If you've ever pondered the aesthetics of your own home or pored over paint chips and fabric swatches, you're likely to appreciate the premise of author Alain de Botton's latest masterpiece. The Architecture of Happiness (McClelland & Stewart, 2006) explores the relationship between our surroundings and our mood. Can living in a beautiful building really make us somewhat more content in our lives? Alain shares his thoughts here with us:
1 First, how would you define the architecture of happiness?
My book is called The Architecture of Happiness because of a great phrase I found in the work of the French 19th century writer Stendhal. He writes: ‘When we see a place and call it beautiful, really what we mean is that we can imagine being happy there'. This sums up for me very accurately what is distinctive about beauty: it gives us a sense that a good life can unfold in its vicinity.
2 How has architecture changed over the past century?
Architects are learning to rediscover beauty. For much of the 20th century, architects were obsessed by engineering. They thought of buildings as ‘machines for living'. Previous to that, architects had felt that their task was to make things pretty: and hence they went in for decoration and patterning. But 20th century buildings suddenly became very plain, very austere, very functional – and many people started to hate architecture and architects. Now, at last, architects are remembering to decorate and beautify their buildings – at least some of them are…
3 How do beautiful structures, beautiful furnishings, stimulate our senses and bring us happiness?
Beauty has a huge role to play in altering our mood. When we call a chair or a house beautiful, really what we're saying is that we like the way of life it's suggesting to us. It has an attitude we're attracted to: if it was magically turned into a person, we'd like who it was. It would be convenient if we could remain in much the same mood wherever we happened to be, in a cheap motel or a palace (think of how much money we'd save on redecorating our houses), but unfortunately we're highly vulnerable to the coded messages that emanate from our surroundings. This helps to explain our passionate feelings towards matters of architecture and home decoration: these things help to decide who we are.
Of course, architecture can't, on its own, always make us contented people. Witness the dissatisfactions that can unfold even in idyllic surroundings. One might say that architecture suggests a mood to us, which we may be too internally troubled to be able to take up. Its effectiveness could be compared to the weather: a fine day can substantially change our state of mind – and people may be willing to make great sacrifices to be nearer a sunny climate. Then again, under the weight of sufficient problems (romantic or professional confusions, for example), no amount of blue sky, and not even the greatest building, will be able to make us smile. Hence the difficulty of trying to raise architecture into a political priority: it has none of the unambiguous advantages of clean drinking water or a safe food supply. And yet it remains vital.