The Architecture of Happiness

October 12, 2010

Who and how we are depend in some measure on where we are.

The book in a nutshell:

Advocates of the pursuit of architectural beauty, whether secular or religious, ultimately justify their ambitions through an appeal to the same phenomenon: man’s inability to flourish in equal measure in whatever room he is placed in. (119)

Upon reflection, it seems strange how little we seem to care about architecture, given that its effect on our mood, sense of well-being and ability to function well as human beings is both obvious and empirically verifiable. Anyone who’s stepped into a cathedral or worked in a cubicle is well-aware of architecture’s ability to make life seem either glorious or tedious.

Botton is especially (even comically) harsh on McDonald’s:

The setting served to render all kinds of ideas absurd: that human beings might sometimes be generous to one another without hope of reward; that relationships can on occasion be sincere; that life may be worth enduring… The restaurant’s true talent lay in the generalization of anxiety. The harsh lighting, the intermittent sounds of frozen fries being sunk into vats of oil and the frenzied behavior of the counter staff invited thoughts of the loneliness and meaninglessness of existence in a random and violent universe. The only solution was to continue to eat in an attempt to compensate for the discomfort brought on by the location in which one was doing so. (108)

Why does architecture exist? Because we want the spaces in which we live to remind us of our values. We aren’t perfect or even always decent, but if our homes and workplaces and public spaces remind us of who we aspire to be, they’ll make us better:

We value certain buildings for their ability to rebalance our misshapen natures and encourage emotions which our predominant commitments force us to sacrifice…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 or occasionally. (121)

We seek in architecture (and fashion, design, and art, etc.) what we feel we lack in our souls. Thus do the hipster children of the internet yearn for farmers markets and vinyl records and handmade everything. By looking at the kinds of things with which people surround themselves, we can see what they feel missing in themselves. I like a clean desk, simple teacups and zen gardens because I am overwhelmed by the complexity of modern life and the chaos in my soul.

And he saves me the trouble of extending this to design, even web design:

We don’t generally experience chronic pain when the fine-grained features of of design have been ignored; we are simply forced to work harder to overcome confusion and eddies of unease… However, these can in the end always be traced back to nothing more occult than a failure of empathy, to architects who forgot to pay homage to the quirks of the human mind, who allowed themselves to be seduced by a simplistic vision of what we might be, rather than attending to the labyrinthine reality of who we are. (248)

And he ends:

We owe it to the fields that or houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that they buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness. (267)