The Architecture of Happiness

I recently finished reading Alain de Botton’s book, The Architecture of Happiness. It was recommended to me by my brother Jay. It has a lot of similarities to the other book I’ve read by Alain de Botton, also recommended to me by my brother Jay: The Art of Travel. It’s deeply-philosophical. The prose is meandering and meditative. And the book brings light to an element of the human experience that is often overlooked, or taken for granted: our built environment.

"The Architecture of Happiness," by Alain de Botton

The author is a Swiss-born British citizen who seems to travel regularly, so he brings a particularly global perspective to his writing and to his understanding of the world. He explains how he’s writing about architecture, but he’s also writing about people: “To speak of home in relation to a building is simply to recognise its harmony with our own prized internal song. Home can be an airport or a library, a garden or a motorway diner.” The buildings that we build say a lot about our priorities, our passions, the cultures, and the periods of history in which they were built. And if we can just slow down to observe the distinctions, we can learn a lot about ourselves and about others.

Now, one knock on the book is that its language can be pretty dense sometimes. Take this section as an example, drawn from an anecdote in which the author finds himself eating a quick lunch at a McDonald’s when a group of Scandinavian tourists on a field trip to London tromps in: “Prompted by the voluble Finns to draw my visit to a precipitate close, I cleared my table and walked out into the plaza immediately adjacent to the restaurant, where I properly noticed for the first time the incongruous and imposing Byzantine forms of Westminster Cathedral, its red and white brick campanile soaring eighty-seven metres into the foggy London skies.” I understand most of that vocabulary, but still… Voluble Finns? Precipitate close?!? immediately adjacent?!?!? incongruous and imposing Byzantine forms?!?!?!?

Rather loquacious, don’t we think?

Anyway, one of my favorite parts of the book was de Botton’s treatment of religious architecture. He wrote, “The very principle of religious architecture has its origins in the notion that where we are critically determines what we are able to believe in. To defenders of religious architecture, however convinced we are at an intellectual level of our commitments to a creed, we will remain reliably devoted to it only when it is continually affirmed by our buildings.” And I agree with his general premise. However, his specific conclusion feels like it ignores some of the most sacred spaces where I tend to connect with God most meaningfully: the natural world. For me, it is more often the absence of buildings that helps to renew my devotion to the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth. For me, it’s far more powerful to see a space that has been as it is for thousands and thousands of years, long before I arrived on this earth, and to know that it will continue (in some way, shape, or form) for thousands and thousands of years to come, long after I’m gone.

I’m surprised that de Botton didn’t consider this angle himself — because later in the book he provides some fascinating examples of the way that there was a shift in the late-18th Century Europe and North America, where mountains shifted from being “monstrous aberrations” to being something attractive and desirable. He also speaks of the Japanese concept of wabi, “of which no Western language, tellingly, has a direct equivalent, which identified beauty is unpretentious, simple, unfinished, transient things. There was wabi to be enjoyed in an evening spent along in a cottage in the woods hearing the rain fall. There was wabi in old ill-matching sets of crockery, in plain buckets, in walls with blemishes, and in rough, weathered stones covered in moss and lichen. The most wabi colours were grey, black, and brown.” And I think it’s especially in these elements of intentional neglect and lack of human engineering where we learn some of the most interesting things about God and ourselves.

As far as I can tell, Alain de Botton is not a religious person. So, I don’t expect him to think of these things in the same way that I do. I just find it interesting that he found so many of these key pieces of understanding humanity while (in my view) failing to put it all together.

Overall, I’m glad that I got to read The Architecture of Happiness. Still, it took me a loooong time to get through it (three different renewal cycles from the library!). Some of that might be the time period in which I read it: during the beginning of the Fall Semester, when my work is at its most-overwhelming and I get to the end of many days dog-tired, barely able to stay awake through two or three pages of reading. But I think some of that was also the density of the language and the slow, contemplative nature of the book. Either way, I’m glad that I started the book — and I’m glad that I finished the book.

This entry was posted in Culture, Home, Introspection, Reading, Recommendations, Recommended Reading. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *