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.

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