novice house hunter. From what I’d seen of her personality and tastes, I knew this place wouldn’t be "it" for her, but she wanted to see it anyway. We went in and she took it all in: little tiny windows; dark paneled walls; lots of rooms in a home that already had a pretty low square footage; what I like to call insecurity bars on the windows (that’s when there are bars on the window in an actually pretty nice/safe neighborhood) — and my normally chatty and upbeat client looked at me wide-eyed and summed her emotional reaction to the house up in three words: "I would cry."
In "The Architecture of Happiness," writer Alain de Botton explores exactly this phenomenon: the power of buildings to craft and influence our emotions, morality and even the essential nature of who we are as individuals located in a given place. When I use the term beautiful to describe this book, I struggle to decide, much less communicate, which feature is more compelling: the book’s many pictorial images or the verbal ones crafted by de Botton.
First, the pictures and, actually, their captions: They are so vividly illustrative of the arguments being made to their corresponding text as to create an enjoyable architecture of their own, in which one can’t wait to see what buildings de Botton will visually cite next.
To wit, a discussion of famed 1920s modernist architect Le Corbusier’s use of asceticism as a pretext for ushering in a cleaner ideal of beauty is accompanied by an "Advertisement for the 1927 Mercedes Benz, set against" a Le Corbusier cubist home with a flapper-styled woman at the car’s running board.
The caption: "A stage set for actors in an idealized drama about contemporary existence." A series of contemporary faucets is set against a 1783 study of human facial expressions with the provocative caption, "Who would we want to be friends with?"
Botton’s verbal coverage of structures and his uncomplicated, but non-obvious, extrapolations to conclusions about how they mold us as humans is beyond comprehensive. No building element escapes his artisan-level eye or pen. Urban planning designs, building materials, locations, elegance, balance, order, complexity and even finishes like faucets and flooring — all are analyzed for their power, in architecture, to both reflect and create certain human ideals. …CONTINUED
Hardwood floors, for example, aren’t just good for being easier to clean and more hypoallergenic than carpets, in Botton’s world. Rather, they reflect the "animating tension between order and chaos … when plans, which once has the pulse of nature flowing through them, submit to the will of the saw and yet … enough signs of life remain to counterpoint the carpenter’s geometry."
Throughout "The Architecture of Happiness," Botton weaves a lovely and strong case of verbal and visual support for his premise that architecture is precisely the opposite of frivolous in its power to created idealized or dreary emotional reactions and lifestyles in inhabitants.
Yet, in a stroke of utter realism that displays that Botton might be more of an expert on humans, even, than he is on buildings, the text is also dotted with tragic examples of humanity whose immorality — real or perceived — could not be neutralized, even when surrounded by the most beautiful, well-intentioned design. Nazi generals converse at home against a stunning backdrop of 15th century artwork. Despite the purpose to "offset the excesses of a palace," Marie Antoinette’s Queen’s Hamlet was unable to save her head from the people’s perceptions.
In these acknowledgments of what he himself deems, in the caption of an unfinished bridge, "the irrelevance of aesthetic discussion," in a book otherwise dedicated to that precise discussion, de Botton elegantly balances out the architecture of this stunning, entertaining and educational book.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.
What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.