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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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