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Alain De Botton. The Achitecture of Happiness is a dazzling and generously illustrated journey through the philosophy and psychology of architecture and the indelible connection between our identities and our locations.
One of the great but often unmentioned causes of both happiness and misery is the quality of our environment: the kinds of walls, chairs, buildings, and streets that surround us. And yet a concern for architecture is too often described as frivolous, even self-indulgent. Alain de Botton starts from the idea that where we are heavily influences who we can be, and argues that it is architecture's task to stand as an eloquent reminder of our full potential.
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He lives in London. Is less more, or a bore? Will a new museum in the form of a gigantic titanium-clad blob transform our backwater hometown into an exciting cultural capital? Can the right sort of architecture even improve our character? The answer used to seem obvious enough: a beautiful building was one that realized certain abstract ideals of symmetry, proportion and harmony.
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But in the 18th century this classical consensus began to break down. The possibilities became even more dizzying with the introduction of new materials and building technologies. As the role of engineering became ever more prestigious, a seductive idea arose: perhaps architectural excellence could be reduced to function.
To this way of thinking, the most elegant bridge was the one that spanned the greatest distance with the lightest material.
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Taking the new functional aesthetic into the home, however, did not prove an entirely happy experiment. But of what? De Botton has an answer. View all New York Times newsletters.
This claim is bolder than it sounds. Architecture, after all, consists mainly of abstract forms.
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Think of music, though. A movement from a late Beethoven quartet manages to convey a sense of joyous resignation, perhaps because its abstract tonal structures mirror the dynamics of our emotional lives.
De Botton thinks so, and he makes the most of this expressionist theme on his jolly and handsomely illustrated romp through the world of architecture. Sometimes the effect is intentionally? In a liberal society, there is as much disagreement on what constitutes the best life as there is on what constitutes the best built environment to live it in. The Wittgenstein House is a thing of beauty.