The Architecture of Happiness


Taking architecture seriously . . . requires that we open ourselves to the idea that we are affected by our surroundings even when they are made of vinyl and would be expensive and time-consuming to ameliorate. It means conceding that we are inconveniently vulnerable to the colour of our wallpaper and that our sense of purpose may be derailed by an unfortunate bedspread.

I just finished The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. It's a short, essayistic book examining how we determine which architecture is beautiful, and why aesthetic preferences vary between people and over time.

Buildings interest me, as does happiness, plus I wanted something to back up my request for an office with windows at work. So when I came across this title a year or two ago, I included it in my annual Amazon book spree. I can't remember any more who to thank for the recommendation, although for the first third of the book I was looking for someone to blame.

The book is not a light read. It's packed with ideas, it makes you think, and if you want to unwind after a day of challenging patients or children, pass this one over. I wondered a few times if English was de Botton's first language, because at times he uses it in such a wordy, complicated way that I had to reread the sentence three times to grasp the concept. Of course, the problem could be mine.

But if you pick up the book when you are feeling fresh and focused, and work on getting through it over the course of a week, it's a great read. What I loved about The Architecture of Happiness was that it is full of fascinating concepts applicable to our daily interactions with buildings.

De Botton explains the sadness we often feel when presented with beauty as an innate recognition that life is flawed, and ideals rarely recognized: "The flawless object throws into perspective the mediocrity that surrounds it. We are reminded of the way we would wish things always to be and of how incomplete our lives remain."

He suggests that we long to surround ourselves with objects that hold qualities we consider ideal, so that we might more purposefully pursue those qualities in ourselves. "A feeling of beauty is a sign that we have come upon a material articulation of certain of our ideas of a good life," explains de Botton. "We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us." This might be my favourite quote from the book:

Endeavoring to purchase something we think beautiful may in fact be the most unimaginative way of dealing with the longing it excites in us, just as trying to sleep with someone may be the bluntest response to a feeling of love. What we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess, the objects and places that touch us through their beauty.

Put another way, what we find attractive tends to reflect our own deficiencies. "[W]e are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient." This helps explain my own juxtaposing predilections for the spare, light, small space and the worn, dark, cluttered room. The first preference reflects my resistance to complicated areas of my life, and the second my longing for history and family. On a cultural scale, De Botton might suggest that the current preoccupation with natural colours and textures (wood, stone) in Vancouver homes reflects society's loss of nature in day to day life.

The book is liberally dotted with photos to illustrate de Botton's analyses of good and poor architecture. We drove by VGH yesterday and it was quite satisfying to be able to articulate to Pete one reason why the buildings are unattractive: they're conflicted, focusing on the horizontal axis rather than their height.

De Botton has written on a wide range of topics, including travel, falling in love, anxiety and philosophy. I'm going to put a couple of those on my 'To Read' list. But first, some fiction is in order.