Remembrance of Things Built
Alain de Botton is director of the Graduate Philosophy Program at London University. His books include The Architecture of Happiness and How Proust Can Change Your Life. His comments here are adapted from a recent talk with NPQ.
I write about many of the things that make people happy or sad. The big questions of life: education, religion, love. My topics usually emerge from my own personal obsessions, fears and instincts, what I'm really interested in. It's a selfish process in a way.
Proust was an early influence in my life. People like Proust for so many different reasons—it's almost like different people who all like New York but when they get there they visit totally different places. It's the same with Proust. I like Proust because he's a man who's thinking but at the same time he never forgets the body, the sensual descriptions; he describes things. He is a novelist but he has ideas. Most novels are boring to me because I feel that the novelist is cleverer than the novel. Proust was putting all his intelligence into the novel. So for me, it doesn't seem to be that much of a leap to think not just about what is happening inside people but also what's going on in the physical envelope that surrounds us.
There is still a sense that taking architecture seriously is not entirely respectable, something that's a little bit frivolous, something that's the result of having too much money or being effeminate. The idea of the gay decorator as a powerful figure caused real gender anxiety in the 20th-century. Architects tried to seem like the guides, and if you listen to what Mies van der Rohe was saying, he wanted a building to be honest and manly, it was very gender specific, almost as if there is a kind of sexual anxiety: to care too much about architecture makes you like a gay decorator, makes you like a woman, makes you not serious, a feminine domestic creature! This was not at all the view in the past. If you could talk to Robert Adam, the great classical architect of 18th-century Britain, the idea that somehow it'd be against his gender to decorate a room with flowers is absurd.
Aside from the gender anxiety, another odd response to architecture is the idea that to be left wing and socially concerned and interested in beauty is a contradiction, attitudes very difficult for many people to combine. That's the most disastrous idea because those who need beauty most of all are people whose lives are difficult. So the premise that the poor don't need beautiful environments, all they need is a roof over their head, no!
There is still the Catholic view, according to which architecture does matter to your state of mind, and there is still the Protestant view, the latter saying it does not matter where you are, what matters is inside, in your head, don't worry about the world, it's not about the externals. I feel like a Catholic, albeit not from a religious point of view. Aesthetics and architecture are very important.
IN AMERICA | There are many rivers flowing together in America. If you look at the skyscrapers of New York, many of them are incredibly exuberant. That's because before the Second World War there was a sense that you needed to create a temple to your business even if your business was making cars. So there's a fusion of money with almost religious zeal and ambition: the temples of New York. But then in the post-war period it all got very austere. The World Trade Center and the big banks, as the milestones of the new era, were architecturally very boring, the result of an inverted commerce Protestant outlook.
MODERNISM | I think the origins of modernism were in the mechanics of it, in the way it was done: a huge project directed by one man, complex financing, complex instruments of production, big building teams. This process was modern, very much away from the old artisan thing. But in terms of the actual architecture, Haussmann's architecture was not modern, as we would understand it today. And if you read someone like Le Corbusier, he hates Haussmann's architecture. He likes his ambition and his bravado, but he thinks the architecture is kitschy and very old fashioned. But the Paris we love, everyone loves, Haussmann's Paris, is not something that obviously one wants to change! Le Corbusier's plans for the center of Paris were different: He wanted to blow it all up and replace it with towers.
NOSTALGIA FOR STABILITY | One of the main reasons people like old houses or buildings is because they feel that the modern world is so fast moving and old buildings seem like a psychological anchor.
The interesting thing is that for the areas or the buildings that most people love we don't know the name of the architects. Who built this building I'm in? We don't know. No one really knows. Essentially it is from a generic plan. It's nice to have the all-star building that's different, but for most cities you also need regularity and repetition.
CITIES AND MEGACITIES | The challenge for cities and megacities is how to create a place that balances people's need for calm with the excitement and the frenetic pace. Cities are basically like giant libraries where people have to find things. Cities can get too chaotic without a sense of regularity and order. If you go to Bombay or Lagos—these are cities that have collapsed under the weight of that kind of complexity. So I think you need a feeling or harmony that these places lack. The problem of the megacity is that it is just out of control. The city authorities can no longer control it. And Rem Koolhaas seems to think that it's great, it's cool, it's the way it's happening. But again, I don't think anyone wants to live in a megacity. For those who do, that's an unfortunate thing, let's not celebrate! Let's try to work out how we can turn the sprawling megacity into something much closer to New York or San Francisco, or other places that people actually like.
I have a very low estimation of much of London's architecture. It was the first sprawling city. Whereas European cities, like Paris or Amsterdam, were concentrated, London sprawled out in the Industrial Revolution and so for miles and miles you get suburbs and small houses, a wasteful use of space. Because of this you get immense traffic jams, just as in Los Angeles. The most satisfying cities are dense. London is not one of them, and that creates many problems of infrastructure.
One reason architecture is so bad is often because people are not educated enough to think about architecture. Think about how educated we are now about our diet. We know so much about carbohydrates and fats because for the last 20 years people have been telling us everything about what we drink or eat. No one tells us about buildings. No one says it really matters how high the building is. If they did tell us that, we'd start to notice, but because they don't, we're blind to it. The idea is to sensitize people. Our project is to create a street or two where we've really thought about the design of the buildings and our goal is to make people feel that architecture is not just something that happens to them passively, but rather something that they can think about—that's the underlying ideology. The project is to build near Southampton a few streets of exemplary houses and film the process, like reality TV but with architecture. It's very ambitious and I hope it will have an impact.
It's like campaigning. Why do we worry about the environment? Because a certain number of people, maybe 500, started to think really hard about getting the rest of us agitated. In some ways the architecture campaign is already happening in some cities. No one would build the World Trade Center today the way it was. There were many mistakes, people have learned. On one hand you have the good ideas, and on the other hand you have the builders, and so long as we consider architecture to be just another part of business we are in trouble. Of course, it has a financial component, but it's too serious to be abandoned to the free market. I am not a socialist, I believe in the free market in many areas, but not in architecture.
The Netherlands is an inspiring model. There the government allocates a certain part of land to be developed. It then puts a tender to property-development companies to buy it, and part of that tender is they must use a roster of designated architects. One of six architectural teams is chosen by an independent, well-respected body of architectural critics. So what you get is the best of both worlds: the free market doing it but under constraints. It's a way of balancing the free market.