Alain de Botton: “Don’t let the free market decide”

Jul 13, 2012
  • Article by David Neustein
  • Designer

This article first appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #125: Architecture and the Arts.
Above: Alain de Botton. Photo by Vincent Starr.

Philosopher Alain de Botton is controversial in the architecture world for his book The Architecture of Happiness, which aimed to convince that classical notions of beauty should define building design. Yet the tide appears to be turning following the success of his Living Architecture scheme, which commissions well-known contemporary architects to design publicly accessible guesthouses. In Australia to promote his latest book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, de Botton was invited by David Neustein to respond to his critics in architecture.

DAVID NEUSTEIN: It’s not often you grant interviews to architecture magazines, or maybe it’s not often architecture magazines ask you for an interview. I recall Jonathan Glancey’s very critical piece in The Guardian about your book The Architecture of Happiness, as well as a number of architects here in Sydney who dismissed it out of hand, saying “I don’t read that sort of stuff”.

ALAIN DE BOTTON: When my book came out in 2006, it was very badly received by the architecture community. Literally, I think I had not a single supportive voice among architects. No architect came out and said this was anything other than unreasonable. There was a feeling of, “Yes, I bet I know what that book is about without needing to read it.” I think it was a rather high-browed disdain: “Who is this vulgar person from outside of architecture who presumes to tell us anything about anything?”

But since then, weirdly, something has happened: the book now has quite a lot of support among architects. Gradually people have read it, and it’s on a number of curricula in architecture schools. Because of Living Architecture, I think the architecture community has realised, “This guy is quite serious about what he is doing. He’s not merely exploiting us for a hot title.”

You’ve just given a talk to 2500 people at the Sydney Opera House, and your readership contains many people who would never listen to architects or architecture critics. Yet they listen to you and read what you write about architecture. How are you able to speak to them in a way that architects don’t? Why are architects or architecture critics not good at doing what it is that you do?

I think that architecture training is deeply unhelpful. There is absolutely no premium whatsoever placed on communication. In fact, it’s the opposite. The great stars of contemporary architecture, such as Rem Koolhaas, place a premium on obscure language, very much in the realm of elite modernism and its allegiance to ambiguity and lack of clarity. There are some exceptions. Peter Zumthor’s books are very clear and direct, homespun almost. Le Corbusier’s prose style is very simple.

But most architects have followed the high modernist, elite, obscure route, and I think the reason for that is that they’ve confused complicated and good architecture with complicated and good ideas, almost as though they felt that in order to make good architecture, the ideas behind the architecture have to be complicated. That’s not the case. Many architectural moves are intellectually and conceptually simple. That doesn’t mean they’re easy to draw or get right, but they’re simple at the level of intellect – they’re easy to grasp. And most architects, in their professional anxiety to be taken seriously (a very intense anxiety; it links to money) have not felt able to admit to the intellectual simplicity of their task.

Does that mean that the architects selected for Living Architecture are good at communicating?

Not necessarily. They’re good architects, but if I think of MVRDV – my goodness. After a few drinks I’ve told Winy Maas that, and we have a laugh about it, so it’s not a secret.

Have the architects involved in your program been able to secure other work because of it?

NORD did very well out of it. MVRDV got a big commission out of the University of Cambridge.

What about your own aims – have they been met? I see the houses are booked out for most of the year, well in advance.

It’s been one of the great joys and successes for me in the last five years. I’ve done more work for this than for anything, and largely it’s a labour of love, but it’s meant coordinating the efforts of dozens of people to get it off the ground.

It is succeeding. Customers love it and the houses are full all the time. Architects like it and we have constant enquiries from the media, which shows we are helping to change the debate about housing. In the UK if there’s a debate about where architecture is going – social housing or public housing or housing in general – they come to us for a quote and that’s very nice. And we do educational tours and take property developers around, so we do two things: give people a nice holiday and try to educate.

I want to ask you about a particular adjective, which you use a lot: ‘beauty’ or ‘beautiful’. You use it to describe the most noble or most outstanding qualities in the built environment. Why is beauty so important to you?

Partly, I use it politically because it’s a taboo word for architects – it makes them twitchy, and I quite enjoy that. I think they are unfairly nervous about it, but it eases right in with what ordinary people look for from architecture, and it’s a nicely homespun word that hits the target. I’m also attracted to the way it’s used particularly in Christian aesthetics, and the concept that beauty is a moral entity, but far from being a superficial luxury, is connected to goodness. Generally, that it is the material manifestation of goodness, so that a beautiful object, house, painting displays many of the same qualities you find in goodness in other areas, in other things.

That seems really important and it can hit back against the postmodern idea that we don’t know what is beautiful, because people are much more able to say that we know what’s good than what’s beautiful. There’s a broad agreement about what is good: human rights, fairness, justice, community, friendship. Our society is chemically ill yet we disagree about beauty or aesthetics. So, connecting up aesthetics with beauty and then beauty with goodness seems a way out of a kind of postmodern morass, where essentially the free market ends up deciding and then you get horrific skylines, cities and developments.

But you could say that there are many parts of Manhattan, for example, that have horrendous skylines and are deeply ugly, but that are incredibly exciting and invigorating. Same with downtown Tokyo. On the other side, Athens is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen but that doesn’t seem to help, particularly in the present context, with it almost on fire. Koolhaas’ Seattle Public Library, for me, is one of the ugliest buildings but it has completely revitalised the discussion about libraries. Now everyone is building libraries. Yet Palazzo Venezia is one of the most beautiful palazzos in Rome, but was Mussolini’s pulpit. There is not necessarily a connection between beauty and goodness. Beauty might be beauty for its own sake.

Yes, and one has to say it’s a charge that can be made of all the arts. People who love the arts have a sincere belief that art should and could improve people in life. And then one comes across horrible, pummelling anomalies like Hitler and Mussolini, or the people who ran the death camps in Nazi Germany having a fondness for Bach and Mozart.

I think there’s a very clear explanation. Art, good art, beautiful art is a suggestion of how to live but it is not an order. It doesn’t have medical efficiency. It’s not like swallowing a paracetamol where, whether you agree with it or not, it’s going to work, because it’s not appealing to reason, it’s just appealing to your senses and your body. The works of art make suggestions but we can be free to ignore them. And people who are psychologically disturbed, paranoid, schizophrenic or plain evil may very well latch onto the wrong thing, secondary qualities, like fame as an object. The fact that bad people have liked good buildings and those good buildings have not made them into good people is not an argument against good building. It’s just a revelation of the complexity of human psychology.

With Koolhaas, or Tokyo or whatever, one should be careful. The French use the concept of ‘jolie laide’ to describe certain female beauty – it means, literally, ‘beautiful ugliness’ and they use it to describe a woman like, let’s say, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is not classically beautiful yet has something about her that’s appealing. Koolhaas’s work and Tokyo and others fall into the category of ‘jolie laide’: not formally or classically beautiful, but appealing. We need to stretch our concept of the word beautiful to encompass a wide variety of things.

But there’s also a kind of oppression that comes with beauty. For example, Melbourne’s inner-city culture thrives in the little laneways and the conventionally ugly, gritty industrial spaces free of the real estate speculation that has frozen parts of Sydney. You get spontaneous outbursts of culture, because where beauty is absent things are cheap, and where things are cheap, anything is possible.

I think that’s semantics. Some of the back streets of Sydney or Melbourne and of, say, Tokyo are not ugly but beautiful – a tough, industrial, rough kind of beauty, but a beauty nevertheless. It’s like someone saying there is nothing beautiful about an old hillside village – the houses are all a bit wonky and the stones are irregular, and you want to say, “Hang on a minute, let’s stretch our concept of beauty.” The Japanese have a very useful concept, ‘wabi sabi’, to describe a kind of rough, homespun, slightly decrepit beauty – things that are collapsing, or worn, et cetera.

In Religion for Atheists, you speak of Edward Hopper’s work as being about the dignity of the outsider, but I see him in a completely different sense, with palpable alienation and unease in his work. He’s had a major influence on film noir, so for me the work is about isolation rather than the dignity of the outsider. Would you say that’s one of the best aspects of art today, this possibility of multiple, plausible readings?

Yes, but I think one should make a distinction between multiple readings, the possibility of multiple readings and an absence of readings. I suppose I would rather a flavoured kind of curation that says, “This is one particular way in which you could look at these works.” You could then reject it, but at least it would be something to get things going. What I object to is the sheer blandness of a lot of curation, justified by an argument about not wanting to ram theory down people’s throats. It can actually end up sterile, almost as though it would be implausible to feel passionately about this at all.

I know what the defence is: don’t make public interpretations because that limits the capacity of the audience to come to their own conclusions. But the counter argument is: without any public interpretations, it sometimes seems as though a personal response to a work is almost illegitimate or impossible.

In Religion for Atheists, the places of worship you cite are almost always historical, and you use them in contrast with contemporary environments, particularly museums of today, with their quality of sterility – that fluoro-lit expanse of white space dotted with occasional artworks. But there are a whole lot of architect-designed churches that seem to have more in common with the stark and vertical spaces of museum atria, what you might find in the Tate Modern or the Guggenheim in Bilbao. I’m thinking of Richard Meier’s Jubilee Church or Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light. Maybe there are commonalities in these types of environments today rather than a kind of a historical break. Perhaps churches have evolved at the same time as museums, and all are subject to the same problems in terms of representation and quality.

That’s a very good point, and if we were to analyse it like that, then the problem is modernism’s difficulties with certain transcendent themes, and with a certain kind of grandeur, and also a certain kind of prettiness as well. Contemporary architecture has got a lot of problems with the feminine, if you define the feminine as intricate and delicate and highly wrought, which a lot of traditional church, mosque, synagogue and temple architecture is. There is a feeling that modernism is about things stripped back, free of augmentation and decoration. So, once you strip decoration out of things, you’re losing one of the major historical manoeuvres of religious architecture. You’re right to point out that that’s something affecting churches and museums, but it should be said, of course, that very few churches are now being commissioned compared to down the ages. It’s gone from a torrent to literally a trickle.

I fear most modern architects are not sufficiently aligned to what makes religious buildings nice for people. Sound, light, intricacy, the sense of the luminous – these are things that modernism just doesn’t know how to teach. An architecture student will not be taken to Chartres Cathedral and be asked to think about the atmosphere. They’ll be looking at the vaulting, not the sensory aspect. Le Corbusier was probably the last modernist who was alive to all this in its real complexity.

What about notions of worth and of investment? The Catholic Church had incredible monuments, partly because they were so effective at raising money, but the other side was the misery of their subjects. So, who will pay for a Temple to Kindness or a Temple to Self Knowledge?

The thing about the modern world is that our wealth has increased 4000 per cent since 1600, so there is now an enormous amount of surplus capital, especially in Australia, one of the world’s richest countries. We are no longer in a zero sum game of Malthusian economics, where it’s either the cathedral or bread for supper. The choice is more poignant, between beauty and higher stock market returns, so that the challenge for people who care about good architecture is to persuade powerful and rich people that they should forego profit in the name of something else. Profit is nice, money is nice – but the argument I make all the time when I go around getting funding for Living Architecture is that you can can enjoy beauty as much as you can money. It is its own reward, and a repository of value just as much as money is.

People will understand it’s important to build a hospital, to build a museum sometimes, an opera house sometimes. But if you say to them, “OK, look, this is like an art museum but without the art,” they might go: “I’m not sure about that. That’s a bit weird.” That’s because architecture does not have the prestige of art in our society. You can fund a building if you’re going to put pictures in it, but if you’re not going to put pictures in it you’re in for a hard time. That’s just an argument to be made: architecture in the course of history has lowered in prestige. I like visual art as well, obviously, but I’m particularly thrilled by architecture, and I think people who care about architecture still have to make a case for it, but also need to say, ‘It’s pretty exciting’, too.

Architects have probably contributed to the lowering of their status in society. Do you think the desertion of patrons, which happened at the same time, is a response to a lack of momentum in architecture?

That’s interesting. I think that’s right, probably. I think maybe architecture hasn’t carried out good PR for itself, and the art world has done better, and that’s about public communicators. It’s about advocates.

Are you a new type of patron?

Well, yes, but also an advocate who tries to get patronage off the ground more broadly, and tries to make an intellectual case for it. But, yes – I’ve been trying to get projects off the ground, into space.

You’ve spent so much time thinking about architecture, might you now be qualified to design something for yourself?

Well, I’ve pretty much designed my own house with the help of an architect in London, and that was a very good and creative project. And there was an obvious reason why I would do it, because I was going to live in it. But yes, when we do Living Architecture, I’m very closely involved. I’m not an architect and don’t aspire to be, but I think that the role of the client is a creative one, and I think the Living Architecture houses would, at certain points, have been worse if there had not been an active client. They emerged from constant, inch-by-inch dialogue about how things should be and they’re better for it.

You mentioned Australia as one of the world’s wealthiest countries, yet we don’t invest in the built environment. Most of what Australia builds is incredibly cheap and temporary.

I agree. It’s absolutely tragic, given the beauty of this country and the potential to get it right. I’m in Brisbane at the moment and the skyline here makes you weep, with basic errors in urban design and planning that in every textbook have been analysed and stressed.

For 40 years we’ve known that cities like Brisbane don’t work, and for all sorts of reasons, basically political inertia, this is not being taken on board. I’m sure magazines like yours make a case for this, because it really does require public advocacy. If I lived in Australia, I would be jumping up and down on this one.

Conversation • 3 comments

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13 Jul 12 at 6:44 PM • Rosie

Oh Alain, you’re my archi hero – you’ve won me over.
I want my students to start thinking about atmosphere…

16 Jul 12 at 4:57 PM • Edward

Very interesting debate!

31 Jul 12 at 3:24 AM • Robin Brisebois

I very much enjoyed the book, thank you. I teach at the Newschool of Architecture and Design in San Diego (NSAD). I try to engage students with architecture at the level at which you speak and think in this book. I have tried for years to explain my relationship (fascination) with architecture. I try to elicit, from my students, their feelings/thoughts on the subject. It is so very hard to capture or explain. This book does it so well. I plan to make it required reading in an upcoming course.


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