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Building on a pleasure principle

Alain de Botton delves into the relationship between a structure's looks and our feelings.

October 11, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Alain de Botton writes books that bring a kind of elegant, playful common sense to forbidding subjects. "The starting point is always some kind of personal interest," he says from his house in London. "And then I try to keep my calm as I approach topics that are jealously guarded by experts. What makes me confident is a feeling that there has to be some space in our culture for generalists to interpret and discuss the big themes of the age."

His latest volume, "The Architecture of Happiness," looks at the age-old but frequently fraught relationship between the pursuit of pleasure and the building of structures. The book, which has become a bestseller in Britain and was released stateside on Oct. 3, is aimed at the same English-major audience that swallowed his "How Proust Can Change Your Life" and "The Consolations of Philosophy."

This time his starting point, says De Botton, 36, was a sense that, "every city in the world has areas that are depressing, not because of poverty or social problems, but because the architecture has gone wrong. My inspiration was to ask a very basic question: What's going on when a building works, and what's going on when a building doesn't work?" This soon led him to the connection between architecture and happiness. Or rather, to the disconnection.

"Architects are unusually poised between being practical people who deliver shelter, and artists who deliver aesthetic pleasure," he says. "In the 20th century, the idea of aesthetic pleasure was suspected of being aristocratic, luxurious -- irrelevant to a kind of mercantile, bourgeois world. So architects, to get their buildings commissioned, have often adopted the pose of being simple worker-heroes, even as their budgets ran wildly over and their designs were vastly impractical."

It didn't help, he says, that the avatars of Modernism expressed their work as being engineered for austere function instead of beauty. He sees the movement as hijacking "the language of science, the most glamorous language of the 20th century," and making everything else seem decadent froth.

De Botton tends to be praised for his wit and accessibility, though he's rarely hailed for breaking new ground. Writes Stephen Bayley, in the London Independent: "He is erudite, but unthreatening, with the curiosity and sensitivity of a very bright child. His reader is taken along on a journey with a sense of shared revelation."

Some of the book is a straight architectural history, looking at the way Neoclassical and Romantic styles of the 18th and 19th century were cut short by the functional approach of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, then doubling back to consider Gothic spires and the deliberate arrangement of Neolithic stones.

The author takes an intriguing tangent toward religious buildings, describing Roman chapels, medieval cathedrals and early Muslim mosques as making the boldest case for the connection of structure and spirit, what he calls "the idea that you can't worship your god just anywhere.... We need help from our buildings to put ourselves in the proper frame of mind."

Some of the book's most intriguing passages come in a middle section called "Ideals of Home," which gets at a key issue: Why does architecture matter to us? Why are we, as he writes in the first few pages, "different people in different places"?

His explanation is slightly headier than the one sold by shelter magazines. "Our sensitivity to our surroundings," he writes, "may be traced to a troubling feature of human psychology: to the way we harbour within us many different selves, not all of which feel equally like 'us.' " Each setting draws out a different self, some better and some worse. As he writes, "We turn to wallpaper, benches, paintings and streets to staunch the disappearance of our true selves."

It's an almost Proustian way of considering what a room or building does to us. "It's a way of looking at architecture from a very psychological point of view," he says, "and asking, 'What is it that, ultimately, we're looking for in a satisfying environment?' I suppose there are analogies to be drawn as to what we're looking for in a satisfying personal relationship. In some senses, what we're looking for is a confirmation of things we aspire to but don't necessarily have all the time.

"People often fall in love with people with qualities they respect but don't have themselves: The intellectual gets together with the practical person, or the practical person gets together with the spiritual person. People try to balance themselves out. And some of the same thing goes on with architecture: People who are feeling chaotic inside will be drawn to very calm environments. So you can tell a lot about what's missing about people by looking at the styles of architecture and design they love."

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