Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 15, 2006


By Alain de Botton

Pantheon. 280 pp. $25

While happily reading Alain de Botton's graceful musings about architectural beauty, I was suddenly struck by the photograph of the Edgar J. Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, Calif., designed by Richard Neutra in 1946. I turned the page to see what de Botton had to say about it:

"The bourgeois couples who lived in Richard Neutra's mid-twentieth-century steel and glass pavilions in California may at times have drunk too much, squabbled, been insincere and overwhelmed by anxiety, but at least their buildings spoke to them of honesty and ease, of a lack of inhibition and a faith in the future."

That was all. Odd, I thought. De Botton never points out that this same Edgar J. Kaufmann commissioned the most beautiful private home in America, Fallingwater. He was. Nor, I discovered after checking the index, does he mention its architect, a certain Frank Lloyd Wright. Not once.

There's no obvious reason why the author of How Proust Can Save Your Life and The Consolation of Philosophy should leave out Wright. Perhaps he simply decided to challenge himself, to see if he could manage the trick, just as the French novelist Georges Perec once published a perfectly readable novel in which none of the words contain the letter E. Certainly, de Botton otherwise reveals his usual wide learning, lyrically deployed. He discusses the neoclassical influence of Palladio, the impact of Horace Walpole's Gothic extravaganza Strawberry Hill on 19th-century building in Britain, the austere concrete housing of Le Corbusier (who once dubbed his sterile tenements "machines for living"). But mysteriously, almost tantalizingly, he avoids the vastly influential, world-famous Wright, whose houses are so serenely beautiful to look at and yet almost impossible to live in comfortably -- at least if you slouch, have children or collect anything. Not surprisingly, The Architecture of Happiness is itself a carefully designed book, tightly constructed around the photographs that appear on virtually every other page. (Another mystery: Which came first, the images or the text?) There are pictures of castles, cathedrals, office buildings, private homes, bridges, hallways, windows, chairs, ironwork. De Botton visits a theme park in Japan built to resemble 17th-century Amsterdam, shows us a 30-foot-high obelisk memorializing a beloved pig, interprets the monumental elegance of the Royal Crescent in Bath, and discusses both the early modern pursuit of functionality and the ancient Japanese esthetic of wabi , which "identified beauty with unpretentious, simple, unfinished, transient things."

Throughout, de Botton argues that the buildings we walk by, work in or come home to affect how we feel. They influence our mood, our sensibility, our very character. No one is likely to disagree with this, especially those of us who dispiritedly sink down into our windowless office cubicles day after day or vainly yearn for just one room, let alone an entire house, like those in Architectural Digest. Alas, much of the time we must simply accept what we are given or settle for what we can afford. For at no point does de Botton seriously address the economics of architecture and interior design. Even if you do it yourself, construction of any kind, especially the highly individualized, is almost prohibitively expensive.

This reality, however, doesn't undercut de Botton's essential point: "Buildings speak -- and on topics which can readily be discerned. They speak of democracy or aristocracy, openness or arrogance, welcome or threat, a sympathy for the future or a hankering for the past." In short, "they speak of visions of happiness." De Botton attempts to understand aspects of that happiness by touching on the achievements or failures of particular styles and constructions. He offers us, in effect, a handsome photo album printed on coated stock, augmented by thoughtful, highly polished paragraphs and pensées . Time after time, his descriptions neatly capture the distinctiveness and character of even the most unusual buildings. Admittedly, those who prefer their sentences strictly functional may sometimes judge de Botton's a tad lyrical, just as his mini-essays risk sounding a little gushy. For the most part, though, he keeps his balance, largely through his quiet intelligence, passionate conviction and the charm of a personality lightly tinged with melancholy:

"The failure of architects to create congenial environments mirrors our inability to find happiness in other areas of our lives. Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design. It is an example expressed through materials of the same tendency which in other domains will lead us to marry the wrong people, choose inappropriate jobs and book unsuccessful holidays: the tendency not to understand who we are and what will satisfy us.

"In architecture, as in so much else, we cast around for explanations to our troubles and fix on platitudinous targets. We get angry when we should realize we are sad and tear down ancient streets when we ought instead to introduce proper sanitation and street lights. We learn the wrong lessons from our griefs while grasping in vain for the origins of contentment.

"The places we call beautiful are, by contrast, the work of those rare architects with the humility to interrogate themselves adequately about their desires and the tenacity to translate their fleeting apprehensions of joy into logical plans -- a combination that enables them to create environments that satisfy needs we never consciously knew we even had."

De Botton concludes his book with an even more heartfelt plea: We must strive to build in a manner worthy of the meadows and woods we are destroying. "We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kind of happiness." ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com. He conducts a book discussion each Wednesday at 2 p.m. for washingtonpost.com.

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