Book Review: Building Happiness

The idea that beautiful buildings make us happy is comforting and intuitive. It’s also almost certainly wrong.

Building Happiness: Architecure to Make You Smile is much more skeptical of architecture’s ability to make us happy than last year’s widely-read book on the same subject, Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness.

That’s because while de Botton waxes poetic, the contributors to Building Happiness look to the empirical record—which, apparently, just doesn’t show a strong link between architectural aesthetics and happiness. It’s a difficult pill to swallow. As Jeremy Till, dean of architecture at the University of Westminster, says, “The association of beauty with happiness is one of those platitudes that have been passed unthinkingly from one architectural generation to another,” and it’s easy to see why. The idea that we can shape our psyches by shaping our buildings seems both comforting and intuitive.

But Building Happiness’s authors are also less willing to generalize from their own intuition than de Botton (who tends to use the word “we” when he really means “I”). “I do not think that the happiness garnered from buildings can be accurately reproduced from person to person,” Will Alsop says. The same is true of landscapes, as Martha Schwartz can attest: “It is clearly impossible for any single entity, even one as large as a landscape, to definitively produce generalised happiness,” she says.

(An important aside is that even if architectural beauty were a factor in people’s happiness, it might not be what architects think of as beauty. One study found architects and laymen to have completely different opinions of buildings’ aesthetic value—a discrepancy that grew larger with the number of years the architects had been in the field.)

The contributors to Building Happiness do agree, however, that there is one aspect of architecture that plays an important role in happiness: its spatial organization of our lives. As social creatures, we thrive when our buildings give us opportunities to interact with each other; but if that interaction is imposed, we withdraw into ourselves, throw up barriers, and feel stressed. “An absolutely key variable for psychological well being is control,” David Halpern, an author and government adviser, says. He cites one study which found that students assigned dorm rooms on a long hallway (where a trip to the bathroom or exit meant they couldn’t avoid encountering any of their 50 hall-mates) became more withdrawn than their fellow students assigned to suites (who could opt into social interaction by spending time in the lounge, or not).

A curious dissonance permeates Building Happiness. Interspersed with the articles that cast doubt on the beauty-happiness link are contributors’ descriptions of buildings that make them particularly happy. Why? Because they’re beautiful, naturally. Here’s designer Paul Smith describing his pick, a house by Luis Barragán: “On entering the house, happiness, life and optimism filled the air. The pink interior with the sunlight streaming in, being bounced off a perfectly placed gold leaf square painting on a landing, onto the hall table.” The Burrell Museum makes the journalist Kirsty Wark happy because it is “modest and elegant” with its facades of red sandstone; and the author and editor Hugh Pearman picks a power station, saying, “I chose it because it is simply the most wonderful kinetic object in the landscape.”

Is this a contradiction? Not necessarily. One illuminating comment from Halpern resolves the apparent disconnect: “The evidence seems to be that we rapidly adapt to most aspects of our physical environment,” he says. “What seems beautiful and attractive to a visitor rapidly fades into the background for the long-term resident.” (That’s why, even though people feel sure they would be happier in California’s sunny climate, Californians aren’t actually any happier on average than the rest of us.)

And in fact, almost without exception, the authors’ personal reactions play out that principle. All the “happy places” chosen for their physical beauty are places the authors visit infrequently. Their other choices are regularly-used places of home and work, beloved for their functional brilliance—like the architect Richard Rogers‘ office building, with its overlapping spaces (“this allows exciting things to happen,” he says); or artistic director David Lan’s offices built above a theater, so that workers can wander out onto the balcony and enjoy the sound of laughter from the auditorium below. “If that isn’t happiness in the built environment,” Lan asks, “what is?”

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