Alain de Botton – The Architecture of Happiness (2006)

Almost 2 years passed between the recommendation I received on Quora and me actually reading this book, during which I kept in mind that either from this one or the shorter How to Read Buildings, I wanted at one point acquire basic knowledge in architecture and sharpen my sensibility towards my surroundings.

Breaking the cal

Breaking the calm and stillness of water with a water jet to bring attention (if needed) to this huge glass wall – the kind of thinking I had after reading de Botton [Conseil Général du Languedoc Roussillon]

I was delighted by this book because it is centered on feelings: if Alain de Botton develops his ideas alongside an history of architecture, what he truly aims at is to explain the importance of walls, windows frame, doors and many other details in our everyday life and our well-being.

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 – just as to call another edifice beautiful is to sense the presence of a character we would like if it took on a living form. What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end as far from what we search for a friend. The objects we describe as beautiful are versions of people we love. p88

It is filled with many examples of not only facades but also furnitures, lightings and was revealing for me on the point that more is not better, as Mark Kushner develop in his TED talk: from the German Pavilion in the Exposition Internationale in 1937, embodying the hardship and stiffness of Nazi Germany, to the strange obsession of Le Corbusier for curve-less and pipe-filled houses that couldn’t last a year, Alain de Botton explores this old chase for the balance of adding more symbols to convey a message while not making it fills forced upon its viewers. I was particularly surprised by his description of the power of buildings to keep a psychological balance : as an edifice can be used by a totalitarian regime to remind its power to the people, it can also be used in everyday life to remember the values and feelings we would like to embody.

 We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mold, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need – but are a constant risk of forgetting we need – within. We turn to wallpaper, benches, paintings and streets to staunch the disappearance of our true selves.
In turn, those places whose outlook match and legitimate our own, we tend to honor with the term ‘home’. Our homes do not have to offer us permanent occupancy or store our clothes to merit the name. To speak of home in relation to a building is simply to recognize its harmony with our own prized internal song. Home can be an airport or a library, a garden or a motorway diner.
Our love of home is in turn an acknowledgment of the degree to which our identity is not self-determined. We need a home in the psychological sense as much as we need one in the physical: to compensate for a vulnerability. We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us. p107

When I was in Toronto I met a woman who expressed her distress to get away from the human life centered around politics, debates and the fight of ideas and was looking for a new place to live her humanness, to gather new knowledge that could refine the world in a new way. She felt she had identified the pursuit of aesthetics as a pleasant direction, and I warmly recommended her this book.

 It is perhaps when our lives are at their most problematic that we are likely to be most receptive to beautiful things. Our downhearted moments provide architecture and art with their best openings, for it is at such times that our hunger for their ideal qualities will be at its height. p150

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