Thursday, January 24, 2008

The (Landscape) Architecture of Happiness

About a year after I received the book as a gift, I finally got around to reading Alain de Botton's "The Architecture of Happiness". The main idea in the book as I read it was summarized in one of the photo captions that states "The buildings we call beautiful contain in a concentrated form those qualities which we are deficient." Earlier in the book, the author writes that "what we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess, the objects that touch us through their beauty." And what of the notion of what is beautiful? Is that not subjective, or are there universal patterns which our minds strive to see realized? In Ray Kurzweil's "The Singularity is Near", he talks a lot about the great facility for the human mind to recognize patterns. Something in the parallel structuring of our brains allow for this. In his book, de Botton suggests that these patterns of beauty are not universal, but rather cultural constructs. He cites the extreme difference between western ideas of beauty to those found in the Japanese idea of "wabi". In wabi there is a"a love of irregularity rather than symmetry, the impermanent rather than the eternal and the simple rather than the ornate." Decay and weathering are not shunned, and this reminds of J.B. Jackson's essay "The Necessity of Ruin". In it, Jackson (one of the father's of the study of cultural landscape), writes about how there must be an interval of neglect to provide the incentive for restoration. He says it is "religiously and artistically essential". This is more of a linear view of things than the parallel existence that I interpret from the eastern idea of wabi, but still there is a connection. Maybe the eastern and western ideas are not always so different.

Near the end of "The Architecture of Happiness", de Botton writes that "we owe it to the fields that our houses (and our landscapes?) will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced." I think this is true, although I also think we should strive to improve our non-virgin land in a similar fashion. There's no excuse for bad public design, and our decisions on how we construct the public realm can have a lasting impact. The author also states that "the same kind of banal thinking which in literature produces nothing worse than incoherent books and tedious plays can, when applied to architecture, leave wounds which are visible from outer space." So go out there an strive to create beauty. It will make people happy.

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