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Lachlan Liesfield shares his thoughts on Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness; that while the book lacks structure, it forms a strong foundation for anyone seeking an introduction to architecture.
The Architecture of Happiness
My first encounter with The Architecture of Happiness was the description of it given by a friend while I was searching for a book on architecture; “It doesn’t have anything a first year architecture student won’t know, but, well, you’re a no year architecture student.”
And he was correct. Much of the references and allusions de Botton makes throughout the text (and there are many) will be new for any lay reader of the novel, and it reads precisely as that, an introduction to architecture. With so few books of that kind around, it is hard not to recommend this for anyone looking for an “at a glance” introduction to the subject.
De Botton’s unsystematic way of organising his topics is both welcome and frustrating. While managing to keep one turning the page with new ideas, examples and images drawing the mind and eye, it is to their detriment that with such glancing looks at different areas, I must confess that of all those made, I still only remember Le Corbusier, Wittgenstein’s House, and the difference between Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian columns, the few topics de Botton ever focuses on in any great detail (bar certain exceptions).
Instead, de Botton’s allusions and quotes in The Architecture of Happiness act better as a springboard than any sufficiently in-depth scholarship on the subject. The smattering of references offer dozens of opportunities for those curious enough to dig out their laptop and explore further into the subject, the true strength of the work.
“The objects we describe as beautiful are versions of the people we love.” The Architecture of Happiness is filled with such bold claims and ideas. But de Botton has always worked best on grand ideas and assumptions that, if you are willing, you can easily find yourself swept up agreeing with. Not at all something to be ashamed of but, if anything, something to be embraced. If all thought in such grand and optimistic terms, then few would be left to be called “dreamers.”
It is only in paragraphs where de Botton’s claims lay themselves bare from his usual imaginative wordplay that they seem more questionable. At one point, reflecting that McDonald’s reminds him of the “loneliness and meaninglessness of existence,” de Botton’s phrasing leaves one unable to determine if he is truly serious about his claim, or whether we are meant to smile knowingly to ourselves as we are with so much of the wittier parts of his writings.
The largest disappointment of the book is that it veers so wildly from it’s initial topic. While early on setting out its goal of establishing what makes a beautiful house, The Architecture of Happiness quickly veers from the subject, instead acting as tour guide through a compressed history of architecture, never coming to a true conclusion. With so much modern philosophy seemingly focused on semantics, de Botton has taken the opposite route here, providing a broad overview that while massive in scope, similarly fails (like those authors of semantics) to provide what philosophy has missed for so long: direction on how we should live, on how we should act, and why – something de Botton’s other works have more greatly succeeded in doing before – a shame then that it is not so successful here.
De Botton’s works draw in with their interesting subjects and his infinitely readable prose that seldom dips in quality from book to book. While not an authority on the subject, de Botton throws himself into the subject and, with his intelligent writing and often witty observations, in The Architecture of Happiness he provides a book that while not definitive philosophically or academically on its subject, acts a launching point for those interested in both, without dumbing down either, and that is to be admired.