Happiness is New Labour’s mantra of the moment, and by happy coincidence de Botton’s latest book chimes in with this contemporary creed.
The Architecture of Happiness tries to resolve the quandary between the extremes of ‘kitsch’ and ‘brutality’ in contemporary housing. Kitsch encompasses the mockery of Mock Tudor homes and the fakery of posh Georgian terraces which together riddle Britain’s suburbs. Industrial brutalism refers to the notorious Sixties high rise towers that afflict many of England’s housing estates. How did we get here?
The challenge of the Gothic Revival to the dominant Classical orders in eighteenth-century England unleashed a legacy of eclectic muddle on to the nineteenth century. This architectural tangle is gracefully discussed in the novel A Laodicean (1881) by Thomas Hardy, who trained as an architect. The disarray was eventually resolved by the brilliant successes of Victorian engineers in Britain, the continent and America. Their functional principles were purloined by envious architects who retrospectively applied them to all buildings. Science superseded absolute classicism and the relativity of eclecticism to take pride of place in twentieth-century construction aesthetics. The age of Modernism had dawned.
Modernism was born out of modernity, but was it as rational? De Botton says not. Leaking roofs in iconic edifices like ‘Villa Savoye’ (1929) indicates to him that even a leading Modernist architect like his compatriot Le Corbusier was far more interested in style than function in his ‘machines for living in’ (Le Corbusier’s infamous definition of a house). In de Botton’s eyes this high-fallutin evasiveness of Modernism of mundane detail was responsible for the dreaded Sixties high rises, an experience that engendered a popular loathing for the aesthetic, which still exists. Hence the pervasive support for vernacular kitsch in most Anglo-American countries at least. Meanwhile, in the wake of Modernism’s demise, architectural eclecticism has been revived in the form of postmodernism; and this has produced an incoherent mess among Britain’s institutional buildings.
De Botton asks how we can return to the certainty that classicism once gave architecture without regressing backwards into imitating the classical order itself. He is insistent that we must remain in tune with modern times. Yet he also wants to reflect the diversity of our different cultures too, since he despises the glib uniformity of what is disparaging known as ‘airport style’. We must make houses which make people feel happy, but how?
De Botton has four main arguments to achieve this result. He begins, perhaps surprisingly in a book devoted to making us happy, with the theme of sadness. Some misery in our lives, he argues, is essential if people are to appreciate the relatively trivial satisfaction of living in a decent house. Modern civilisation is the source of most people’s grief; and so we need to get away from it in order to make ourselves happy. Yet we do not want to retreat entirely. Why not? Retreating from modernity assumes a return to rural life, and, contrary to Romantic claims, Nature poses a menace to us. We find too much of its spontaneity tiresome (leaking roofs, weeds spreading their tentacles), because humanity needs banality and, yes, some boredom too, in our architecture if we are to be truly content in our homes. Shunning the bucolic and the brutal, a house must mediate between our inner lives and the outer reality. How can it do this effectively?
De Botton quotes early twentieth-century German art critic Wilhelm Worringer, who argued that adopting contrary aesthetic styles can negate the impact of real life on us. Gothic swirls and curls offset regimes that enforce regimentation; while cool classical calmness soothingly compensates for social chaos. A happy house style, or even the right type font, can confront the feelings of alienation we accrue from life in the rat race. The Japanese tradition of living in a Zen-inspired cabin is worth considering as a cultural style which may meet many of our innermost requirements. It’s peripheral to the classical tradition; its secular calmness defies modern chaos; and its individually-orientated high-tech finish counteracts the drab reputation of the Sixties high rise. But to live this happily we first need to shelve our customary prejudices against Modernist-style housing.
De Botton is right to interrogate Modernism’s claim to scientific authority, but his reasoning lacks sufficient bite because his Modernist sympathies prevent him from comprehensively critiquing a form of art he reveres. De Botton was brought up, until the age of 12 when he emigrated to England, in a bold white Modernist habitat in Zurich. In a TV documentary, aired to tie in with the launch of his book, de Botton reminisces enthusiastically over his Swiss Sixties home. Walking through its rooms, he recalls the light and airy views available through the windows; the free flowing spirit of its open plan living. Though he lived in a city, he felt in contact with outside Nature. It was a friendly house, he concludes, even with its raw concrete walls and despite the fact that he was never allowed to touch the vast expanses of glass in its atrium. For Button, his Zurich pad was familiar with values of the heroic age of modern architecture - speed, light, technology - all the most exciting things about life in the twentieth century. For him, it was the perfect home.
In the light of this background, it is perfectly understandable why de Botton retains his Modernist sympathies. But the real reason Modernism could not live up to its scientific phraseology is because no art form is rational. Art and architecture are irrational by definition. Worringer’s therapeutic theme fits our credulous times far better than his own. His approach of countering life with art is little more than a secular justification for rejuvenating tribal icons and fetishes to fend off bad luck. In de Bottonland, this partiality for idolatry takes the form of making obeisance to Modernist fittings and fixtures. While staying at a modern Tokyo hotel, he rhapsodises over light switches and plugs,
I noticed for the first time just how unusual were the light switches and plugs in my room. The excitement of having arrived in an unknown country coalesced around these fittings, which can be to a building what shoes are to a person: unexpectedly strong indicators of character. I discovered in them harbingers of the national peculiarities that had motivated my travels. They were promises of a distinctly local kind of happiness. (p221)
In the world of art, such irrational outbursts are charming and only a Philistine would knock them. There is a problem however when attempts are made to fuse artistic Modernism with logical modernity. Modernist ideologues are always saying that ‘form follows function’, but art forms had to be severely contorted before they could follow engineering’s function. Architects took a smidgeon of scientific rigour to stabilise their fragmenting profession. A thin veneer of rational verbiage was sanctioned to coat architecture’s intrinsic fancifulness. Their subsequent success with Modernism provoked a wider interest in this mangled brand. The artistic avant-garde took it on board too, only to haul it even further from its rational origins, converting it into a phantasmagorical kaleidoscope that included such weird cultural cousins as Cubism, Dada and Surrealism. Modernism had come a long way from the likes of Telford and Brunel.
The logical, engineered aspect of Modernism was never that important to architecture. Obliged to simulate an affinity for its awkwardly exacting scientific ally, Modernists responded by systematically mining the history of science to extract every irrational morsel from its past, the better to force real engineers on to the defensive. This can be seen in the architectural myth that has grown up around the ‘linear = rational’ equation. The theory holds that the presence of a geometrically straight line indicates the rational and the scientific. This is spurious pseudoscience. If straightness is always rational, then Dutchman Piet Mondrian would have been a draughtsman rather than the abstract artist (and mystical Theosophy crank) he was. There is nothing a priori rational about straightness, linearity, logic, symmetry, or geometry. Rationalism is inextricably linked to the project of human progress. Whenever a science is disconnected from civilisation, it can literally assume any form. De Botton refers to the Islamic builders who employed mathematics to decorate mosques:
Islam placed particular emphasis on the divine qualities of mathematics. Muslim artisans covered the walls of houses and mosques with repeating sequences of delicate and complicated geometries, through which the infinite wisdom of God might be intimated….Such works were like the products of a mind with none of our human limitations, of a higher power untainted by human coarseness and therefore worthy of unconditional reverence. (p114)
Geometrical motifs may be compatible with mysticism, but that doesn’t make their sublime patterns ‘scientific’. This elegantly artistic yet speciously scientific approach to geometry was also adopted by the Renaissance masters. Even Reason is not immune to being recruited to the status quo. Our mums are forever telling us to ‘be reasonable’ when we were younger and faster. In his renowned Civilisation television series, art historian Kenneth Clark tells us why the Romantics saw Reason as a force for conservativism:
The reasonable world of an eighteenth-century library is symmetrical, consistent and enclosed. Symmetry is a human concept, because with all our irregularities we are more or less symmetrical and the balance of a mantelpiece by Adam or a phrase by Mozart reflects our satisfaction with our two eyes, two arms and two legs. And consistency: again and again in this series we have used that word as a term of praise. But enclosed! That’s the trouble: an enclosed world becomes a prison of the spirit. One longs to get out, one longs to move. One realises that symmetry and consistency, whatever their merits, are enemies of movement.
The Modernist obsession with linearity is a primitive fixation, not a rational methodology. Linearity may be associated in our minds with Egyptian or classical civilisation, but humanity’s first geometers were the prehistoric Neolithic farmers who created the megalithic monuments. We may derive the Modernist preference for minimalism from Puritan iconoclasts or the Spartan austerities of the classic Doric mode, but Modernist architects looked to the bare pastoral hut for inspiration. Joseph Rykwert has found that all the major protagonists of Modernist architecture - Adolf Loos, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Erich Mendelsohn, and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius - were passionate devotees, not of sleek industrial factories, but the log cabin. Even Habitat founder and Modernist maestro Terence Conran has written a eulogy to the humble shed, affirming that ‘the chief allure of the shed, of course, is its separateness’. While discussing the Jyubako House, built in 2004 by the Tezuka Architects firm in the Tokyo suburb of Setaga-ku, de Botton praises the merits of modern Japanese shacks built on Zen-inspired principles of emptiness:
Although this was a domestic space, it had a quality of emptiness and purity more typically associated with religious buildings. In inviting a retreat from the world, the house seemed to be honouring the Zen Buddhist belief in a need to create a refuge from daily life, not in order to forgo reality but so as more closely to approach certain of its central inner truths.(p231)
Whence this focus on Japanese huts and not on, say, African ones, which are, one suspects, even emptier? Is it because the only ‘inner truth’ the latter conjure up is grinding poverty? De Botton is far more interested in the picturesque rituals of medieval aristocrats and warrior monks. While scrutinising another group of contemporary Japanese shelters, de Botton artlessly remarks on their simplicity and ‘the long-standing pull of Japanese aesthetics towards emptiness and austerity….Simple wooden huts had as a result acquired a privileged place in the Japanese imagination. The great lords of the Momoyama [1573-1614] and Edo [1615-1868] periods had every few months left their mansions and castles behind to spend time in huts, in obedience to the Zen insight that spiritual enlightenment can come only through a life without embellishment’ (p234/5).
By insisting that this obscure emptiness is expressed in Modernist architecture, de Botton divulges the real absolute that lies behind its phoney technophilia. Though he cautiously attributes it to the insights developed by an established oriental religion, he shares the Modernist conviction that an absolute emptiness defines our cosmos. One sign of this universal hollowness lies at the core of our life as we know it. The void is a Modernist metaphor expressing the disjuncture between humane harmony and the vacancy of modern reality. It assumes a fundamental dichotomy between mankind and social advance. The more society improves, the greater the void which grows between humanity and its chances for happiness.
Modernism offers a blessed relief from this blank vista. But its solution lies in crafting other empty receptacles. As a favoured Modernist aphorism has it, ‘Less is More’. The less reliant we are on materialism, the more chance we have of discovering the true happiness of a harmonious life. How? The rigours of Zen spiritualism demand too much dedication to suit the taste of most Westerners, and its strictures have been replaced by nebulous secular culture. Material emptiness diminishes the urban void by allowing us to expand our vacuous cultural horizons, and especially our architectural ones. Its vicarious pleasures form a delicate screen against the serried ranks of vacant consumers. De Botton’s book justifies its architecture of happiness on similar grounds. The less we permit kitsch design to stupefy us, the more chance we have to mull over life’s key issues and find a placid domestic resolution.
So why did Modernism collapse into its own void and spectacularly fail? Modernism appealed to the misunderstood outsider, the rugged anti-hero. At its widest extent, it flourished just before the post-war boom took off in the 1950s, mainly in intellectual circles called ‘beats’ or ‘beatniks’, who regarded themselves as a primitive elite of angry young men. Not surprisingly, Modernism never enjoyed mass appeal. The long boom resulted in the largest expansion in health and wealth ever achieved by humanity in its entire history. Largely because of it, a number of Modernist architects won government contracts to clear slums and build housing projects across Britain. The democratic input behind those decisions was diddly-squat.
Another product of that era was Rock and Roll, or ‘Pop’. Unlike Modernism, this fresh cultural phenomenon won over millions of rebelliously-minded teenagers. The creative source for Pop’s brash energy was the heartland of Western materialism - precisely the place where gloomy Modernists had forecast a dystopian future of brute regimentation, economic crisis and mutually assured destruction. Young people obviously didn’t feel so alienated by modern life. If anything, I would suggest, their complaints centred on not getting enough of it. The scurrilous extravaganza of Pop hit Modernism right in the middle of its precious angst. While Modernist artists surrendered their ‘machine aesthetic’ as early as the First World War, its architects kept the flag flying up to the collapse of Ronan Point in 1968. It was Pop, not leaking roofs nor crumpling tower blocks, which proved to be the final nail in the Modernist coffin. Its vacuum had been vanquished.
Pop and its post-modern cheekiness have now been replaced by multiculturalism’s worthy commemoration of victims. In writing this book, de Botton senses a chance to resurrect his beloved Modernist style on the back of this victim bandwagon. Both Modernism and multiculturalism share the common premise that modernity is alienating. An ‘architecture of happiness’ which aims to console life’s victims would suit New Labour’s crew too. The current ‘Happiness’ campaign of these panic merchants is as about as convincing as the crucified thieves who cheerfully sing ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian. It needs beefing up with some substantial cultural and intellectual input, and de Botton may be the man for the job. How does he set about blending Modernism with multiculturalism? By anthropomorphising accommodation.
The Romantics anthropomorphised Nature. de Botton wants us to treat houses as if they had personalities too. But not every housing persona is welcome - only the melancholic need apply. De Botton philosophises that people often try to explain their misery by resorting to outlandish mysticisms like feng shui, when an appalling house style or interior design is more likely to be the cause. Turn your home into a hut and it will speak sweet nothings to you. Happily, life will be worth living again:
It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us….Architecture asks us to imagine that happiness might often have an unostentatious, unheroic character to it, that it might be found in a run of old floorboards or in a wash of morning light over a plaster wall - in undramatic, frangible scenes of beauty that move us because we are aware of the darker backdrop against which they are set. (p25)
It is perhaps when our lives are at their most problematic that we are likely to be most receptive to beautiful things. Our downhearted moments provide architecture and art with their best openings, for it is at such times that our hunger for their ideal qualities will be at its height. (p150)
In essence, what works of design and architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of visions of happiness. (p72)
This is all a bit rich. His plea that we assume that houses have personalities that can talk to us is not the best position from which to criticise other people’s peculiar proclivities. As for wallowing in mysticism, de Botton’s book is full of it: from his Zen worship in Japan to reporting his own mystical experience in Westminster Cathedral:
Under the influence of the marble, the mosaics, the darkness and the incense, it seemed entirely probable that Jesus was the son of God and had walked across the Sea of Galilee….it was no longer surprising to think that an angel might at any moment choose to descend…’ (p109-111).
De Botton’s applications of physiognomy (the divination of facial traits) and graphology (the interpretation of hand-writing) to help him decipher building styles are again replete with eccentric mysticism: ‘If even crude scratches on a piece of paper can speak accurately and fluently of our psychic states, when whole buildings are at stake, expressive potential is exponentially increased. The pointed arches of Bayeux Cathedral convey ardour and intensity, while their rounded counterparts in the courtyard of the Ducal Palace at Urbino embody serenity and poise. Like a person weathering life’s challenges, the palace’s arches equitably resist pressure from all sides, avoiding the spiritual crises and emotional effusions to which the cathedral’s appear ineluctably drawn.’ (p90)
Finally, there is a mysterious remark that de Botton made during his associated television documentary. In struggling to avoid creating a phoney pastiche of a traditional building style, apparently we must remember that ‘a true homage rarely looks exactly the same’ as the original masterpiece. In the book, he also observes that ‘The true heirs of Tokugawa houses frequently bear no simple outward resemblance to their masters; the resemblance is more subtle, relying on proportions and relations…’ (p226). Is he saying that every style can echo every other style? Is de Botton ready to capitulate to such sterile relativism? The explanation for this is de Botton’s reluctance overtly to mention Modernism’s most mystical category. For him, a true homage to the perfect home must find some way to convey a void.
Because of de Botton’s reticence in expressing his true feelings about Modernism, many similar contradictions litter ‘The Architecture of Happiness’. While it is perfectly tolerable for an artist to be enchantingly inconsistent, de Botton poses as a philosopher interested in coherence. One of his chapters is even entitled ‘Coherence’. But he has chosen to be incoherent rather than reveal the full depth of his intellectual attachments. We have already referred to de Botton’s concern at Nature’s tendency to launch rebarbative attacks on urban dwellings. Yet he openly admires the way that the Zen hut style he found in Japan acquiesces in these assaults. Reiterating his pleasure at seeing ‘the traditional Japanese fondness for material imperfection’, he respects the fact that the owners of one Zen hut he visited made no visible effort to remove its gathering rust and moss stains: ‘There seemed to be a deliberate joy to be had here in watching nature attack the works of man’ (p235).
Existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once notoriously avowed that ‘Hell is other people’. De Botton likes homes that speak to him but he had to escape into Westminster Cathedral when the McDonald’s restaurant he was sheltering in from a rain shower was overrun by a raucous crowd of ‘voluble Finns’. But he is not consistent in this attitude towards Scandinavians. When Berlin became the capital of a newly reunified Germany in 1990, a veritable explosion in embassy-building began there. In ‘The Perfect Home’ documentary, de Botton criticises Egypt’s embassy for its garish imitation of Pharaohic motifs, while complementing the Scandinavian embassies for merely making a discrete ‘nod’ to their antique heritage. In far off Tokyo, however, it is precisely the scantiness of this ‘nod’ to the past that makes its modern buildings problematic for de Botton:
The roof of an insurance company or a post office would occasionally curve upwards gently at the edges in a nod to the Tokugawa style. But the failure of such attempts to rise above the kitsch illustrates the difficulties of finding a modern form to embody traditional features of a culture. (p226)
Thanks to de Botton’s incoherence on this point, we are left in the invidious position of not knowing whether it is the subtleness of a gesture to design history, or its paucity, which turns contemporary constructions from fulfilling their destinies as happiness dispensers and casts them down into the depths of purveying the crassest condescension.
Talking about condescension, before entering Westminster Cathedral, de Botton makes it perfectly clear that he doesn’t have much time for McDonalds’ restaurants. The eatery he was in ‘invited thoughts of the loneliness and meaninglessness of existence in a random and violent universe. The only solution was to continue to eat in an attempt to compensate for the discomfort brought on by the location in which one was doing so’ (p108). I wonder if these amazing sentences qualify for inclusion in Private Eye’s ‘Pseud’s Corner’ column. At the very least, they can be filed under the category ‘Excuses to be used if caught scoffing a McDonald’s hamburger’. De Botton seems incapable of grasping that Modernist platitudes like this are seen by many as laughable absurdities; that is, as ‘kitsch’. Though he obviously finds it difficult to view Modernism as just another cliché, de Botton fears that it may no longer be able to change the world. Indeed it is his panic on this point which motivates his disproportionate criticisms of traditional English homes, as well as his cringing accommodations to multiculturalism, mysticism and mind management. Under de Botton, the originally vast enthusiasms of Modernism have been relegated into merely making us wince and simper in our bedrooms.
De Botton concludes with an inspiring ‘one book can change the world’ appeal. Could he be talking about The Architecture of Happiness? He doesn’t say. But by spreading a little happiness around, he evidently hopes to translate Modernism’s often impenetrable prose into sentiments that everyone can appreciate. For a book ostensibly devoted to extolling elation, however, his polemic dwells excessively on Modernism’s more dismal aspects. This contradiction may prove a fatal barrier to the book’s success. That said, de Botton’s enduring loyalty to his chosen aesthetic is commendable.
It is still relatively common to encounter people who continue to foster illusions in Modernism. This is probably because it was never intellectually defeated, but overtaken by events beyond its orbit. Their ranks are no doubt swollen by those who share de Botton’s irritation with the eclectic chaos which seems to characterise architecture today. But is contemporary building as ramshackle as he imagines? His complaints against the uniformity imposed by the Mock Tudor/Georgian pattern of the suburbs, together with the relentless industrial brutalism of the inner cities, seem to dilute this argument. And it is hard to class post-millennial Britain as eclectic when compared to the welter of diverse building styles that afflicted the Victorian era (Chinese, Egyptian, Hindu, Byzantine, Jacobean, Gothic, Classic - in all orders, and lastly industrialism).
In our century, multiculturalist architects like Gehry, Rogers, Libeskind, Foster and Hadid have made a global impact, not by their high-tech rhetoric, but because their sustainable environmentalism delivers a more lucid coherence to public architecture than the despondent Modernist void ever did. Part of their coherence also comes, not from their greater sensitivity to humanity, but from the longevity of the victim image in civilisation’s culture. From the Christian crucifixion scenes, to iconic Buddhist statues, to forlorn Romantic anti-heroes, works of art featuring victims and outsiders have formed some of the world’s greatest works of art. These front-rank architects have turned this venerable motif from a work of art into a principle of construction. Furthermore, a wealthy patron stands foursquare behind them - a Western society overtly committed to sponsoring cultural regeneration. Though in theory multiculturalism formally empathises with the hybrid, the eclectic and ethnically diverse cultures, we shouldn’t take these claims at face value. In practice, it is as about as miscellaneous as a Disney theme park.
Whatever the future direction taken by multiculturalism, however, stalwart fans of Modernism still tend to value it because they see it as being heroic and robust. Not for them any pussy-footing around with voids and Zen. Many indeed wish to salvage Modernism for science, and prime it to contest multiculturalism’s present dominion over the arts. Would that strategy, as opposed to de Botton’s compliance with victim culture, help further the cause of civilisation? If contemporary culture was less emotional, and more stringently scientific, could that help our progress to a brighter future? That is what we are being asked to accede to when we hear that contemporary culture must learn to respect science and technology more.
To my mind this is just another therapeutically-inclined agenda, albeit in the guise of a scientific formula. Its influence resides in rehearsing Modernism’s bogus boast that scientific culture can thrive. On the contrary, a civilised future lies in demarcating rational science and irrational culture. So should we live in a Debottonville of sustainable Zen dens, or in the residential equivalent of a laboratory Petri dish? As an individual, do whatever floats your boat. Would either abode change society for the better? Quote me happy and buy into neither.
Aidan Campbell is the author of ‘Art: Agent or Aesthetic?’ in Dolan Cummings (ed), Art: What Is It Good For?, 2000.
For a different take on Modernism, see Karl Sharro’s review of the V&A exhibition, Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939. If you would like to suggest other books or exhibitions on this theme for review on Culture Wars, please email us.