Monday, December 03, 2007

The Architecture of Happiness by Alan de Botton

I'm afraid Alain de Botton is not a terribly deep or profound thinker -- which may be why he's one of the more popular French Spanish/Jewish/Egyptian/European-in-general writers in the US right now; he can package something that looks like European sophistication into a form palatable to middle-American book-club matrons -- but he's quietly thoughtful, and generally avoids potted Explanations of Everything.

(Although I should admit that this book pulls out a binary theory of architecture about half-way through: to over-simplify, civilizations seek either order or nature in proportion to which element is least represented in that society at the time.)

If you've heard of de Botton, it was probably because of Proust Can Change Your Life, a surprise bestseller (and a thoughtful, elegant little book) about the lessons of Proust for modern life. In the way of modern publishing, he seems to have since found himself in the rut of writing more little books about how some intellectual/cultural thing is actually profoundly self-actualizing or deeply important to the modern world. In this case, de Botton explains the whole point and purpose of architecture over the span of human history.

Come to think of it, he does oversimplify far too much in this book -- no book of this length, for a lay audience, can do what this book intends to to: show definitively how architecture operates in human society and how "good" architecture can make people happy.

In de Botton's favor, he does recognize that architecture is as much an art as it is a science; he mentions several times that trying to replicate excellent works of architecture never succeed on the level of the original, and often fail miserably. But that also leaves him lots of wiggle room, and scope to be vague and nonspecific, and he takes those openings many times.

This book has a lot of pretty black and white pictures of interesting buildings, and de Botton has some ideas that are worth considering. But I suspect anyone who knows much about architecture (I'm not one of them) would find this book laughable.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just a small comment on Alain de Botton: He's not French - the family name is Spanish. He is descended from Sephardic Jews who emigrated to Egypt in 1492.

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