Home-made happiness

In 1923 a French industrialist by the name of Henry Fruges hired the Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier to design a workers’ housing complex near Bordeaux. The end-product was archetypically modern: plain white cubes with long rectangular windows and bare cement walls. However, the new tenants soon spoiled Le Corbusier’s minimalist creation, adding flowered wallpaper, pitched roofs and front gardens. The story is told by Alain de Botton in his latest best-seller «The Architecture of Happiness,» which has been published in Greek by Patakis. The London-based writer, it seems, has set out to get his name in as many bookshop sections as possible. After deconstructing romance («Essays in Love»), travel («The Art of Travel») and people’s need to be liked and loved («Status Anxiety»), de Botton grapples here with the relationship, a two-way relationship, between buildings and humans. This is neither an obscure diatribe on architecture nor an overpriced picture book but an accessible, often humorous page-turner. De Botton’s starting point is that buildings – from those by Andrea Palladio to those by Oscar Niemeyer or (the more familiar in Greece) Santiago Calatrava – affect our feelings, mood and, yes, our character. We are different people in different places. «In a hotel room strangled by three motorways, or in a wasteland of run-down tower blocks, our optimism and sense of purpose are liable to drain away, like water from a punctured container.» At the same time, architecture is a projection of ourselves and the aesthetic result says more about us than it. Buildings «speak of democracy or aristocracy, openness or arrogance, welcome or threat, a sympathy for the future or a hankering for the past.» Seeing a building as beautiful implies preference for the lifestyle that this particular type of structure endorses. A building embodies what we most value in life and it often makes up for what we miss. In other words, we like buildings that reflect our values. Architecture is a vision of happiness as it suggests to us who we would ideally be. To be sure, not everyone wants to be the same person, hence the differences in taste and in perceptions of beauty. This does not mean that there are no ugly buildings. De Botton scoffs at the postmodern «anything goes» idea of architecture. No, buildings are not all equally beautiful, he says. Although the concept of beauty changes over time, there are some objective qualities that make a building beautiful: order, balance, elegance, coherence, and what de Botton intriguingly calls «self-knowledge.» Of two bridges thrown over a deep chasm in a mountain, the prettier one is that which fulfills its mission in the most effortless and elegant fashion, de Botton says, supplying a large number of useful and well-placed pictures (unfortunately, not in color) to illustrate this and other arguments. Our judgment is also affected by our tendency to anthropomorphize objects, to attribute human characteristics to the buildings and the objects they contain. A building can be tall or short, happy or sad, bold or timid. «What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end so far from what we search for in a friend. The objects we describe as beautiful are versions of the people we love.» De Botton has the talent of writing about things we deem obvious – often expressing what we see as our most private thoughts – but have difficulty putting into words, as when he describes the unheroic character of happiness that «might be found in a run of old floorboards or in a wash of morning light over a plaster wall.» If such feelings seem completely alien to you, you should perhaps consider a different book. Much of what he writes sounds wonderful (some will say oversimplified or pretentious) – but some things simply don’t hold. This often escapes the reader’s attention thanks to de Botton’s undeniable charm. But the author knows the theoretical snags of the book and tries to downplay them, for instance that design and architecture are more often than not a question of money. He also nods to the fact that the ideal house does not guarantee existential peace or a good mood. We may be equally unhappy inside a Kifissia mansion as in a loft in downtown Psyrri. Architecture, we are told, matters; but not that much after all. There are more contradictions. De Botton claims that homes reflect what we are but elsewhere he says that homes reflect what we aspire to be – which is quite different. (Of course, what we are – read pretentious – often speaks volumes about what we aspire to be, but this goes unmentioned in the book). Moreover, how certain are we that happiness is in fact the guide of architecture? What exactly is the vision of happiness served by the architectural nightmare of Athens? Yet de Botton insists. Even the modernists who justified their creations in technological or functional terms – Le Corbusier branded them «machines for living» – were basically driven by romantic ideals: «They looked to architecture to support a way of life that appealed to them.» They wanted their houses to speak about the future, about technology, about democracy. They wanted their lamps to evoke the robustness of factories and their coffee machines the dynamism of high-speed trains, he writes. When Madame Savoye expressed her desire to fit an armchair and two sofas into the living room of her Corbusian home, the subversive architect made no secret of his frustration. «Home life today is being paralyzed by the deplorable notion that we must have furniture,» he protested. «This notion should be rooted out and replaced by that of equipment.» Back in Bordeaux, Monsieur Fruges’s workers were fed up with the impersonal and frenetic environment of the factory and yearned for the humble rural life of the countryside. Hence the violent renovation of Le Corbusier’s minimalist structure. Both sides sought the qualities that were missing from their lives. Architecture is an antidote for the world we’re thrown into, the author suggests. It’s an attempt to impose a neat, well-ordered enclave in the midst of the surrounding disorder. Like good architecture, bad architecture is a failure of psychology as well as design. It’s a product of the same «tendency which in other domains will lead us to marry the wrong people, choose inappropriate jobs and book unsuccessful holidays: the tendency not to understand who we are and what will satisfy us.» [email protected]

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