If you've ever pondered the aesthetics of your own home or pored over paint chips and fabric swatches, you're likely to appreciate the premise of author Alain de Botton's latest masterpiece. The Architecture of Happiness (McClelland & Stewart, 2006) explores the relationship between our surroundings and our mood. Can living in a beautiful building really make us somewhat more content in our lives? Alain shares his thoughts here with us:
1 First, how would you define the architecture of happiness?
My book is called The Architecture of Happiness because of a great phrase I found in the work of the French 19th century writer Stendhal. He writes: ‘When we see a place and call it beautiful, really what we mean is that we can imagine being happy there'. This sums up for me very accurately what is distinctive about beauty: it gives us a sense that a good life can unfold in its vicinity.
2 How has architecture changed over the past century?
Architects are learning to rediscover beauty. For much of the 20th century, architects were obsessed by engineering. They thought of buildings as ‘machines for living'. Previous to that, architects had felt that their task was to make things pretty: and hence they went in for decoration and patterning. But 20th century buildings suddenly became very plain, very austere, very functional – and many people started to hate architecture and architects. Now, at last, architects are remembering to decorate and beautify their buildings – at least some of them are…
3 How do beautiful structures, beautiful furnishings, stimulate our senses and bring us happiness?
Beauty has a huge role to play in altering our mood. When we call a chair or a house beautiful, really what we're saying is that we like the way of life it's suggesting to us. It has an attitude we're attracted to: if it was magically turned into a person, we'd like who it was. It would be convenient if we could remain in much the same mood wherever we happened to be, in a cheap motel or a palace (think of how much money we'd save on redecorating our houses), but unfortunately we're highly vulnerable to the coded messages that emanate from our surroundings. This helps to explain our passionate feelings towards matters of architecture and home decoration: these things help to decide who we are.
Of course, architecture can't, on its own, always make us contented people. Witness the dissatisfactions that can unfold even in idyllic surroundings. One might say that architecture suggests a mood to us, which we may be too internally troubled to be able to take up. Its effectiveness could be compared to the weather: a fine day can substantially change our state of mind – and people may be willing to make great sacrifices to be nearer a sunny climate. Then again, under the weight of sufficient problems (romantic or professional confusions, for example), no amount of blue sky, and not even the greatest building, will be able to make us smile. Hence the difficulty of trying to raise architecture into a political priority: it has none of the unambiguous advantages of clean drinking water or a safe food supply. And yet it remains vital.
4 Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder? Or are some things just plain ugly, no matter how you look at them?
Two attitudes towards beauty have taken hold in polite society. Firstly, it's said that the reasons why people have the tastes they do is essentially mysterious. It is as much beyond analysis why they should love a particular shape of sofa as why they should favour a particular kind of vegetable. Taste is described as a quasi-physiological phenomenon, beyond the realm of reason and discussion. Secondly, it's claimed that there is no such thing as good or bad taste. We may be able to determine more or less what a good law or car or education is, but when it comes to taste, the matter is a subjective one. Indeed, to try to define good taste could simply be an extreme example of snobbery and elitism.
However convincing these two arguments, I politely disagree with both of them. For a start, there is much we can say about why something might strike one as in good taste. Any object of design – be it a chair, or a sofa or a spoon – gives off an impression of the values it embodies and support, so that the interiors and buildings we admire are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol values we think worthwhile. Our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of a good life are intertwined.
We can conclude from this that we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient. You'll call a nearly empty blank canvas beautiful when your own life is messy and your city chaotic. We call ‘good taste' a style which can move us away from what we fear and towards what we crave: a style which carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues.
5 What are some favourite items in your own home?
I am especially attached to my door handles. They were designed by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a house he did for his sister in Vienna. A modern German company now sells them: https://www.fsbusa.com/levers/1147
6 How can someone, the average person reading your book, apply your principles at home to create an environment that brings pleasure and contentment?
I'd love to leave my readers with a sense of how important design and architecture are.
For example, it's far from trivial to spend a long time arguing over a sofa or a plate. That's because a particular sofa can suggest a whole way of life, an attitude to existence, and it's really the struggle over what's meaningful and worthwhile that lies at the heart of people's disagreements in the aisles of home shops. Of an angular steel-legged sofa by a modern Italian design company like B&B Italia, a man might say, ‘I love this sofa', but really, he is drawn to qualities of order, logic and rationality, which this piece suggests to him. Meanwhile, his wife may kick up a fuss precisely because she hates all the sofa-like sides of her husband – and would love to infuse their marriage with the virtues of calm, sweetness and romanticism that she detects in a contrasting 18th century style chaise longue. The fights that unfold in furniture stores are hence entirely logical: a lot is truly at stake. We shouldn't feel embarrassed about going off someone because of their taste in sofas, or on someone because of their taste in mugs.