Book Reviews

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton

ISBN: 978-0307277244
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 288

I have a long running interest in architecture. Not just because of its metaphorical relationship to software architecture; since the dawn of large-scale programming projects, the software community has borrowed both terminology and design philosophy from the discipline of architecture. Sometimes, one could argue, the parallels have been stretched beyond the limits of both use and reason. Like later parts of the design patterns movement that sprung from the work of architect Christopher Alexander. Instead I appreciate architecture for its intrinsic artistic values.

Alain De Botton has written a wonderful book for laypersons like me. It's a book that looks beyond the surface of great (and sometimes not so great) architectural work in order to explain and understand what attracts and repels us in a work. It's a work that frequently draws upon ideas and findings from multiple scientific fields and succeeds in uniting them in a coherent, accessible and flat out beautiful work.

The central idea in Alain's book is that buildings talk. They talk to us about personal values. They convey the ideals of our society and constantly reminds us about who we want to be. Buildings influence our emotions.

Drawing upon findings from gestalt psychology, Alain explains how our judgements are formed after what a building symbolizes rather than what it actually is. A beautiful building is in this sense a work that confirms our idealistic values and, on a much more subtle and unconscious level, perhaps even reminds us about the people we love. It's the reason why beauty, as Stendhal once wrote, is "the promise of happiness". Or in Alain's own words, to "describe a building as beautiful therefore suggests more than a mere aesthetic fondness; it implies an attraction to the particular way of life this structure is promoting". It sure is a grand claim. Alain gradually builds upon the idea with a solid base in philosophy, different fields of psychology, religious writings and of course classic work on architecture.

As I flipped through the pages I took notes of the main ideas. I often do this as a way of making them stick. Summarizing them, I'm astound at the level of depth the book captures and manages to communicate in a naturally flowing and accessible way. It's truly remarkable and elegant in just the way Alain himself describes. We come to appreciate elegance in work that looks simple but where we understand that it isn't: "we must feel that the simplicity it displays has been hard won". This is indeed the case with Alain's book.

Reviewed July 2012