Building Bliss

Habitats of our emotions

The Architecture of Happiness
By Alain de Botton
Pantheon, $25

Pity Alain de Botton, who must shield his delicate eyes every time he walks out the front door. For the Swiss-born philosophe is unusually sensitive to harsh, ugly sights—chief among them, bad architecture. De Botton, known for popular books including The Art of Travel and How Proust Can Change Your Life, now reveals the full extent of his affliction in The Architecture of Happiness.

Once, he admits, when taking refuge from a downpour in a bunkerlike McDonald's, he was tormented by its fluorescent lights and brown tiles, which goaded him to "thoughts of the loneliness and meaninglessness of existence." On a trip to Japan, Tokyo's bland cityscape made him "disconsolate"—a sadness, he sighs, that not even a bowl of dried seaweed could alleviate.

There is much to poke fun at in The Architecture of Happiness, a dilettantish, oddly melancholic look at the relation between what we build and how we feel. Certainly de Botton makes himself an easy target, with ruminations that often stray into the pretentious. The loose, meandering structure of the book doesn't help—a discussion of conceptual art feels like a community-college art appreciation class, and there is a slightly annoying naiveté to his observations on city planning. "The addition of shops and offices adds a degree of excitement to otherwise inert, dormitory areas," instructs de Botton. Jane Jacobs, take note.

But once you get past his mannered touches, de Botton offers a surprisingly astute case, embellished by ample photographs, for why some buildings make us happy and others don't. Wondering whether we look to architecture to embody our personality traits or, rather, those traits we lack, the author dances artfully around the question, then comes down on the side of the latter. Even today, good old-fashioned order, championed by Vitruvius and Andrea Palladio, can soothe our turbulent emotions and promise calm in an unsteady world, de Botton argues.

So is there a recipe for creating an elegant order in buildings, a foolproof mathematical formula? Palladio himself specified the exact ratios of column to capital, room height to width. Yet as de Botton points out, a neoclassical villa recently built to these standards in central London has attracted mostly derision. Its pediment looks too big, its walls are inauthentically white, and the strange alchemy by which parts meld into a harmonious whole has backfired, so that cupola and bas-relief, window frames and lampposts all clamor for our attention. Alluding to long-vanished aristocratic ideals, the villa seems out of step with its time.

Beauty and order do not belong to a single architectural style, and neither does a respect for tradition, as de Botton recognizes. Sometimes the most graceful nod to the past can take an unexpected form. The author praises the Yale Center for British Art, a 1974 building by Louis Kahn, in just these terms.

Kahn married the honeyed hues and old-fashioned connotations of oak with modern, bare concrete to achieve a subtle interplay of old and new, warm and cool. The architect, "like an intelligent host faced with a couple of dinner guests from sharply opposed worlds," reconciled them to evoke "an ideal contemporary Englishness."

Simple, understated buildings like Kahn's are de Botton's favorites, as opposed to the flashy "icons" of Frank Gehry or Norman Foster. If The Architecture of Happiness, for all its Proustian musings on stemmed wineglasses and Georgian fanlights, has a central thesis, it's this: "We rarely wish to be surprised by novelty as we round street corners. … Architecture should have the confidence and the kindness to be a little boring."

But not too boring, as order unchallenged by chaos tends to be. Our eyes drift over the facade of the 16th-century Procuratie Vecchie at St. Mark's in Venice, vainly seeking some relief from the predictable rows of plain arches. When order embraces complexity, however, the result is a masterpiece like the adjacent Doge's Palace, whose "smooth mass of white and pink brickwork … evokes a patterned tablecloth, with the arches of the gallery now transformed into tassels and the ground-floor arches into table legs … the decorations of the roof line [hint] at carnival hats saluting the skies of Venice."

At moments like this one, de Botton's prose rises almost to the charm of his subject. It's as pleasing to the eye as the supple curve of a grand staircase—which is enough to make me, at least, happy.

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