Beauty Pushes de Botton

Reports from the Field by • 05/15

Event: The Architecture of Happiness: How Our Surroundings Affect Our Emotional Well-being
Location: Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 05.01.07
Speaker: Alain de Botton — author, The Architecture of Happiness (Pantheon, 2006)
Organizers: World Monuments Fund; Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Architecture of Happiness

Courtesy alaindebotton.com

Author, philosopher, and television personality Alain de Botton has turned to architectural commentary after popular discourses on love, Proust, status anxiety, among others; his wit and erudition are unmistakable. He brings a degree of common sense to many of the buildings he discusses. If his project to reintroduce beauty unapologetically into architectural discourse were not as laudable as I believe it is, it would not be so painful to note how often his observations recall clichés. He informed us, for example, that good buildings demonstrate a sense of place and respect the natural features that they are replacing. This is not a news flash.

The goal that de Botton strives to help his listeners realize is admirable: connecting one’s attraction to visual beauty (something everyone senses but few articulate) with the more explainable aspects of one’s life. Much of his theory expands on a quotation from Stendhal (“Beauty is the promise of happiness”), and he recognizes a broad variety of definitions of happiness to provide a range of beauties, tailored to the elements people find missing from their lives. His appreciation of a placid minimalist kitchen by John Pawson, for example, expresses his own need for calm; the alarming Deconstructivist planes of a French government building, he says, imply that the bureaucrats within live in mortal terror of becoming any more boring than they already are. These observations ring true but rarely explore fresh territory.

De Botton takes seriously a question that he admits risks naïveté: just how important architecture is at all. He does not automatically assume an answer that will flatter architects. Offering a polarity between “Catholic” and “Protestant” views of architecture — the belief that ordered environs can bring people closer to the deity and a good life vs. the belief that divinity renders physical settings irrelevant — he says, “From an entirely secular point of view, I’m a ‘Catholic,’” and proceeds to anatomize ways that buildings can elevate, debase, defend, or confuse the psyche. Given the limited choice, who wouldn’t line up behind de Botton for communion wafers? The problem is that using this particular binary schism as an organizing metaphor omits most of the range and nuance of architectural debates (not to mention questions of functionality, ecology, and scale).

He also indulges a tendency to use negative examples that are absurd, scoring easy points off a mogul’s effort to mimic Amsterdam near Nagasaki, and a dreary mirror-glass box from one of New Jersey’s most soul-sapping corporate parks. Decoding the more challenging messages of today’s architectural provocateurs would have tested de Botton’s subjectivism in vital ways: what would he make of the atonalities, asymmetries, improvisations, and provocations of love-it-or-hate-it works by, say, Robert Venturi, FAIA, Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, or Frank Gehry, FAIA? He offers many observations that are worth engaging, if he’s willing to push himself past the elementary.

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