Alain de Botton writes elegantly and brilliantly. He has an easy-going and deceptively casual style, never harsh or overbearing, always humane. He has thought deeply about architecture and design, seeing them as varieties or art and thus, in his view, having the potential to fill the gaps in our life. ‘Every type of beauty is a vision of happiness’ - this quote drives much of his thinking about architecture as art.
He starts with a longish discourse on the general nature of architecture and the way in which architecture ‘speaks’ to us, giving many examples (well illustrated with black-and-white photos) of buildings that speak eloquently or stridently. He seems most interested in monumental or institutional buildings, and only secondarily to residences. This struck me as odd until I realized that he sees architecture not just at the level of a room or a building, but in the context of a neighborhood, a town, a city. In that context, large buildings, public or private, do have a profound impact on our sense of happiness and wellbeing. Think of the difference in the way you feel about yourself and the world when walking in downtown Los Angeles or Seattle, on the one hand, and downtown Chicago or Portland, on the other. In the former cases the buildings overwhelm and repel you; you feel at a loss, and long only to be elsewhere. In the latter cases, the buildings are integrated with the street life; you can walk, stand, enter a building, or not, but always you feel it is your choice; and the buildings are of human scale, not in terms of their actual mass or height, but in how you interact with them.
He devotes a great deal of time to de Corbusier and the functionalist architecture that he created. This is mostly an exercise in showing how abstract ideas fare so poorly in architecture. Architecture speaks to us in many subtle ways; ways that cannot be captured with a functionalist scheme.
At one point, de Botton asks for a ‘dictionary’ that would allow us to translate architectural features to the feelings that they evoke. Oddly, there is such a dictionary, almost, and de Botton never mentions it. Namely, A Pattern Language of Design by Christopher Alexander. This seems an odd omission.
Nonetheless, this is an excellent and enjoyable read.