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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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