Alain de Botton was in Wellington this week, promoting his new book The Architecture of Happiness, and we heard him speak the other night to a packed auditorium at Wellington Girls College, courtesy of the Book Council. My first impressions were that he is a wonderfully articulate public speaker who understands how to communicate complex and subtle philosophical ideas in simple ways that are fun and accessible to a mainstream audience. Having only skim read the book, I can't comment directly on his more measured arguments, but there was one particular point he made during his talk that bears questioning.
de Botton uses le Corbusier's Villa Savoye as a rhetorical device to illustrate what he believes is the central failure of modernist ideology in architecture. He makes the point that while the modernists claimed their work was based on scientific principles, they were really more interested in aesthetics. He explains how the attempt by le Corbusier to construct the ideal modern house was not as successful as we might think - construction of the house was expensive and time consuming, and had to be done by skilled artisans. What's more, the Savoye family, after living in the house for several years, took out a lawsuit against le Corbusier regarding the leaky roof, and the architect was saved from extreme embarassment only by the onset of World War II. de Botton sees this as evidence that the scientific rationalist ideas underpinning modernist architecture are wrong, mistaken. With deft sleight of hand, the veil is pulled away from our eyes and we can finally see that the doctrine of form following function in architecture was a myth. Enter the next act. Beauty is obviously of prime importance, what are we to do about it?
Being educated in philosophy myself, I found this difficult to swallow whole. The Villa Savoye is not a particularly good case study for confronting the scientific ideology of architectural modernism. I don't think many people would disagree that this house is first and foremost an artistic statement, primarily concerned with aesthetics, and intended as an illustration that use of new materials and geometric tendencies of form could take architecture to a higher level of poetic elegance. But in terms of challenging architectural rationalism there are plenty of large scale housing projects we can look at by le Corbusier that are far more clear statements of his architectural theory. These projects would have been worthwhile for de Botton to emphasise, because it is apparent from the last 50 years of French urban history that the inhabitants of such developments were on the whole, made extremely miserable by their surroundings. But de Botton is not looking to explain or understand these sources of social tension. On the whole he is more concerned with the concept of houses as individual objects, and how we can say that beauty is a desirable aspect of architecture.
The problem is that this approach completely overlooks the social and economic forces driving the development of modernist architecture. The phrase "form ever follows function" was coined by the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan who pioneered the steel construction techniques to build the first skyscrapers in America, and 30 years on, le Villa Savoye represents a critical turning point in this discourse. This machine for living is seen as the prototype for an aesthetic view of functionality, but in this context is more symbolic than technically and economically sufficient. Indeed, the real rationalism that underlies modern architecture is not scientific but economic. Material efficiency is the prime mover in the construction of new buildings - the techniques pioneered by modernist architects were as much concerned with economy of construction costs as economy of geometric form. And who hires the architects? Emphasis on profits and maximisation of land use by property developers is surely the cause of much of our problems with ugly urban and suburban environments, which are undoubtedly linked to feelings of misery and anomie.
I agree with de Botton that our happiness is importantly linked to our architectural surroundings, and that we should be more congnizant of this in our day to day lives, but I think that his view of what "architecture" is, emphasises surface aspects that probably have more to do with art history than philosophy. Why elevate facade and ornament to pride of place, while ignoring collective social issues, or urban design as a whole?
I advise you to think carefully before taking this book too seriously. It is certainly a worthwhile exploration of the characteristics that make a good building, but if you want a deeper understanding of the relationship of architecture to our happiness, it doesn't give you much to go on. It may be that a reconsideration of beauty in architecture will make some people happy, but there is surely much more to it than that.