The Architecture of Happiness
Alain de Botton
New York: Vintage International, 2006
If Alain de Botton's name seems familiar, it may be because you saw his entertaining New York Times article called "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person."
In both that essay and The Architecture of Happiness, de Botton makes a very difficult thing look easy: he translates the messy complexities of human nature and behavior into clear, accessible prose.
If you have ever wondered why or whether architecture matters to people who are not architects, why particular types of building styles go in and out of fashion, or why certain built environments make us feel good and others make us uncomfortable, you will find answers in these pages. There are 270 of them, nearly half of which are filled with photos that illustrate his many thoughtfully explored examples of successful and unsuccessful design.
Much of what de Botton has to say about architecture also applies to other designed objects—for example, the kinds we sell at Terrestra. He says so many things so much better than we could that we've resorted to a Q&A format and liberal quotations below.
Q: Why is design in general so important to us psychologically? What difference does it really make if a serving bowl is porcelain or plastic?
A: "[Designed objects] talk to us about the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. A feeling of beauty is a sign that we have come upon a material articulation of certain of our ideas of a good life. [These objects help us to address] the question of the values we want to live by—rather than merely of how we want things to look."
Q: Why do we want to own things we find attractive?
A: "While a common reaction to seeing a thing of beauty is to want to buy it, our real desire may not be so much to own what we find beautiful as to lay permanent claim to the inner qualities it embodies. What we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess, the objects and places that touch us through their beauty."
(Of course, even once we know this, we often want to buy such objects anyway.)
Q: Aside from the obvious "people are different", why do people have such varied stylistic preferences, and why do fashionable styles change over time?
A: "We are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient. We respect a style which can move us away from what we fear and towards what we crave: a style which carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues. That we need art in the first place is a sign that we stand in almost permanent danger of imbalance, of failing to regulate our extremes, of losing our grip on the golden mean between life's great opposites: boredom and excitement, reason and imagination, simplicity and complexity, safety and danger, austerity and luxury."
Q: Why is excellent functional art so hard to produce?
A: "To design means forcing ourselves to unlearn what we believe we already know, patiently to take apart the mechanisms behind our reflexes and to acknowledge the mystery and stupefying complexity of everyday gestures like switching off a light or turning on a tap."
"We don't generally experience chronic pain when the fine-grained features of design have been ignored; we are simply forced to work harder to overcome confusion and eddies of unease. However, these [elusive discomforts] can in the end always be traced back to a failure of empathy, to [designers] who allowed themselves to be seduced by a simplistic vision of who we might be, rather than attending to the labyrinthine reality of who we are."
Q: At Terrestra we're especially drawn to elegance, which can be easy to identify but hard to define.
A: "Elegance is an achievement that looks effortless—and because we sense it isn't, we wonder at it and admire it all the more. [It's] a quality present whenever a work succeeds in carrying out [a difficult task] with grace and economy as well as strength, and when it has the modesty not to draw attention to the difficulties it has surmounted."
Whether you agree or disagree with his arguments, there is much wonderful food for thought in this book. Highly recommended!