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Friday, October 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"The Architecture of Happiness": Interpreting the language of buildings

Seattle Times book critic

Author appearance

Alain de Botton discusses "The Architecture of Happiness," 2 p.m., Saturday, Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).

"The Architecture of Happiness"
by Alain de Botton
Pantheon, 280 pp., $25

Subtle insights, presented with playful precision — that's what London author Alain de Botton reliably provides in books that address subjects ranging from "The Art of Travel" to "Status Anxiety" to "How Proust Can Change Your Life." While de Botton started out as a novelist (see his wonderful "Kiss & Tell"), he's now a sort of erudite quality-of-life generalist — and in his new nonfiction book, he moves once again into fresh territory.

But what does he mean by "The Architecture of Happiness"? Psychological architecture? Physical architecture? Are we in the realm of self-help here, or interior design?

All of the above, it turns out. In the book's beautiful opening sequence, he brings his maverick brick-and-mortar vision alive with a quiet, luminous portrait of "a terraced house on a tree-lined street" — perhaps his own — that "has provided not only physical but also psychological sanctuary. It has been a guardian of identity."

The architect's task, he elaborates, is "to render vivid to us who we might ideally be." But "who we might ideally be" is a very different thing from who we actually are, and architecture can be as imperfect a reflection of human nature, de Botton concedes, as human nature is imperfect itself.

Given this flawed state of affairs, what can we expect of a building?

The answers are numerous.

We ask not only that it shelter us or serve a particular practical purpose, de Botton says, "but also that it look a certain way, that it contribute to a given mood: of religiosity or scholarship, rusticity or modernity, commerce or domesticity."

With generous helpings of photographed examples and anecdotes from his own encounters with buildings, de Botton explores how our architectural creations have met or failed to meet our personal and societal needs.

"Buildings speak," he insists, "and on topics which can readily be discerned. They speak of democracy or aristocracy, openness or arrogance, welcome or threat."

Alert to the smallest design details, de Botton notes how certain objects — wineglasses, chairs — can strike us as strangely human in personality, even if they aren't human in shape (the book's illustrations confirm this point eloquently). And he extends this anthropomorphic view from the daintiest gewgaw to the largest architectural edifice.

A building, he suggests, is a repository of memory and possibility, of flawed reality and imagined perfection. It shelters what we value; it compensates for what is missing from our lives.

But how is a building supposed to do all this?

De Botton identifies five "virtues" that any building needs to meet the demands made on it: order, balance, elegance, coherence, self-knowledge. Roaming from London to Paris to Tokyo to New York, de Botton comes up with examples that make his points sharply and sublimely (or humorously, in the case of a London house's ill-assembled pastiche of half a dozen architectural styles — an incoherence that, de Botton says, "taught me more about architecture than many masterpieces have done").

De Botton's prose handily matches any photographic image accompanying it. Here he is on the architectural "order" of a Paris street: "The buildings seem to have shuffled forward like a troupe of ballet dancers ... in obedience to the baton of a strict dancing-master." He is just as good on "elegance" and "balance," and he singles out lower Manhattan's Woolworth Building (1913) as an example of soaring "coherence."

His most cautionary statements have to do with the need for architectural "self-knowledge" — full awareness of what is needed from a building, and what will work.

Case in point: French modern architect Le Corbusier who in 1922 proposed razing a vast swathe of central Paris and erecting in its place 60-story apartment buildings set amid park greenery, away from any automobile traffic. Le Corbusier was motivated by the grim conditions of early 20th-century Paris' slums. Yet his plan, intended to eradicate those conditions, failed to recognize how people inhabit a place.

"While there is much to hate about slums," de Botton remarks, "one thing we don't mind about them is their street plan." The kind of high-rise utopia Le Corbusier envisioned has often turned to socially dysfunctional nightmare. "Bad architecture," de Botton concludes, "is as much a failure of psychology as of design."

Where architectural perfection does occur, we treasure it. So why is perfection so difficult to duplicate?

De Botton doesn't believe it's a question of money alone. Instead, our failure to build on our successes is a melancholy symptom of the human condition. "The masterpieces of art," he writes, "continue to seem like chance occurrences and artists to resemble cavemen who succeed in periodically igniting a flame, without being able to fathom how they did so, let alone communicate the basis of their achievements."

That may be. But de Botton, with his fresh eye and common sense, goes a long way here toward identifying the components of architectural design that might make this world a healthier and more harmonious dwelling place.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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