Monday, 2 June 2008

Book: Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton

Lowdown: The architecture around us affects us, so let’s ensure the effect is positive.
I first heard of Alain de Botton a few years ago when he was interviewed about his then new book, Status Anxiety. His comments established themselves on my radar, so when ABC put Status Anxiety the TV series on air during Sunday night’s Compass I watched it. Indeed, I have found Status Anxiety extremely interesting, and eventually even read the book (a rare feat nowadays).
Things went along similar lines with Architecture of Happiness. I saw the book in the stores, but as architecture is not really a turn on for me I ignored it. Things changed when a few months ago we watched the TV documentary that followed the book, entitled The Perfect Home. We didn’t expect much of it, but instead we found ourselves glued to the TV and galloping the documentary’s three episode with much anxiety; it was the farthest thing ever to your average “Better Homes and Gardens” or “Location Location Location”. It was so interesting that I went and got the book, putting it along with the very respectful pile of books in my bookshelf’s “to do” list. It didn’t stay there long, though, because recently we have decided to embark on an architectural adventure of our own so I thought the book might enlighten me more than its peers.
I guess with such a build-up I just had to find the book disappointing. Indeed, I have; unlike the TV documentary of which I was hoping to see more, the book felt like a big waste of time. Architecture of Happiness attempts to explore the philosophical aspects of architecture, and indeed it does so, but it’s way too long for its own good, much too pompous in its prose, and overall quite wishy-washy with its arguments.
The ideas promoted by the book are pretty much common sense, when you think about them. For a start, when trying to explain the importance of architecture, it claims that one needs to have suffered a bit in order to appreciate good architecture. It then goes on to explain its views on the merits of architecture, the things we are trying to express through architecture (e.g., aspirations, memories), and the values that are expressed through architecture. On the way there it discusses what beautiful architecture is and how we can determine whether a certain building is beautiful or not, especially given the large variety of styles and the way modernism claims to escape from absolute values of beauty. Architecture, de Botton claims, is a mirror of ourselves. Architecture of Happiness finishes off with a call to arms for all of its readers not to settle for mediocrity when buying or building a house.
As I have said, I have had numerous problems with AoH. First, I quickly grew tired of its style, where every paragraph contains a pretty clear and concise claim that is then followed by lengthy and repeating descriptions that bore you to death by the time you get to paragraph's end. I'm talking things along the lines of “the house was tall [objective fact], high as a swan can reach when it's got black spots and it tries to catch some rays of early sun in mid September at its South African reservoir [endless and rather meaningless statements]”. I mean, de Botton's lengthy descriptions were worse than mine in my blogs; I noticed that I just stopped reading the ends of sentences because they didn't contribute to anything but wasting my time.
Then I had a problem with the techniques de Botton uses in order to advance his arguments. As I have said before, most of what he's saying in AoH makes sense and doesn't really require proof. However, as someone who has established his reputation writing books on philosophers, de Botton builds up his arguments by quoting from philosophers as he goes along. To me, someone who grew up on scientific principles – that is, arguments verified through repeatable experimentation – founding one's claim on others' claims does not seem to be that foolproof a concept. Some of the AoH's arguments are even based on rather stretchy claims from the field of psychoanalysis, which for some reason de Botton thinks we should happily accept. Often enough one can even detect some contradictions between arguments, such as when on one hand de Botton claims we design stuff to show the beauty of our society's values whereas on the other hand he claims we design stuff to symbolize values that we are missing in our society. Both arguments are correct in their context, but when building towers of arguments one on top of the other this way one could easily end up finding they can argue in favor of anything and everything. Perhaps I have been over spoilt by the likes of Sagan and Dawkins, but I really hate these ambiguities.
However, the biggest problem with de Botton's arguments in favor of architecture are to do with him failing to define the borders and the limits of architecture. Yes, architecture is important, and yes, as someone who leaved in a dreary apartment because I couldn't afford much more I can attest to how a crap looking place can negatively affect the resident. However, if we follow de Botton's line, then the implication is that we should spend the whole of our lives dedicating ourselves to architecture. And why stop with architecture? Why not dedicate ourselves to the clothes we wear, our furniture, our car, and our garden? They all have an effect on us, don't they? de Botton seems to be missing an appreciation for the concept of declining marginal utility, not to mention him ignoring way too politely the fact that most of us little people cannot afford to engage in the luxuries of architecture. Call me cynical, call me dull, but I would still place functionality long before style in my list of priorities; de Botton will argue that functionality is just another style anyway, and I agree with him, but the point is that he fails to offer guidelines concerning priorities. Those missing guidelines render his arguments rather hard to implement, simply because they're too arbitrary.
Overall, and in contrast to its TV partner The Perfect Home, Architecture of Happiness lacks a significant hold in reality. It's main contribution is in alerting people to the importance of the world around them; perhaps if enough people realize that we would get the big companies to build decent looking homes instead of their McMansions. Perhaps we might even have ourselves a nice world to live in, for a change.
Overall: The concept and the idea is good, the execution not so. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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