October 11, 2014

The Architecture of Happiness: The Significance of Architecture

I'm currently reading The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton and I invite you to join along with me! I purchased this book close to four years ago and regrettably am only reading it now. I've always felt that we are shaped by our buildings just as much as we shape them. I'm very curious about that emotional connection with architecture, and have even created a few projects exploring this idea (here and here). 

Today I am writing about the first chapter The Significance of Architecture. Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? Below is a summary of the first chapter, in my opinion, and some of my thoughts to go along with it.

I. The Significance of Architecture

Alain de Botton, in his 2006 national bestseller The Architecture of Happiness, confronts the notion that we are implicitly affected by architecture. “Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places - and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”

He cites that architecture is not only a physical sanctuary, but also a psychological one rendering our homes, workplaces, and public buildings “guardians of our identity”. In his first chapter, The Significance of Architecture, de Botton questions this connection with our surroundings. If we are “inconveniently vulnerable” to the colour of our walls and the materials of our flooring, then this strenuous demand on our emotions can lead us to shut our eyes to everything around us and completely numb our senses with the fear that an unfortunate bedspread will derail our sense of purpose. On the other hand, De Botton acknowledges that “even the noblest architecture can sometimes do less for us than a siesta or an aspirin”. This detachment can be traced in history, using the example of the Cistercian monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1137 travelling all around Lake Geneva without even noticing it was there.

Even if we are moved by a building, does architecture have the ability to guarantee our happiness or improve the lives of those who occupy it? De Botton states that architecture may posses many moral messages, but it absolutely does not have the capacity to enforce them. Taking architecture seriously means both opening ourselves up to the idea that we are affected by our surroundings while also knowing that architecture may only ever constitute a small protest against the state of things. Architecture asks us to imagine that “happiness might often have an unostentatious, unheroic character to it”, and it might be found in the way the low winter sun beams through a bedroom window, and the way your cat takes an afternoon nap, warming itself in this momentary burst of light. We then have to ask ourselves, as de Botton does when concluding the first chapter, what exactly does a beautiful building look like?

What is our connection to the built world around us? We paint our rooms our favourite colours, we decorate our shelves with knickknacks that remind us of places travelled and experiences lived. We surround ourselves, one would hope, of things that make us happy. But unless you are an architect or a city planner, and even then there is always a client who's happiness you are building for, we do not have a hand in the design of our buildings. So who says what a beautiful, purposeful, and well designed building is? Can a building be designed to satisfy the happiness of the greater good? I believe that happiness is subjective, therefore architecture is subjective. But I also believe that there are aspects of architecture and city building to be designed that give us a sense of ease when experiencing it, whether we are conscious of it or not. Does architecture have the ability to affect our moods or is it simply our projection of our emotions onto buildings that decide our like or distaste and experiences of architecture? What do you think?

In the next chapter de Botton digs deeper into historical references of what a "beautiful" building is. Have a read and stay tuned for a discussion of chapter two, In What Style Shall We Build?

Leave a comment below with your thoughts! You can also reach me on twitter or instagram at @natashabasacchi. All photos by me, unless otherwise noted.
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