June 15, 2015

The Architecture of Happiness: Ideals of Home - Memory

In the last chapter, De Botton explored the communicative powers of objects in that we call a building beautiful when it speaks to us of the values we think worthwhile. Part IV: Ideals of Home asks why we need objects to speak to us. What do they say of our ideals, and why do our ideals change over time?

Part IV: Ideals of Home - Memory

Why do we need objects to remind us of happiness, to provide us with clarity, to teach us about dignity? Does this not make us “inconveniently vulnerable” to our surroundings? De Botton claims that the reason we need this external communication is because we “harbour within us many different selves” and particular aspects of our true self are accessed by the places we are in. Our buildings and the objects we surround ourselves with embody the moods and ideas we respect. We depend on our surroundings to remind us of our ideals and to provide us with a vision of ourselves. We refer to a “home” as a place whose outlook is in “harmony with our own prized internal song”.
In acknowledging this theory, we admit that there is a degree to which our identity is not self-determined. Architects of religious buildings understood this theory. In fact, the principle of this type of architecture is that where we are critically determines what we are able to believe in. We are either nearer or further from God on account of what is written on the walls. 

Works of architecture can express different concepts and ideologies; their values encourage and enforce the aspirations within us. For instance, think of the emotions you experience when walking into a cathedral versus a McDonalds. In both early Christianity and Islam, theologians claimed that buildings had the power to improve us morally and spiritually. A beautiful building became a lesson in righteousness, giving a new seriousness and importance to the profession. For instance, a simply crafted door would remind us of the “virtues of sobriety and of moderation”; the intricate geometries found in mosques provides us with a sermon on the infinite wisdom of God. 

The idea that buildings allow us to access certain values applies to both religious and secular architecture. Perhaps best described by de Botton, “Architecture can arrest transient and timid inclinations, amplify and solidify them, and thereby grant us more permanent access to a range of emotional textures which we might otherwise have experienced only accidentally and occasionally”. 
Home is any place that consistently speaks to us of important truths; we build to keep a record of what matters to us. Most of the earliest and significant works of architecture have been funerary. Think of the massive stone monuments all around the world, dating back 4000+ years and how eloquently they deliver the message of memory. The fear of forgetting and the desire to remember is the reason we construct and decorate buildings: to help us recall the “important but fugitive parts of ourselves”. They are memorials of our identity. The architectural impulse is connected to a longing for communication and commemoration. It is a longing to disclose ourselves to the world through objects and colours. It is the desire to let others know who we are, and in the process, remind ourselves.

All photos are mine, unless they are linked to their respective owners.

March 19, 2015


I love John Cusack, particularly in a rom-com setting, but Runaway Jury was a nice shift. Especially since it included a twist, which I also love. Sexy Baby is a documentary about children in the cyber world, and how they and their families are navigating this new sexual landscape. 
I stumbled upon the movie Basquiat in perfect timing, as there is a retrospective of his work currently on at the AGO. The art world in 1980s New York City is so fascinating, and loved that David Bowie played Warhol. I definitely have to check out the exhibition after seeing this movie. Electrick Children kept coming up on Netflix and I finally gave in to watch it. I was surprised by it. I appreciated the way it was shot, the moments of silence in the film, and the reoccurring imagery. The story kept me interested but I was a little bit bummed that I never found out the truth behind the immaculate conception!
Julie Deply is such a wonderful filmmaker. I really enjoyed watching 2 Days In New York, the sequel to 2 Days in Paris. I love her thought process and the dialog she writes. I enjoy watching her characters; they are always so real and I find it easy to watch their lives evolve as they figure themselves out. Lake Bell has also been an inspiration of mine lately. I really admire her work, and am still thinking about In A World.... She's tangible, and I love the story she created in this film. Looking forward to her next film.

March 13, 2015


Last November I was a part of a Time Capsule Workshop led by Labspace Studio. Myself and nine other artists/ designers met at the Gibson House Museum and we were led on a socio-historic walking journey surrounding the historic site. 
On our psychogeographic walk, we explored the contrasts between the 1851 farmhouse and the surrounding urban developments. We navigated through the high-rise condos and the planes of an expansive cemetery. We walked through an older suburban, single family dwelling neighbourhood and into a wooded Earl Bales Park. The experiences of contrasting landscapes mingled with sentiments of past and present.

After our walk, we were asked to create an item that was a reflection of our experiences based in the past, present and future.

I created a collage Relics made of clippings from condo ads and architecture magazines from 2014. My intention was to visualize the passive observation of the condo boom within present day Toronto, and to ask ourselves to question what these buildings will represent in 50 years. Below is a description:
In experiencing the city, the eye doesn’t see things but images of things that mean other things. Buildings speak to us through memories by prompting within us associations that remind us of historical and personal circumstances. As a result, architectural styles have become ‘emotional souvenirs’. In 2015, as we begin to experience a wane in the condo boom of the last few years, we begin to question the communicative powers of this new architecture. Massive condo developments have become a faceless and placeless architecture due to their ambiguity with their contexts and repetitive visual styles. With constant construction and quick turnaround times, what is the connection/ the memories/ the emotional souvenirs we are creating for ourselves and the generations of the future?

My collage Relics will be stored with the City of Toronto's "Living History Collection". It will be re-opened in 50 years on November 2, 2064.

Please see the works created by the other members of the Time Capsule Workshop here.

All images provided by Labspace Studio.

February 23, 2015

The Architecture of Happiness: Talking Buildings

In Part II: In What Style Shall We Build?, de Botton claims that architecture provokes desires and thoughts within us, just as much as they speak of their visual and material attributes. Part III: Talking Buildings explores this ‘curious process’ by which arrangements of materials are able to express themselves. If you haven't read my summary on Parts I and II, click here!

Part III: Talking Buildings

How are abstract sculptures capable of articulating the greatest of themes; of loneliness and desire, of human kindness and cruelty? In the first half of the twentieth century, sculptors began exhibiting work that was difficult to define; works that lacked an emulative quality that had been present since the Ancient Greeks while also having no practical capacity. These new abstract objects exposed us to the range of thoughts and emotions that every non-representational object can convey. Sculptures teach us the important themes in our lives, communicated through plaster or marble carvings, wood and string, or through words or in human/ animal likeness.
As a result, we must realize the communicative powers of all objects, including buildings. “We can look at a practical entity like a desk, a column or an entire apartment building and here, too, locate abstract articulations of some of the important themes of our lives.” When looking at an abstract sculpture, it is not necessarily unrealistic to associate it with a familiar subtext; we may unconsciously understand a ball and two marble wedges as a family, for instance. De Botton states that it does not take much for us to interpret an object as human or animal. Our reason for liking abstract sculptures, and by extension buildings, is when they succeed in evoking the most attractive qualities of humans and animals.

When we start to look, we can find personalities and suggestions of living forms in everything from font to objects to faces. This tradition of associating objects with living beings can be traced back to Vitruvius. His book Ten Books on Architecture, written in 15 BC, pairs the three principle classical orders with human or divine archetype from Greek mythology. De Botton states that we can judge the personality of objects from minuscule features because we first acquired this skill in relation to humans. For instance, a slight millimeter difference separates a nose from being sad and sarcastic, or crafty but vulgar, to mild and forgiving. 

Since we can learn so much from slight facial expressions, what do buildings say to us? “To feel that a building is unappealing may simply be to dislike the temperament of the creature or human we dimly recognise in its elevation.” We search for in architecture what we search for in a friend.

Even when objects don’t look anything like people, it is not difficult for us to associate the human personalities they might obtain. De Botton gives the example of two chairs: one with a curved back and one rectangular. It is not unimaginable to assign the curved chair a playful temperament, and the rectangular chair as stable, serious. “The ease which we can connect the psychological world with the outer, visual and sensory one seeds our language with metaphors.” Buildings in turn represent and express our psychic state.
Now that we have discovered how eloquently materials and colours are able to communicate, it is not difficult to see that “political and ethical ideas can be written into window frames and door handles”. Buildings speak to us through memory, by prompting associations, which remind us of historical and personal circumstances. As a result, architectural styles have become ‘emotional souvenirs’. Our subconscious uses a synaptic process to make connections that our conscious selves are incapable of articulating. As designers, we can take advantage of this process, for example, by creating trapezoidal shapes and stepped forms and trusting that it will be understood as reference to Art Deco. Therefore we can make judgements on buildings based on what they symbolize, not by what they actually are.

Unfortunately, this associative nature can lead us to pass an arbitrary verdict on an object, building, or even person, based on our subconscious connections. Only time allows us to forget our negative projections and to embody good qualities rather than remind us of them. 

The buildings we admire, the ones that speak beautifully to us, are ultimately those that magnify the values we think worthwhile. The French writer Stendhal wrote, “Beauty is the promise of happiness”, while leaving the individual to define their own vision of happiness. De Botton ends stating, “To call a work of architecture or design beautiful is to recognize it as a rendition of values critical to our flourishing”. It is the conversion of our individual ideals in a material medium.

Do you have a favourite building? What types of styles are you attracted to, and how has that changed as you have aged? I will be spending the next few days asking myself, why is Fallingwater my favourite building? What does the aesthetic of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture speak to me? Next time I will be discussing Part IV: Ideals of Home. In the meantime, think about what your ideals in a home are, and how they are translated into a physical medium.

All photos are mine, unless they are linked to their respective owners.

February 19, 2015

The Architecture of Happiness: In What Style Shall We Build?

Here is my summary of Part II in Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness. If you missed Part I, The Significance of Architecture, please click here.

II. In What Style Shall We Build?

For thousands of years, Greek and Roman architecture was the answer to the question, ‘In what style shall we build?’. Buildings across nations shared a unanimity about their temple front, decorated columns, repeated ratios and symmetrical facades. So strong was the consensus of beauty that entire cities achieved a stylistic unity within the aesthetic of Classical architecture. 
When it came to cheaper, smaller housing, there too was consensus on construction ideals within vernacular communities, but it was due to a variety of building limitations rather than as a result of any ‘cultural vision’ for domestic architecture. These limitations however ‘bred strong local architectural identities’ where houses within a certain area would be constructed of similar materials in a similar style.

This harmony of style and the creation of beauty was once a serious professional discussion and the task of the architect, but de Botton claims that this consideration has now retreated to a ‘confused private imperative’. He points to a key moment in 1747 that led to an arrival of choice in the style of domestic and public architecture. Horace Walpole, a son of the British Prime Minister, wanted his cottage designed in a Medieval style, marking the first time this aesthetic was used in a domestic setting. The style began acquiring a ‘seriousness and prestige’ as many others began abandoning the Classical aesthetic in favour of the Gothic, thus beginning the Gothic Revival. Improved transportation and greater historical awareness, plus choice, began to wipe out regional types of architecture. For the first time, we had choice in style and appearance for our buildings.

Sometimes, however, too much choice can lead to architectural chaos and severe eclecticism. De Botton gives the example of an aristocrat couple in 1767 who could not agree in an appropriate style for their home. They compromised, resulting in the front of the house built in the Classical style, and the rear, Gothic. Heinrich Hübsch attempted to resolve this ‘carnival of architecture’ with his 1828 book ‘In What Style Shall We Build?’, which explained how to know if you should ‘furnish the dining room with Ancient Egyptian or Chinese chairs’, among other issues.
When the Industrial Revolution began sweeping through nations, engineers received a new professional recognition where lighter, cheaper, and efficient architecture became more precedent then style. Function was now considered over beauty, which was recognized as dishonest architecture. Le Corbusier, in his book Towards a New Architecture (1923), claims architects as ‘disillusioned’ and of erecting ‘historical souvenirs’. The function of a house, scientifically he claims, was to provide: 1. Shelter against the weather, thieves and the inquisitive; 2. A receptacle for light and sun; 3. Containing a certain number of cells for cooking, working, and personal life. Perhaps his most famous example of his ascetic architecture is the Villa Savoye, completed in 1931.

Although ‘function’ in domestic architecture may provide us with an efficient sanctuary, are we able to ‘respect a structure which does no more than keep us dry and warm’? John Ruskin proposed that we seek two things from our architecture: for them to shelter us and to speak to us. Despite their claims of designing a purely scientific and efficient architecture, the Modernists had a ‘romantic’ relationship with their work, in that their strong aesthetic interest often took precedence over considerations of efficiency. They wanted their work to speak of the future, designing privately with beauty in mind and justifying their work in technological terms. 

The end of a belief in the universal standard of beauty marked the beginning of a climate of criticism. Modernists justified their work using technological and scientific terms in an attempt to convince critics of their value. The Classical culture began to become ignored, and ‘science… would apparently determine the pitch of a roof’. But science alone cannot tell us how our buildings should look, as we are free to pursue our own stylistic opinion. Ruskin remarks that buildings are not solely visual objects; buildings speak. ‘They speak of democracy or aristocracy, openness or arrogance, welcome or threat, a sympathy for the future or a hankering for the past’. Objects of design give an impression of the psychological and moral attributes it supports. They speak about the life that unfolds around them and hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of happiness.

To title a building as beautiful is to be attracted to a particular way of life. This feeling is a ‘material articulation’ of our ideas of a good life; conversely feeling dislike towards an architectural aesthetic conflicts with our ‘understanding of the rightful sense of existence’.

Deciding ‘In what style shall we build?’ is no easier to resolve, as it is a question of the values we individually possess. Architectural style should therefore not provoke questions of its importance based on visual attributes, but that of the desires and offences of the concepts they speak to us. In what style is your city built? In what style would you build?

All photos are mine, unless they are linked to their respective owners.
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