Book Review: The Architecture of Happiness

The Architecture of Happiness (2006) by Alain de Botton is as much a philosophy book as it is a treatise on architecture. Instead of the who, what and how, this book explores the rarely asked why of architecture. In a short, lyrical work that is a delight to read, de Botton questions why some types of building make us happy, what buildings say to us, what ideals and virtues are put forward by architecture, and the hardest question of all, what is a beautiful building.

This is a difficult book to summarize, or at least to do it in a way that does it justice. So I’m just going to share a few of my favorite passages to give you a taste of what I liked in this book. I’ll also mention that this book is richly illustrated with images of exactly what de Botton is discussing, almost always on the same page with the relevant text which is a logical improvement over how many art and architecture books often do not include relevant illustration or bury it several pages away.

Favorite Passages

Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places — and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be. – p. 13

At its most genuine, the architectural impulse seems connected to a longing for communication and commemoration, a longing to declare ourselves to the world through a register other than words, through the language of objects, colours and bricks: an ambition to let others know who we are — and, in the process, to remind ourselves. – p. 126

While a common reaction to seeing a thing of beauty is to want to buy it, our real desire may be not so much to own what find beautiful as to lay permanent claim to the inner qualities it embodies.

Owning such an object may help us realise our ambition of absorbing the virtues to which it alludes, but we ought not presume that those virtues will automatically or effortlessly begin to rub off on us through tenure. Endeavouring to purchase something we think beautiful may in fact be the most unimaginative way of dealing with the longing it excites in us, just as trying to sleep with someone may be the bluntest response to a feeling of love.

What we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess, the objects and places that touch us through their beauty. – p. 150-52

When buildings talk, it is never with a single voice. Buildings are choirs rather than soloists; they possess a multiple nature from which arise opportunities for beautiful consonance as well as dissension and discord. -p. 217

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