One of my holiday reads was The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. de Botton is a pretty cool author and after reading this book as well as Status Anxiety a few years ago I have added the rest of his works to my “to read” list.
In Architecture the discussion centers around the relationship between internal states of mind, the way they shape our perception, but also can dictate the design of buildings and other objects. We want our house to reflect our inner selves, to act as a communicator between us and visitors, but we also often look to buildings to speak to us about a clarity and ideology of perfection we find it difficult to attain.
If buildings can act as a repository of our ideals, it is because they can be purged of all the infelicities that corrode ordinary lives. A great work of architecture will speak to us of a degree of serenity, strength, poise and grace to which we, both as creators and audiences, typically cannot do justice – and it will for this very reason beguile and move us. Architecture excites our respect to the extent that it surpasses us.
Although de Botton mostly focuses on large-scale structures, his discussion about the simple and small objects in our lives is what I found to be the most interesting. He gives a simple example of two tea sets. The first is ornate, delicate, seemingly ceremonious and expensive. The other is plain white, with simple lines and of a much more utilitarian nature. These two tea sets send very specific messages about their use, perhaps their ownership, and their designer.
In essence, what works of design and architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of visions of happiness.
This immediately made me think of my love affair with earthenware pottery and dishes. I never much thought before about why I like it, but perhaps beyond the mere aesthetics, these types of dishes communicate something more to me, something about a simple life, the time put into making something with your bare hands, the uniqueness of each piece, which I find important not in a mug or a bowl, but in my life overall. There is also the flip side of what I would want these dishes to say about me if I were to serve food or drink to guests using them.
Perhaps another angle to consider is what would I want these objects to speak to me about? Is there some message in their design that I would want to be reminded of every time I pulled something off the shelf? de Botton brings up the idea, stemming out of early Christianity and Islam, that beautiful architecture and design could inspire us to be more spiritual and moral.
They believed that, rather than corrupting us, rather than being an idle indulgence for the decadent, exquisite surroundings could edge us towards perfection. A beautiful building could reinforce our resolve to be good…thus, a plainly sculpted door handle which pleased us through its simplicity could simultaneously function as a reminder of the virtues of sobriety and moderation, just as the delicate setting of a pane of glass within a window frame could covertly deliver a sermon on the theme of gentleness.
I do not know whether a door handle or a plane of glass could really have such a strong impact on a human being, but I must admit that I have begun to look at buildings, objects, and especially my own apartment in a very different way after reading this book. Perhaps the objects I surround myself with don’t convey the ideal message to myself and others. On a much grander scale, what can be said of the majority of modern architecture in North American cities which, for the most part, is boring and repetitive?
The important questions that de Botton asks are 1) Why do modern architects/governments choose to build such buildings? and 2) What do they reflect back to the populace about our society and culture? Do the skyscrapers on Bay Street in Toronto, for example, herald a new age of technology and human achievement, or do they rather speak to us of a cold, structured, and creatively cold society? I do not think that it has to be one or the other, but it certainly makes me think about how my own perception of my physical environment could have a fairly big impact on my Happiness.