Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Architecture of Happiness
Can a building make us happy? In his book The Architecture of Happiness (just released in paperback) author Alain de Botton explores that question. I picked up the book at the library yesterday and enjoyed the first chapter, which includes this sentence: "While an attractive building may on occasion flatter an ascending mood, there will be times when the most congenial of locations will be unable to dislodge our sadness or misanthropy."

Asking a building to provide happiness is a tall order. It's been my experience that few things consistently deliver on that promise, though cuddling a baby or a dog, making love and eating strawberry-rhubarb pie with a hot cup of coffee come close.

The book has seven chapters, each an essay of medium length and plenty of photographs. In the first chapter, there are black-and-white images of a Mies van der Rohe dining area, Philip Johnson's Glass House and Nazi Hermann Goring surrounded by beautiful paintings and the French ambassador. The author's point regarding Goring seems to be that appreciation for aesthetic surroundings and evil aren't mutually exclusive.

So far, his themes seem rather obvious.

Still, he's a damn fine writer and it's a bit of joy just to read his paragraphs. An example: "Suspicion of architecture may in the end be said to centre [Building Minnesota editorial comment: Don't you just love the English?] around the modesty of the claims that can realistically be made on its behalf. Reverence for beautiful buildings does not seem a high ambition on which to pin our hopes for happiness, at least when compared with the results we might associate with untying a scientific know or falling in love, amassing a fortune or initiating revolution. To care deeply about a field that achieves so little, and yet consumes so many of our resources, forces us to admit to a disturbing, even degrading lack of aspiration."

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