The 'Architecture of Happiness': Where Beauty, History Meet

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, March 3, 2007

Do aesthetic and functional attributes of your home make you happy? Do the exterior and interior architectural characteristics of your workplace induce feelings of contentment and optimism each day when you arrive? Do you experience visual and psychological joy as you walk the streets of the city where you live?

These questions are posed and addressed in "The Architecture of Happiness," a book written in lyrical and sometimes repetitive prose by British author Alain de Botton (Pantheon Books, 2006, $25).

De Botton sets forth several premises, the most important being that the totality of our physical surroundings, from doorknobs to kitchen appliances, from hallways to roadways, can foster happiness or unhappiness. Too frequently, he asserts, it's the latter.

The author, whose other books include "How Proust Can Change Your Life" and "The Art of Travel," reminds the reader that, not surprisingly, beauty is always relative and never absolute.

To show how tastes, ideals and ideas change continuously, he reviews the long and familiar history of diverse architectural styles and theories attributable to scholars and practitioners who zealously believed that their formulas and design principles were immutable and inviolable.

He recalls Greek and Roman classicism, Renaissance neoclassicism, the intricate geometric artistry of Islamic design, the 19th-century romantic lure of Gothic, Oriental and vernacular motifs, and the functional aesthetic of industry and technology that captivated architects of the modern era.

In his chapter on "Talking Buildings," de Botton explains how architecture, like other forms of art, can convey meanings, tell stories, evoke memories and even articulate symbolically "some of the important themes of our lives."

As an example of a building triggering memories and associations through "quotation," de Botton cites the German ambassador's residence perched on a steep hillside between Foxhall and Reservoir roads in Northwest Washington. He describes the building, designed by O.M. Ungers, as "imposing, formal and Classical," with interiors "dominated by marble floors, oak doors, and leather and steel furniture."

He then imagines being on the ambassador's veranda and seeing something "unexpected and shocking:" not the capital city and its landmarks in the distance, but rather the residence's south-facing portico "whispering in our ears of torch-lit parades, military processions and martial salutes. In both its dimensions and its forms," he writes, "the rear elevation of the German Ambassador's Residence bears an uncanny likeness to Albert Speer's ambulatory at the Nuremberg Parade Ground."

Although all of this -- metaphoric buildings, evolving styles, changing theories -- is well-plowed ground in architectural literature, de Botton does an admirable job of succinctly covering and explaining it for readers who are not architecture history buffs.

But he goes further, and becomes much more speculative, when he delves into psychology. He argues that your need for and sense of architectural beauty, and the happiness it may or may not bring, is attributable to your personal experiences, your psyche, your attitudes and your aspirations, independent of any of the original intentions of architects. And even these determinants, de Botton observes, can be trumped by externally shifting conditions of context and culture.

De Botton postulates that good architecture embodies ideals of beauty analogous to human ideals that people understand but often fail to achieve. His theory is that, struggling with flawed and troubled lives, unable to reach the levels of perfection they strive for, people look at and embrace architecture because it can represent what they would like to become.

Thus, for de Botton, architecture has the potential to make us happy by symbolizing the ideal. "The buildings we admire," he states, "are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol values we think worthwhile, which refer through their materials, shapes or colors to such legendarily positive qualities as friendliness, kindness, subtlety, strength and intelligence."

In his "Virtues of Buildings" chapter, he spells out worthwhile essentials: order, both simple and complex; balance, harmonious juxtaposition of contrasting but complementary elements; elegance, a fusion of grace, economy and strength; coherence, the unity of a whole and all its parts at all scales; and self-knowledge, the ability to empathize and, for an architect, to see and respond properly to differences between the architect's needs and the needs of others.

It's hard to argue with these virtues. But if you feel happy in your physical surroundings, are those surroundings necessarily virtuous and beautiful? Conversely, will you become happy if you make sure to surround yourself with beautiful architecture?

Equating architectural values with psychological, behavioral and social values may be intellectually useful as a lens for looking at and characterizing buildings, but the analogy lacks credibility as a predictor of how most people will actually respond to architecture.

Human behavior, feelings, beliefs and aspirations vary widely and change as circumstances change. Consequently, only one theory of design remains eternally valid for a work of architecture, no matter what its aesthetic and functional merits might be: It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company