The Philosophy of Building

Author Alain de Botton’s theories on the built environment and his advice to architects.

Alain de Botton has written about everything from Proust (How Proust Can Change Your Life, 1997) to love (Essays in Love,1993) to travel (The Art of Travel, 2002). In his most recent book, The Architecture of Happiness, the writer, who also moonlights as a philosopher, producer, and the Director of the Graduate Philosophy Program at London University, tackles the complex world of architecture. He recently chatted with about happiness, the perfect city, and what a philosopher has to offer the world of architecture.


You’ve written about a variety of subjects, why did you choose architecture as the focus of this book?
I am deeply interested with how places look – and I would like in a small way to influence the debate and promote the sort of buildings I think are beautiful.

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What was the ultimate goal of your book?
I wanted to write a book that non-architects could enjoy and would help people articulate their feelings about buildings. I wanted to move people to recognize the beauty of certain buildings and to rebel against the willful ugliness of a lot of contemporary architecture.

You wrote most of the book at your home in London, which is near the notoriously unattractive Shepherd’s Bush. How did your surroundings impact the writing process?
I live in a part of the modern world which has gone wrong architecturally, as so much of the modern world went wrong. Look at the suburbs of all the big modern cities. They are soulless and ugly. And yet we don’t seem able to know quite what the problem is. Why do we feel more comfortable in old places than new ones? I never in my book argue for a return to the past or an escape into nostalgia. However, I’m interested in the problems of Modernism—which aren’t just evident to me intellectually, I negotiate them on my doorstep on my way to the shops every day.

There’s two ways of looking at your surroundings. There’s the Stoic point of view. That you could be happy anywhere, that it doesn’t matter what color the walls are. Then there’s the Aesthetic point of view. That yes, the wrong kind of door handle or carpet or picture can seriously unbalance you. Which do I have more sympathy for? Unfortunately, the latter. I say unfortunately because it’s extremely hard to build beautiful spaces—hard intellectually and financially. So if you believe that your surroundings impact how you feel, you’re going to be setting yourself up for some unhappiness, unless you have huge means at your disposal.

Architecturally, what is your favorite city? Why?
I’m delighted by Amsterdam. It’s a very liveable, non-grand, but still elegant city. The people are attractive and social. The modern architecture is of an extremely high standard: it remembers the past yet still looks forward.

You say that London made a critical mistake in rebuilding the city after the Great Fire in 1666. With this in mind, what city do you think is making the most impressive architectural decisions today?
Again, Amsterdam is leading the way. The property developers have, thankfully, been controlled. They have to use good quality architects and so the standards of design are much higher than anywhere else in the world. It’s crazy to leave architecture to the free market.

You discuss at length Java Island in Amsterdam—an area that was once a busy port, but is now a modern residential neighborhood designed by different architects. Do you think that this is a valid model for cities?
Definitely, it’s a great example of how things should be done. All town planners should be sent on a few days’ holiday there.

Copenhagen is currently instituting a similar type of community. Is this a trend in Europe? And, do you see this model working stateside?
Certain liberal, wealthy European countries are taking risks and curbing the free market in the name of social justice and beauty. It’s inspiring—but unlikely to happen any time soon in the UK, let alone the US.

Are people who live in “beautiful” cities happier than those who don’t? Is a Parisian happier than a Londoner?
They aren’t guaranteed happiness, but they have been offered a great chance to attain it. It’s like money. Having lots of it doesn’t make you happy on its own, but it can foster the conditions that will make happiness more likely. Ditto with good weather. A blue sky on its own won’t dissolve all worries, but it can nudge you in a better direction. That’s still a big achievement and one worth fighting for.

What is your definition of a good building?
A good building suggests a workable vision of a good life.

What is your definition of a bad building?
A bad building gets people wrong: it may misunderstand how many bedrooms we need or what kind of ceiling heights we like. Or, more seriously, it may misunderstand our most profound aspirations. It may enforce the message that life is a dark and mean place. It may strip us of hope.

I am fascinated with the idea you expound in your book that architecture speaks to us. I am going to put you to the test now…what do the following three buildings say?

The Coliseum
This is about power and domination. It is about order too. It is a projection of the values of those who created it, as most buildings are. It is Roman ideology writ large. It is about the spirit of the Ancient world, with its belief in martial valour and civic pride.

Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao
This is a sensuous exploration of shapes. It’s saying that walls no longer need to be straight, that contemporary architecture can break the rules and still make something beautiful. It reconciles our desire for invention with our longing for beauty.

Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban, Louis Kahn’s parliament building in Bangledesh
Like any great civic building, Kahn’s parliament is searching for an answer to the question: What is the country to which I belong? What is Bangladesh? And the reply is—Bangladesh is an ancient, mighty, monumental culture, enormously poor but also enormously strong, like an ox or elephant.

What does Zaha Hadid’s work say?
Hadid’s work is about horror and fracture. It says that the only serious attitude for a modern person is to look at darkness in the face—to ‘face facts.’ Life is ghastly and the buildings we build should reflect this

Regarding the controversy over the design of the new World Trade Center, what would you like to see built there?
I think nothing should be built on the site. There should be a small park with a simple commemorative plinth made of black marble. It should be a place of mourning and a graveyard. It should be a place also of reflection: why did this happen? What can we learn?

Another hot topic in the industry is green design. How is this movement challenging and changing architecture?
Buildings have always had a technical aspect to them. Green pressures are the latest in this long range of requirements architects must listen to. I don’t think the green agenda necessarily leads a building to look any particular way, so the aesthetic questions of architecture continue.

All buildings should be green as a matter of course. Just as they shouldn’t leak water. But at the same time, we shouldn’t feel that just making a building green is in itself an interesting artistic achievement.

Do green buildings make us happier?
A green building can simply reassure us that we are not personally taking part in climate catastrophe.

In your book you say, “The objects that we describe as beautiful are versions of the people we love.” Can you elaborate on this idea?
Objects have personalities: chairs, glasses, cars, houses. When we say something is beautiful, what we’re saying is: I like the personality of this thing (my car looks cute etc…).

You have based your career on more “traditional” philosophy. How have you taken your philosophical background and applied it to architecture?
Philosophy isn’t anything other than a commitment to thinking clearly and proceeding in small logical steps. It can hence be taken into any field. One could write a philosophy of baseball or of kissing. Certainly of architecture, too.

In the book, you say, “We may need to have made an indelible mark on our lives, to have married the wrong person, pursued an unfulfilling career into middle age or lost a loved one before architecture can begin to have a perceptible impact on us.” What do you mean?

The appreciation of beauty goes hand in hand with some sense of loss. It’s when we’re sad that we want to read poetry and listen to music. Art helps us to compensate for what isn’t right in life—it puts our sadness into context. Similarly we often cry with art because the artist says something true and beautiful which we’ve longed to hear in day to day life. It would be rare to be touched by art if we were happy all the time. We need a background of unhappiness before we see the point of beautiful things.

So do humans have to you undergo tragedy in order to appreciate beauty?
We are all going to undergo tragedy—our own death. So the real point is, how open are we to reflecting on this upcoming tragedy? The more open we are, the more we are liable to be artistically sensitive – and generally, interesting people and kind ones too.

What can a philosopher teach an architect or designer about architecture?
A philosopher can’t help on technique, he can’t tell an architect how to build—however, he might help the architect to think about the wider goal of a building: What should it look like? What sort of values should it suggest? What is beautiful? Buildings are never just the product of technology. They are also the result of ideas, and philosophers have an important role in helping to shape this.

Finally, how does architecture create happiness?
Architecture doesn’t create happiness. If only! However, like art, it can give us images of happiness. It can show us what serenity might be like. It can show us tenderness and elegance. This isn’t to say that elegant places will make elegant people. We can manage to be unhappy in the most beautiful places. Architecture is a suggestion of how we might behave and live. But we may well be too tired or preoccupied to listen.

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