Books · Colonisation · Political

Invisible structures of domination

The Architecture of HappinessThe Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First read January 2008

Casa P, Sao Paulo, by Marcio Kogan

That most of this feels like something I might myself have written, I take to be an indictment of my own education. I am going to an attempt a highly critical reading, because I am suspicious of how comfortable I feel in it. Technically, it is as much about interior decoration as about architecture, but that makes less of a snappy title.

The book never quite stops apologising for its subject, de Botton repeating that architecture seems trivial to most people and that its effect on us is subtle and a depressing consequence of our moral and emotional frailty. He ignores the fact that most people, while they may care deeply about their built environments, have little or no control over them.

Negative views of people and life are also repeated over and over. Such pessimism is easily justified of course, and in other books I have appreciated de Botton’s gentle way of reminding us that we usually do not live up to our aspirations by sharing a relatable and amusing tale of his own failings. However, I believe this taken-for-granted pessimism is corrosive, and I resent the way in which it functions here as an unjustified assumption when it is actually culturally specific. It is as if to appeal to people who live unluxurious lives, de Botton’s were to adopt a soothing tone: I know it’s hard but…

The book is preoccupied with beauty, making a gesture towards understanding this as a problematic metric for architecture, which is not followed through. Instead, de Botton defends it, essentially ridiculing modernism for treating it with suspicion. That modernism, like neoclassicism for example, presented a set of values and hypocritically pretended objectivity about them is a good point, but it is insufficient to return us uncritically to north/west European aesthetic values, the racist sexist classist grounding of which are here left almost untouched.

De Botton does occasionally draw attention to and mildly criticise building that expresses elitism and self-congratulation, but more often he is impressed by it. The language of dominance and submission is deployed with disturbing approval and regularity:

From a traffic island at the upper end of a wide Parisian street, the view takes in a symmetrical, spacious corridor of stately apartment buildings that culminate in a wide square in which a man stands proudly on top of a column. Despite the discord of the world, these blocks have settled their differences and humbly arranged themselves in perfect repetative patterns… not a single railing is out of line…The builings seem to have shuffled forwards like a troupe of ballet dancers, each one aligning its toes to the very same point on the pavement as though in obediance to the baton of a strict dancing-master. The dominant rhythm of the blocks is accompanied by subsidiary harmonic progressions of lamps and benches… an impression of beauty tied to qualities of regularity and uniformity, inviting the conclusion that at the heart of a certain kind of architectural greatness there lies the concept of order…

The street speaks of the sacrifice demanded by all works of architecture… the street moves us because we recognise how sharply its qualities contrast with those which generally colour our lives. We call it beautiful from a humbling overfamiliarity with its antitheses: in domestic life, with sulks and petty disputes, and in arhitecture, with streets whose elements crossly decide to pay no heed to the appearance of their neighbours and instead cry out chaotically for attention, like jealous and enraged lovers. This ordered street offers a lesson in the benefits of surrendering individual freedom for the sake of a higher and collective scheme, in which all parts become something greater by contributing to the whole. Though we are creatures inclined to squabble, kill, steal and lie, the street reminds us that we can occasionally master our baser impulses and turn a waste land, where for centuries wolves howled, into a monument of civilisation

We might agree that repeated, regular forms in architecture can indeed be visually pleasing, and it could be argued that de Botton writes in this manner to express this value in a full-blooded manner. No doubt. But since he argues, extensively, that architecture is aspirational and speaks to us about who we want to be, and also mourns failures to hear it, perhaps we should not let this call to get in line pass unremarked. Religion, a preoccupation of de Botton, who assumes aa secular (white middle class British educated) reader throughout, is another locus for feelings of submission. I find it strange that he assumes everyone who enters a cathedral will feel the urge to ‘fall to [their] knees and worship a being as mighty and sublime as we are ourselves small and inadequate’. I generally feel a contrary impulse to fly into the sky in concert with the soaring forms.

The butt of de Botton’s book is Le Corbusier, who is here, as elsewhere, blamed for the unedifying qualities of much of contemporary built environments. De Botton does once quote his nemesis with approval however, when it serves his own argument for order and conservatism: “These things are beautiful because in the middle of the apparent incoherence of nature or the cities of men [sic], they are places of geometry… and is not geometry pure joy?” de Botton (who also, by the way, uses the unmarked masculine for all people and the word ‘mankind’) replies (still talking about that same favourite regimental Parisian boulevard):

Joy because geometry represents a victory over nature and because, despite what a sentimental reading might suggest, nature is in truth oppose to the order we rely on to survive. Left to its own devices, nature will not hesitate to crumble our roads, claw down our buildings, push wild vines through our walls and return every other feature of our carefully plotted geometric world to primal chaos. Nature’s way is to corrode, melt, soften, stain and chew on the works of man [sic!]. And eventually it will win. Eventually we will find ourselves too worn out to resist its destructive centrifugal forces*: we will grow weary of repairing roofs and balconies, we will long for sleep, the lights will dim, and the weeds will be left to spread their cancerous[!] tentacles unchecked over our libraries and shops. our background awareness of inevitable calamity is what can make us especially sensitive to the beauty of a street, in which we recognise the very qualities on which our survival hangs.

*centrifugal force does not exist.

Again, my reader may object that I push too hard. De Botton must dramatise his material – that is what we expect from writers. But this is not a novel and this language of malevolent violence attached to nature underlines that north/west European culture is founded on settler colonialism: in opposing civilisation to nature we see that the former must be madness. We can take this attitude of machismo and supremacy to the natural world but we will eventually destroy ourselves, for everything we have comes from nature and our daily needs depend on it to an extreme degree. A philosophy/architectural ideology that disdains the fact that plants, in concert with water soil and sunlight, make the oxygen and glucose that every cell of our bodies requires every second to act and feel, is an ideology of delusion and death.

I struggled not to be irritated by de Botton’s sojourn in Japan, where he is petulant about the local architecture’s failure to minister to the needs of his soul, formed elsewhere. When he finds a building he likes, his description seems lifted straight from
In Praise of Shadows
, but he does not acknowledge it, and quotes the same work a couple of pages later, rather disparagingly I feel. The idea that we might learn to appreciate an unfamiliar aesthetic from Japanese artefacts is presented with a take-it-or-leave-it air of humorous whimsy, less serious than the (still fairly light) tone in which, elsewhere, de Botton condemns the ‘perverse’ idea that architects should be creative and laments that Palladio did not give us more rules to obey. (OK I am overstating the case now…)

That de Botton can present a conclusion about rightness in architecture without ever using the word ‘I’ is perhaps the easiest demonstration of the self-positioning of the text, what I call its expansive occupation of the normative ground. By expanding briefly here and there into Islamic ecclesiastical architecture, Japanese ideas of beauty and occasional critiques of artistocratic privilege, de Botton gives the impression of having digested the entire spectrum of thought on his topic. The deliberate impression of roundedness denies the existence of an angle.

I have worked with architects, and I believe that the subject requires the very deepest thought, because I agree with de Botton that where we are shapes how we feel and what we do. And because I think a successful architecture is one that responds to who we are and what we want. How can one write a book on architecture without ever mentioning the body? Architecture is, I believe, the art that answers dance, the art that mediates between the body and the earth. And it is a collective endeavour, requiring for its realisation diverse materials and skills, all too often applied with no involvement of the people who must use them. De Botton is moodily discontented with the status quo, but astonishingly he never considers the power relations inherent in questions of who benefits from decisions about what is built where, how and for whom to use. It is not enough.

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