I first became a real fan of Alain de Botton’s writing in 2005 when I was visiting Paris by myself for about two weeks. I stopped in at Shakespeare & Company
right by the Seine and prowled around their shelves for an hour or so. It’s pretty much the only English language bookstore in Paris and it has a long and venerable history. But that story is for another blog.
While there, I bought a copy of The Art of Travel written by De Botton. I was so delighted with it that I carried it everywhere and read it in numerous cafes and restaurants. The author and I seemed to be very like-minded— and so, a very agreeable companion indeed. I walked about and photographed as much of that beautiful city as I could. Here’s a photograph I took that afternoon, walking along the Seine.
So, why do I love The Architecture of Happiness? It has a very different way of looking at architecture than I’ve come across before. He sees our architecture as emanations or expressions of human nature and its needs and perhaps helps us understand why we seem to have such different tastes. In particular, I like his sense of humour. He writes about the buildings and their design as if they were people. Some architecture is obstinate or stubborn or timid.
He raises lots of other questions. Even if you lived in a house which you considered to be aesthetically pleasing or—even beautiful, you might still be in a bad mood. This, of course, challenges the notion that beauty is happiness.
John Ruskin, artist and writer, had a lifelong love affair [as do I] with Venice. He remarked that despite the beauty of Venice, sadly few Venetians seemed elevated by it. According to him, they carried on as their usual selves arguing, stealing and cheating apparently unimpressed with their gorgeous surroundings. This reminds me of a paragraph in The Art of Travel where he speaks of a person relaxing somewhere in the Caribbean and whose mind invariably returns to problems at the office. When we travel, we forget that we have to bring ourselves along—our whole bag of cares and concerns.
Since De Botton links our mood with our architecture—what it says about and to us—I find that it is really useful in writing descriptions in novels. When a writer wants to create a mood, he/she can certainly do well by developing the physical setting. Knowing what kinds of architecture send what sorts of messages can be very helpful.
In talking about certain “principles” of architecture [which would apply to all forms of art, I think] he discusses the appeal of balancing contrasting opposites. He argues that we, as human beings, all have our discordant elements, our contrasting aspects of our natures. And so, we seek to harmonize them in our architecture, our literature and painting, just as we do in ourselves.
When writing of the virtue of elegance in architecture, he mentions certain bridges. When architecture modestly resists the force of nature [such as a bridge or a vaulted cathedral, it may be called elegant in that it modestly resists the forces of nature. Literature can also be elegant such as a brief arrangement of words conveying great meaning succinctly. And in writing, this is what we need to strive for. And so, to be brief, I will stop here.
Do you like De Botton’s writing? Let me know what you think.