Bring Back the Bluebird

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The Architecture of Happiness By Alain de Botton Pantheon, New York and London 288 pp.; $25 (hardcover)

If Alain de Botton invites you to supper at his London townhouse, leave the kids at home and be sure not to get your fingerprints on his pristine German door handles. “A passion for architecture,” he writes in his latest book, The Architecture of Happiness, “may turn us into aesthetes, eccentric figures who must watch over their houses with the vigilance of museum guards…. Aesthetes will have no choice but to forgo the company of small children and, during dinner with friends, will have to ignore the conversation in order to focus on whether someone might lean back and inadvertently leave a head-shaped imprint on your wall.”

Let’s be clear: a passion for architecture need not transform anyone into an anal-retentive prig. Alas, de Botton has been thus victimized, and it is a worldview he actively promotes in The Architecture of Happiness. It’s a shame, too, for an accessible introduction to architectural aesthetics, well grounded in history, would be timely in this design-obsessed age. Unfortunately, de Botton, best known for his 1998 best-seller How Proust Can Change Your Life, has not written that book. Instead he has produced a meandering, pompous disquisition that betrays an autodidact’s haphazard sense of the field, but with little of the original thinking that might be expected from an outsider.

Readers with an architectural background will be familiar with most of the material rehearsed here. Le Corbusier is excoriated for the leaky roof of the Villa Savoye and the destructive hubris of the 1922 Voisin Plan for Paris—“demented,” according to de Botton. Christopher Wren, however, is praised for his 1666 plan to reshape London: “It might have been a great European city,” he writes. Might have been? Frank Lloyd Wright surely deserves at least some mention along with the Swiss master—his roofs leaked, too!—but he is entirely absent from this very English survey. (Few buildings in the U.S. make an appearance, though de Botton does illustrate Louis Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art—thanks.)

Without much new to report, de Botton winds up taking simple ideas and propelling them with a lot of linguistic hot air—call it the blow-dryer school of architectural theory. Here, for instance, is the author on the straightforward concept that good design can make its inhabitants feel good: “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 and occasionally.” In lieu of genuine insight, de Botton resorts to the trite aphorism. Why do we build? “It is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.” Can I be a happy person and understand the Eiffel Tower? “Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation.” Why did my architect screw up the kitchen circulation? “Our designs go wrong because our feelings of contentment are woven from fine and unexpected filaments.” And so on. De Botton likes his words, and the fancier the better. “Platitudinous”? “Decorticate”? His thesaurus must have more dog-ears than the ASPCA.

The Architecture of Happiness would be an innocuous castoff if not for its proselytizing ambitions (it has so far spawned a PBS miniseries) and a set of rather insidious ideas camouflaged in its twee prose. De Botton, ever the aesthete, is obsessed with physical beauty, which he believes is epitomized by order (be it in an arcaded Parisian street, a Palladian villa, or a Norwegian chalet). The chaotic modern city—London, New York, Mexico City—is to be reviled. The book’s formalism is relentless, and the result is a thoroughly antiseptic vision of architecture; great buildings are presented as ethereal works of perfection, not the products of a complex matrix of shifting ideas and motivations.

De Botton has little use for this kind of messiness; for him, architecture’s meaning resides in its superficial qualities. “If we can judge the personalities of objects from apparently minuscule features,” he writes, “it is because we first acquire this skill in relation to humans, whose characters we can impute from microscopic aspects of their skin tissue and muscle.” De Botton illustrates this point with drawings from Johan Kaspar Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (1783), in which a “benevolent and tender” mouth is juxtaposed with one that is “stupid and highly sexual.” If you thought this type of visual stereotyping went out with the Third Reich, you will be surprised by de Botton, who has no problem applying these ideas to chairs and faucets and other works of design.

But the ultimate frustration of The Architecture of Happiness is that for all its verbal embroidery, it puts so little stake in the actual value of architecture. For those who imagine the role of design to be something more than the construction of a domesticated “happiness,” this message is nothing but sad.

Mark Lamster is an editor at Princeton Architectural Press and the author of Spalding’s World Tour: The Epic Adventure That Took Baseball Around the Globe—And Made It America’s Game.