The Architecture of Happiness is a delightful little book by Alain de Botton. If you are at all a fan of architecture you will also enjoy the read. De Botton is an unparalleled wordsmith. Below I have quoted some of my favorite lines from the book with little added comment.
Throughout the book he does not necessarily give conclusions or solutions, this is more his observations on architecture and his critique of architects … which really is more of a challenge. A challenge to architects to create beautiful spaces that have an positive effect on our psychology.
I start with the closing line from the book:
“We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.”
From the back cover: “Virtually every page contains a sentence any essayist would have been proud to have written … Gentle affection pervades these pages, as does knowledge of architecture that is both broad and deep. A lyrical and generously illustrated monograph about the intimate relationship between our buildings and ourselves.” – Kirkus Reviews
“Those who have made architectural beauty their life’s work know only too well how futile their efforts can prove. After an exhaustive study of the buildings of Venice, in a moment of depressive lucidity, John Ruskin acknowledged that few Venetians in fact seemed elevated by their city, perhaps the most beautiful urban tapestry in the world. Alongside St. Mark’s Church (described by Ruskin in The Stones of Venice as ‘a Book of Common Prayer, a vast illuminated missal, bound with alabaster instead of parchment, studded with porphyry pillars instead of jewels, and written within and without in letters of enamel and gold’), they sat in cafés, read the papers, sunbathed, bickered and stole from one another as, high on the church’s roof, unobserved, ‘the images of Christ and His angels looked down upon them.’” (p 17)
“Then a new and contentious series of questions at once opens up. We have to confront the vexed point on which so much of the history of architecture pivots. We have to ask what exactly a beautiful building might look like.” (p26)
“What is a beautiful building? To be modern is to experience this as an awkward and possibly unanswerable question, the very notion of beauty having come to seem like a concept doomed to ignite unfruitful and childish argument. How can anyone claim to know what is attractive? How can anyone adjudicate between the competing claims of different styles of defend a particular choice in the face of the contradictory tastes of others? 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.” (p28)
“The essence of great architecture was understood to reside in what was functionally unnecessary.” (p47)
“LeCorbusier recommended that the houses of the future be ascetic and clean, disciplined and frugal. His hatred of any kind of decoration extended to a pity for the British Royal and the ornate, golden carriage in which they traveled to open Parliament every year. He suggested that they push the carved monstrosity off the cliffs of Dover…
For LeCorbusier, true, great architecture – meaning, architecture motivated by the quest for efficiency …
If the function of a plane was to fly, what was the function of a house? LeCorbusier arrived (‘scientifically’ he assured his readers) at a simple list of requirements, beyond which all other ambitions were no more than ‘romantic cobwebs’. The function of a house was, he wrote, to provide: ‘1. A shelter against heat, cold, rain, thieves and the inquisitive. 2. A receptacle for light and sun. 3. A certain number of cells appropriated to cooking, work, and personal life’”. (p57)
“Modernism claimed to have supplied a definitive answer to the question of beauty in architecture: the point of a house was not to be beautiful but to function well’.” (p62)
“Of almost any building, we ask not only that it do a certain thing but also that it look a certain way, that it contribute to a given mood of religiosity or scholarship, rusticity or modernity, commerce or domesticity. We may require it to generate a feeling of reassurance or of excitement, or harmony or of containment. We may hope that it will connect us to the past or stand as a symbol of the future, and we would complain, no less expressive level of function were left unattended.
In a more encompassing suggestion, John Ruskin proposed that we seek two things of our buildings. We want them to shelter us. And we want them to speak to us – to speak to us of whatever we find important and need to be reminded of.” (p62)
“If there existed a dictionary … the dictionary would resemble the giant catalogues which provide architects with information on light fittings and ironmongery, but, rather than focusing as those do on mechanical performance and compliance with building codes, it would expound on the expressive implications of every element in an architectural composition.
In its comprehensive concern with minutiae, the dictionary would acknowledge the fact that just as the alteration of a single word can change the whole sense of a poem, so, too, can our impression of a house be transformed when a straight limestone lintel is exchanged for a fractionally curved brick one. With the aid of such a resource, we might become more conscious readers, as well as writers, of our environment.”(p97-98)
“Touring the cathedrals today with cameras and guidebooks in hand, we may experience something at odds with our practical secularism: a peculiar and embarrassing desire to fall to our knees and worship a being as mighty and sublime as we ourselves are small and inadequate. Such a reaction would not, of course, have surprised the cathedral builders, for it was precisely towards such a surrender of our self-sufficiency that their efforts were directed, the purpose of their ethereal walls and lace-like ceilings being to make metaphysical stirrings not only plausible but irresistible within even the soberest of hearts.” (p112)
“We might even, the early theologians suggested, come better to understand God through beauty, for it was He who had created every beautiful thing in the world: the eastern sky at dawn, the forests, the animals, and even more domestic items like a graceful armchair, a bowl of lemons and a ray of afternoon sun shining through a cotton window blind onto the kitchen table. In contact with attractive buildings, we could intimate some of the refinement, intelligence, kindness and harmony of their ultimate maker. In the eleventh century the Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina noted that to admire a mosaic for being flawless, ordered and symmetrical, was at the same time to recognize divine glory, for ‘God is at the source of every beautiful thing.’ In the thirteenth century, from across a divide of faith, Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, asked us to picture ‘a beautiful house, this beautiful universe. Think of this or that beautiful object. But then, omitting “this” and “that”, think of what makes “this” and “that” beautiful. Try to see what beauty is in itself … If you succeed, you will see God Himself, the Beauty which dwells in all beautiful things.’” (p118)
“Spending time in beautiful spaces, far from a self-indulgent luxury, was deemed to lie at the core of the quest to become an honorable person.” (p118)
“The architecture produced under the influence of an idealizing theory of the arts might be described as a form of propaganda. The word is an alarming one, for we are inclined to believe that high art should be free of ideology and admired purely for its own sake.” (p145)
“The theorists of the idealizing tradition were refreshingly frank in their insistence that art should try to make things happen – and, more importantly, that it should try to make us good.” (p147)
“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 [because of sin, resulting in the loss of Eden]. The quantities 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.” (p149)
“[LeCorbusier scolds], ‘These things are beautiful because in the middle of the apparent incoherence of nature or the cities of men, they are places of geometry, a realm where practical mathematics reigns … And is not geometry pure joy?’
Joy because geometry represents a victory over nature and because, despite what a sentimental reading might suggest, nature is in truth opposed to the order we rely on to survive.” (p179)
“Architecture should have the confidence and the kindness to be a little boring.” (p183)
“In his In Praise of Shadows (1933) Junichiro Tanizaki attempted to explain why he and his [Japanese] countrymen found flaws so beautiful: ‘We find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a fine brilliance, but we object to the practice. While we do sometimes indeed use silver for teakettles, decanters, or sake cups, we prefer not to polish it. On the contrary we begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky, patina.’ (p235)
In writing about LeCorbusier’s 1925 city plan, detailed in The City of Tomorrow and its Planning, le Botton comments, “And because such an environment is uncomfortable, there is always a greater risk that people will respond abusively to it, that they will come to the ragged patches of earth between their towers and urinate on tyres, burn cars, inject drugs – and express all the darkest sides of their nature against which the scenery can amount no protest.” (p245)
In a comment about front doors, which I totally agree and even go further in believing every home should have a full covered front porch, le Botton writes, “When we approach front doors, we appreciate those that have a small threshold in front of them, a piece of railing, a canopy or a simple line of flowers or stones – features that help us to mark the transition between public and private space and appease the anxiety of entering or leaving a house.” (p247)
“The failure of architects to create congenial environments mirrors our inability to find happiness in other areas of our lives. Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design … those rare architects … create environments that satisfy needs we never consciously knew we even had.” (p248)
“We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.” (p267)