Alain de Botton and the psychology of architecture.

Do buildings talk to us? Can they communicate something directly to our psyches? If so, and if we can learn that language, then how come there is so much awful architecture around us? Shouldn’t it be possible, after all this time, to guarantee that a new building will be both beautiful and useful?

Well, clearly not. Nor does Alain de Botton’s latest book make itself a hostage to fortune by attempting a new list of commandments on how to build. Too many before him have failed in that task. The book is more in the nature of a quest, as much a journey through its author’s mind as through the matters of style, patronage or typology which are the more usual concerns of writers on architecture.

De Botton tries a different tack. He wants to get into the bones of architecture and find out what makes it go right or wrong: not so much aesthetically, though that is clearly important, as psychologically. Because our notions of beauty constantly shift. What is ugly to one generation is lovely to the next, and vice-versa.

But certain buildings share something. At one end of the spectrum you get the Royal Crescent in Bath, say. At the other end you might find one of the better buildings by Norman Foster, or Swiss superstars Herzog and de Meuron. Somehow these buildings can talk to each other across the centuries, and fulfil some need in us. We are satisfied by them, they feel right in some way. But what way is that?

De Botton ponders why it is that the flexible rules of Palladian neo-classicism, so successful in Britain from the 17th to the 19th centuries, should somehow not offer the same all-purpose solution today? If adhering to the rules laid down in the Italian Renaissance by Andrea Palladio were all it took to guarantee excellence, how come a late 1980s Quinlan Terrry villa in Regent’s Park, which follows these rules, is so uninspiring? Come to that, why it is that a faithful reproduction of Old Amsterdam, built in Japan, should be so unconvincing? (clue: it’s not in the Netherlands).

At time the slightly artless de Botton style grates somewhat, but mostly it is refreshing. He tackles the troublesome business of taste, for instance, not as one promoting or defending a given position, but simply as someone who would like to know what it’s all about. Given that his own known personal preference is for modernism, this attempt at neutrality is commendable.

He suggests how and why different people like different things (“We can imagine that a whitewashed rational loft, which seems to us punishingly ordered, might be home to someone unusually oppressed by intimations of anarchy”). Similarly an exuberant, colourful home might well be the reaction of a unimaginative bureaucrat to his dull, ordered existence. Well, maybe. But nobody can argue with de Botton’s assertion that “A diversity of styles is a natural consequence of the manifold nature of our inner needs.”

For me the book comes alive when de Botton, as emotional as he is intellectual, wears his heart on his sleeve. He describes situations – a family row, a fraught meeting – in terms that can only elicit sympathy.

“Imagine a man in an especially tormented period, sitting in the waiting room of a Georgian townhouse before a meeting…he looks up at the ceiling and recognises that at some point in the 18th century, someone took the trouble to design a complicated but harmonious moulding…The ceiling is a repository of the qualities the man would like to have in himself: it manages to be both playful and serious, subtle and clear, formal and unpretentious.”

So is this Adam ceiling any help to this, ah, acquaintance of our philosopher narrrator? Not much. “He is embroiled in professional complications which he cannot resolve, he is permanently tired, a sour expression is etched onto his face, and he has begun shouting intemperately at strangers – when all he wants to explain is that he is in pain. The ceiling is the man’s true home, to which he cannot find his way back. There are tears in his eyes when an assistant enters the room to usher him to his meeting.”

Indeed, the quest for the soul of architecture does at times seem a thankless task. I am with de Botton when he remarks that beauty and apparent perfection are saddening things – either because we cannot attain them, or because we know that they are doomed to disintegration and decay. Entropy is the final arbiter.

He seems irked somewhat by icon-buildings (“Architecture should have the confidence and the kindness to be a little boring.”) Most of today’s “signature” architects, from Frank Gehry to Rem Koolhaas, are tellingly ignored. There are exceptions. Foster’s Canary Wharf Underground station is compared to the Alhambra for its “lightness in the face of downward pressure” while he commends a Herzog and de Meuron house for its harmonious juxtaposition of materials.

In the end, he suggests, good architecture comes down to such harmony. “The balance we approve of in architecture, and which we anoint with the word ‘beautiful’, alludes to a state that, on a psychological level, we can describe as mental health or happiness.” Echoing (though not acknowledging) Churchill’s famous aphorism “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”, de Botton suggests that we project ourselves into architecture and that consequently what we see in it explains more about us than it.

So bad architecture is a failure of psychology while good architecture – what we call beautiful – is “the child of the coherent relationship between parts.”

Nobody could claim that these are great revelations. But they have the virtue of being true. Those who control our built environment would do well to take heed. And those who love de Botton’s continued chronicling of his sometimes anguished mental state will be delighted.

Text © Hugh Pearman. Review of “The architecture of happiness” by Alain de Botton. Review first published in The Sunday Times, London, 23rd April 2006, as “Shapes to lift our spirits”. Image of Canary Wharf subway station © Foster and Partners.

De Botton website:
Foster andPartners website:
Book published in Britain by Hamish Hamilton, 280pp, £17.99. USA publication October 2006.