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These walls can talk

The Architecture of Happiness Alain de Botton Pantheon: 286 pp., $25

October 08, 2006|Matthew Price | Matthew Price is a journalist and critic in Brooklyn, N.Y.

ALAIN DE BOTTON is a clever writer. His ambition, it seems, is to get himself into every section of your local bookstore, and he's succeeding. A generalist on a mission, he's already done literary criticism ("How Proust Can Change Your Life"); philosophy ("The Consolations of Philosophy"); travel ("The Art of Travel"); plus a few novels with such cutesy titles as "Kiss & Tell" and "On Love." He has now hopscotched to architecture; a book on opera can't be too far off.

De Botton is high falutin' but user friendly -- his trick, a la Oprah, is to throw in a feel-good twist, though his relentless geniality gets to be a bit much. For better and worse, the British author is in typical form in "The Architecture of Happiness," which also could be called "Why Buildings Are Good for Us." He admits up front that good architecture doesn't rank high on a list of "tangible needs," but he's a believer in its power to provide spiritual nourishment, even a state of grace.

In a book brimming with photographs to drive home that point -- soaring Gothic churches, steel bridges and the austere minimalism of sundry Le Corbusier houses -- De Botton asks: In an age when no authoritative canon of beauty prevails, when most architecture arises from "confused private imperative," how do we judge what beautiful architecture is in the first place?

He proposes that we listen to what buildings, in their diversity, say: "[W]orks of design and architecture talk to us about ... the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them." It's all a bit nicey-nice, but that's the De Botton way. He wants to make it personal: "What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end so far from what we search for in a friend." De Botton contends that certain shapes and forms suggest different traits and moods, and with analogies to abstract art and sculpture, he develops a checklist of architectural virtues: order, balance, elegance, coherence and a mysterious quality he dubs "self-knowledge."

The author cites various periods and styles to illustrate this discussion. But he is not dogmatic about these principles. Good architecture, he argues, results from the subtle interplay of elements, not the dominance of one. On Venice's St. Mark's Square, the Procuratie Vecchie and the magnificent Doge's Palace showcase order, but the former has a sterile uniformity whereas the palace abounds in subtle, intricate variation that endows a harmonious whole with delight and surprise.

As you may have gleaned, each of De Botton's virtues exists in dynamic relation to the others: Order must be balanced by complexity, and both need to be reinforced by elegance and coherence. In this, he argues, buildings are like people: Their dynamism finds a corollary in the play of tendencies that make up character and personality: "The tension between curves and straight lines in a facade," he writes, "carries echoes of the pull between reason and emotion in ourselves."

At every step, De Botton keeps architecture on a human level and relates buildings to human needs, yet there is often a tension between what ought to be and what is. He cites examples of badly conceived buildings -- including a kitschy 1992 housing development in Japan that attempts a wholesale duplication of a Dutch village, a quaint mess of wooden clog and windmill cliches, neither elegant nor coherent -- but his vision of architecture is too pure, too idealized.

The world is full of unattractive buildings and bad planning. A case in point: The plan for New York's ground zero promises an uninspired collection of office towers by big-name architects, among them Brits Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, whose designs resemble the work of a timid intern. All renderings combine blandness and grandiosity (call it blandiosity), nowhere more so than in the ridiculous centerpiece, Freedom Tower. But who knows? When the World Trade Center went up in the '70s, critics decried it as a soulless monstrosity, yet its destruction prompted a torrent of nostalgic reminiscence. The looming towers met a human need after all.

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