Admittedly, I knew so little about the work of Alain de Botton prior to picking up 2006’s The Architecture of Happiness, and I’m still not entirely sure what drove me to read anything about the world of architecture, a subject I find desperately necessary and overwhelmingly dull. Like many other students, I was first exposed to de Botton’s work through the YouTube viewing of his TED Talk entitled “Atheism 2.0” that was shown in one of my undergraduate religion courses. But his name was never mentioned in class beyond this, his work never read. And, after finishing The Architecture of Happiness, I am beginning to understand why.
Let me be clear in that I have mixed feelings about The Architecture of Happiness and the style of de Botton. A Swiss-English writer, philosopher, and (apparently) architect, Alain de Botton writes extensively about how humans not only shape their architecture as they do their film, literature, and art (i.e. to record what is important to them) but how the architecture in turn affects the physical and psychological wellbeing of their creators.
To begin on a positive note, I personally enjoyed the text. I felt the content was thoughtful and interesting, probably more so than I would have considered prior to reading the text. I felt the chapters moved at a steady pace and, though many find de Botton’s academic style and extensive vocabulary pompous and unreasonable, I felt it matched de Botton’s personality perfectly (this can be seen in the YouTube video below if you feel so inclined to view a sample).
Now, as for what would hold me back from recommending The Architecture of Happiness- I cannot for the life of me explain what the overall message of the book is without bringing up Wikipedia and cheating. Though de Botton’s excellence linguistique sounds like poetry, it can be difficult to separate out the important points that lead to the overall purpose of the book from the historical narrative due to his overabundance of fancy words. The meaning and purpose become lost in translation. As mentioned previously, de Botton’s vocabulary usage makes him come off to many readers as someone born into the snotty ranks of the yacht club rather than the level of an astute architect who cares about design. His tendency to overcompensate in vocabulary usage leaves the reader literally begging for simplication, and this is something de Botton’s work is known for among reviews:
“Taking architecture seriously therefore makes some singular strenuous demands upon us. It requires that we open ourselves to the idea that we are affected by our surroundings even when they are made of vinyl and would be expensive and time-consuming to ameliorate. It means conceding that we are inconveniently vulnerable to the color of our wallpaper and that our sense of purpose may be derailed by an unfortunate bedspread. At the same time, it means acknowledging that buildings are able to solve no more than a fraction of our dissatisfactions or prevent evil from unfolding under their watch.
“Architecture, even at its most accomplished, will only ever constitute a small, and imperfect (expensive, prone to destruction, and morally unreliable), protest against the state of things. More awkwardly still, architecture asks us to imagine that happiness might often have an unostentatious, unheroic character to it, that it might be found in a run of old floorboards or in a wash of morning light over a plaster wall—in undramatic, frangible scenes of beauty that move us because we are aware of the darker backdrop against which they are set.”
I came across in my research a rather scathing review containing these features in I.D.’s 2007 edition by review Mark Lamster. I think it is worth mentioning that Lamster writes for a magazine entitled International Design, a publication devoted entirely to architectural design from across the globe. That being said, it is hardly surprising that Lamster is not pleased with de Botton’s lack of focus on architecture as an art and a science and is even less pleased with his almost neurotic centering on the aesthetics of design.
Let’s be clear: a passion for architecture need not transform anyone into an anal-retentive prig. Alas, de Botton has been thus victimized, and it is a worldview he actively promotes in The Architecture of Happiness. It’s a shame, too, for an accessible introduction to architectural aesthetics, well grounded in history, would be timely in this design-obsessed age. Unfortunately, de Botton, best known for his 1998 best-seller How Proust Can Change Your Life, has not written that book. Instead he has produced a meandering, pompous disquisition that betrays an autodidact’s haphazard sense of the field, but with little of the original thinking that might be expected from an outsider.
Without much new to report, de Botton winds up taking simple ideas and propelling them with a lot of linguistic hot air—call it the blow-dryer school of architectural theory. Here, for instance, is the author on the straightforward concept that good design can make its inhabitants feel good: “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.” In lieu of genuine insight, de Botton resorts to the trite aphorism. Why do we build? “It is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.” Can I be a happy person and understand the Eiffel Tower? “Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation.” Why did my architect screw up the kitchen circulation? “Our designs go wrong because our feelings of contentment are woven from fine and unexpected filaments.” And so on. De Botton likes his words, and the fancier the better. “Platitudinous”? “Decorticate”? His thesaurus must have more dog-ears than the ASPCA.
The Architecture of Happiness would be an innocuous castoff if not for its proselytizing ambitions (it has so far spawned a PBS miniseries) and a set of rather insidious ideas camouflaged in its twee prose. De Botton, ever the aesthete, is obsessed with physical beauty, which he believes is epitomized by order (be it in an arcaded Parisian street, a Palladian villa, or a Norwegian chalet). The chaotic modern city—London, New York, Mexico City—is to be reviled. The book’s formalism is relentless, and the result is a thoroughly antiseptic vision of architecture; great buildings are presented as ethereal works of perfection, not the products of a complex matrix of shifting ideas and motivations.”
Some responses to Lamster’s review- there was nothing I found nauseatingly adorable about de Botton’s prose that might categorize it as ‘twee,’ nor would the prose ever be adaptable to a Wes Anderson film, so I do not understand why ‘twee’ was the chosen descriptor. Additionally, Lamster appears to take offense with the fact that the text is “very English,” as de Botton focuses heavily on the architecture of England. American design and major names like Frank Lloyd Wright are barely mentioned. The only thing I could even respond to this with is that de Botton’s focus is already scattered about the realm of English architecture; if he included every nation around the world, the text would be even longer. Plus, with a name such as Alain de Botton (though Swiss born, he was raised in England), what does one expect?
Finally, something that seems underlying in Lamster’s review, as well as many other reviews of de Botton’s work- de Botton has the uncanny knack of taking somewhat esoteric subjects and making them fairly accessible to readers who, otherwise, would never have studied that particular subject. This is definitely the case with The Architecture of Happiness. Even if this is true with the majority of de Botton’s work, I think there are worse things that could happen to writers. By no means does de Botton find himself in the realm of accessibility comparable to Harry Potter or Twilight, but I do think people who finish this text, whether those with doctorates or common laborers, will not be able to look at architecture in the same way again.
de Botton’s tedTALK on Religion for Atheists: http://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_atheism_2_0?language=en
Lamster’s I.D. Article, Bring Back the Bluebird: http://archive.today/oKh42#selection-1331.1-1355.671