Alain de Botton and Stuart Davis - Exploring the Architecture of Happiness
January 07, 2009 23:16

Exploring the Architecture of Happiness
Alain de Botton and Stuart Davis

Written by Corey W. deVos

Alain de Botton is a British writer and television producer. His books and television programs discuss various subjects in a style often referred to as a "philosophy of everyday life." In August 2008, he was a founder member of a new educational establishment in central London called The School of Life.

Alain de Botton and Stuart Davis discuss the many ways architecture affects our moods, minds, and identities, shaping our experiences and bending our will according to the patterns of society.  Together they help us recognize all the ways we are influenced by our surroundings, allowing us to deepen our relationship with history and more consciously engage our environment in the present moment.

Our consciousness is inextricable from our environment.  Colors, angles, textures, and lights all conspire to sway our moods and shape our experiences; molding our conscious and unconscious minds according to the prevailing social norms and cultural trends of the time.  We can feel this every time we walk into a room, a very subtle but noticeable reaction to our surroundings—perhaps a sense of calm and spaciousness, or of creativity and energetic vibrancy, or of anxiety and claustrophobia.  You can feel this right now as you read this, your immediate habitat inescapably affecting the sound, feel, and meaning of every word.  There is no simple mathematical equation to make sense of the connection between consciousness and environment, as the same surroundings can elicit entirely different reactions from psyche to psyche, culture to culture.  Adding to the complexity, we often surprise ourselves by naturally surrounding ourselves with environs that dramatically contrast our interior states:

"Very often people think that people are like the environments that they choose to build or go to.  But it's not so much that we are like them, it's more that these things capture our aspirations.  So the person that lives in a minimalist New York loft probably isn't a very calm person—that's why they need the loft so badly!  The person who builds in a very gaudy and expensive way, it's not so much that this person feels rich—in fact they feel very poor, that's why they had to go in for all this conspicuous display.  So there's kind of an element of opposites at play whenever you look at people's tastes." -Alain de Botton

Architecture, like every other form of art and science, has evolved a great deal over the past several thousand years.  As humanity grows through increasing waves of consciousness, care, and complexity, our buildings have grown right along with it.  Visualize the great architecture of the world: the iconic teepees of the Plains Indians, painted with two-dimensional scenes of tribal warfare.  The animistic totems of the Northwest, symbolizing the people's relationship to nature.  The ruined City of the Gods in the basin of Mexico, reflections of heaven carved in stone.  The enormous structures of Egypt, monuments to permanence in a morbidly transient world, gold-capped pyramids to house the eternal ego of Pharaoh.  The majestic columns of Ancient Rome, proud and dignified, supporting order for western civilization for over a thousand years.  The awe-inspiring monasteries, mosques, and temples of the Medieval age, built to both rouse and humble all who enter.  The intricate designs of the European Renaissance, emphasizing beauty, humanism, and the cult of the individual, as science and technology began to tease apart the roles of architect and engineer.  The sleek minimalism of Modern architecture, industrialized efficiency and unadorned utilitarianism, antiseptic steel scraping the residue of myth from the clear blue sky.  The crumpled-paper buildings and surreal designs that mark the postmodern return to "wit, ornament, and reference," rejecting conventional notions of form and function, using bizarre aesthetics and perspective-bending angles to emphasize themes of pluralism, contextualism, irony, and paradox.

These are all so much more than hollow structures or dead artifacts—each image carries with it a piece of our collective history, snapshots of the human soul as it slowly matures through time.  These buildings are alive with living memory, a sliding calculus of perspectives, circumstances, and social priorities that became codified into architectural design.  Our constructions continue to construct us, imprinting our personal and collective identities in subtle but powerful ways—landmarks of experience that are always coloring our perspectives, housing our visions, and sheltering our dreams.

We define ourselves by our architecture, every building we see emphasizing varying combinations of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth according to the changing aesthetics, values, and technologies of society.  Each architectural design represents the individual’s image of society, as well as society’s image of itself—a gateway between interior and exterior, between culture and consciousness, and between the past and the present.  Each style represents a unique alchemy of ever-deepening form, function, and meaning, balancing masculine and feminine design elements in very distinctive ways from building to building, culture to culture, epoch to epoch.


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