John Graham reviews Alain de Botton's book about architecture, a meditation on the elusive mixture of order and chaos that allows certain buildings to 'talk' to us
The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton, Hamish Hamilton £17.99
The purpose of this book is to explain how good architecture works by asking a series of questions. Why do some buildings make us feel happy and at ease, while others only
inspire tedium or repulsion? What codes and messages does architecture use to speak to us? How and why do we make. subliminal distinctions between two buildings, both designed from the same architectural principles, one that we like and the other we find offensive?
In asking these polar questions, the author has set himself no easy task, since many of our responses to architecture are inevitably subjec
tive, but de Botton clearly believes that certain patterns and guidelines exist and he attempts to explain how they work.
The Architecture of Happiness is three books in one. On one hand, it is a concise history of the development of architecture from classical antiquity to modernism and ultramodernism, with its emphasis on technology and science.
Second, it is a study of abstract art and sculpture, and how architecture can be said to work in similar, non-figurative ways. This section describes how buildings "talk" to us through associations which are usually subliminal but which affect our like or dislike of the architecture before us.
Steeply pitched roofs embody Arts and Crafts associations with its many inferences of the rustic, unfettered and natural.
C F Voysey's houses, designed (ironically) for wealthy clients, are a good example. Thus, the taste and fashion at the time was for rural simplicity, despite being chosen by those who could have afforded ormolu and gilt had this been the prevailing ideal.
De Botton sees a creative (or animating) tension between order and chaos in good architecture. The naturalness and freedom of Voysey's Arts and Crafts designs appealed to those who had plenty of order in their lives and felt they
could do with a bit of chaos, rather than the columned, pedimented porticos of their forebears. What the author is driving at is that responses to architecture are not merely a matter of whim or fancy but are affected by other powerful influences.
Memory, for example, is an important shaping influence in ecclesiastical design. We enter G F Bentley's Westminster Cathedral. a building discussed in some detail, with a clear understanding, born out of church-going, and of the visual language of the vast building, with its darkness, huge baldacchino, flickering candles, and so on. Bentley's design, his first major building, "works" for us because it is created from both order and chaos. It is not a pastiche Gothic creation like so many of its time, but instead introduces a strong Byzantine character which the author would view as the creative, "chaos" side of things, even though there is still order in its essentially cruciform layout. Noone surely doubts that it is a remarkably beautiful cathedral.
The third part of the book is an analysis of architectural ideals and order, and how these develop according to changing economic and political circumstances.
John Henning's frieze on the exterior of the Athenaeum, modelled on the Elgin Marbles, and the golden statue of Athena above Decimus Burton's entrance, would not be appropriate on a similar institution being built today; they would appear pompous and too formal. All that Athenian virtue in the freewheeling eclecticism of today would represent far too much order and absolutely no "chaos", according to the author's formula, and so wouldn't seem right. Trying to pin down this sense of what makes buildings "right" is really what this book is aiming to do.
Prince Charles's village of Poundbury, however well-intentioned, is not quite right because it fails to address the problems of modern society for example. it simply bars such modern nuisances as heavy traffic from coming anywhere near it. That is not a solution to a difficult, worsening problem but rather an avoidance of it.
Alain de Botton has made a fair stab at discussing the aesthetics of architecture in an attractively produced book filled with excellent photographs, including several by the great A F Kersting.
While researching his earlier books, he travelled widely and cites personal experience of buildings in his narrative.
My only criticism is that he might have included more discussion of the practicalities of constructing desirable, "right" buildings in the future. The high-quality concrete required to avoid all the problems with low-grade stuff will not come cheap, and would certainly be beyond the pockets of most of us. It is all very well to praise the merits of such beautiful materials as an alternative to cheap bricking or harling; paying for it can be the difficult bit.
This caveat aside, The Architecture of Happiness is an elegantly written, well-argued book. In particular, the final chapter. a plea to stop building Tudorbethan "executive development" mediocrities and go for more creative, "chaotic" designs even if the author is not specific about what these are comes not a moment too soon.