The Promise of Happiness

Salginatobel Bridge, Switzerland

“Beauty is the promise of Happiness,” said Stendhal, quoted in The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton.

Written in this 21st century, it is billed as an introduction to architecture. As for decades I have been discovering an appreciation for buildings, and at the same time have been realizing my ignorance of artistic principles generally, I was really ready for De Botton’s helpful study, which doesn’t catalog architectural styles –I seem to have a mental block against learning these—but explains why we humans might like or dislike particular buildings:

“We are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient.”

John Ruskin said that we want our buildings to shelter us and to speak to us, of what we find important and need reminders of. These values can change somewhat across centuries and cultures, but de Botton lists several “virtues of buildings” that are required if they are to be beautiful.

1) Order. But not over-simplified. We like to see complex elements arranged in a regular pattern.

What the author calls the “perverse dogma” from the Romantic Period, that all edifices must be of original design, led to chaos in the landscape. “Architecture should have the confidence and the kindness to be a little boring.”

2) Balance. Some concepts to be mediated are old and new, natural and man-made, luxurious and modest, masculine and feminine. This chapter gave me the most trouble. The photographs showed supposed balance that looked incongruous to me. I don’t like bare concrete, to start with. My tastes prove the point made by another quote from Stendhal: “There are as many styles of beauty as there are visions of happiness.”

3) Elegance. When the achievement of strength or energy looks effortless and modest as in the Salginatobel Bridge in Switzerland, above.

4) Coherence. The building should not be a hodgepodge of styles. I’ll say it should be a clear declarative sentence. [I must like those a lot; I wrote this months before my last book review.] And that “sentence” should make sense in the context of its “paragraph.” As Louis Sullivan said, for example, tall buildings are all about loftiness, and that statement is made by every line of a skyscraper contributing to its being “a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation….”


A building should fit into its historical and cultural place as well as its physical setting. De Botton considers one failure in this regard to be the exact replica of an 18th century village style built in the late 20th century in Poundbury, Dorchester, a psychological and practical disconnect. Others have commented on this housing development’s good and bad aspects. It was the brainchild of Prince Charles, by the way, who seems to be always pulling weight against what he considers ugly modern architecture.

The author helped me understand why a building that I have enjoyed is not appreciated in its home town. After reading Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather many years ago, I was excited to visit the 19th-century cathedral that was actually commissioned by the priest who was somewhat fictionalized in the novel, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At that time I thought the disregard of the beautiful building was likely because of its Christian history and purpose, in a town that is now in love with its more pagan native roots.

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi

Now I understand that while Fr. Lamy conceived of a church he knew to be beautiful, that of his beloved French homeland, if he had been of the modern architect’s sensibility he would have altered the design to reflect his new home and climate. But I don’t believe he was an architect in the first place.

I appreciated the building for its Christian and literary history, even if it is in the Romanesque Revival style. It at least is built of local New Mexican stone; I know of beautiful houses in California that have design elements that required the transport of huge stones from Japan, to keep the whole piece of art Japanese–but what about the context?

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, as it was designated in 2005, looks more odd all the time in the town of Santa Fe, which has, perhaps somewhat in the spirit of Poundsbury, tried to homogenize its architectural style:

“By an ordinance passed in 1958, new and rebuilt buildings, especially those in designated historic districts, must exhibit a Spanish Territorial or Pueblo style of architecture, with flat roofs and other features suggestive of the area’s traditional adobe construction. However, many contemporary houses in the city are built from lumber, concrete blocks, and other common building materials, but with stucco surfaces (sometimes referred to as “faux-dobe”, pronounced as one word: “foe-dough-bee”) reflecting the historic style.” [from Wikipedia]

Of course, these efforts to “pueblofy” the city have meant a loss of the eclectic elements from the past, though it was all done in the interest of promoting tourism and preventing decline of another sort.

De Botton writes of buildings having an aesthetic mission, and if one is on a mission, the last listed quality is crucial:

5) Self-knowledge. When I first saw that heading, I thought, This is carrying the anthropomorphism too far. I was relieved to find that the author was by now speaking not of buildings but of us humans, especially of the architects among us.
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

We need to understand our human nature in all its complexity if we want to avoid the utopianism of the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who seemed to have many radical plans, at least some of which we can be thankful were not accomplished, such as tearing out the heart of Paris in 1922 to replace it with 16 residential skyscrapers, some of which would house 40,000 people each. He wanted to eliminate suburbs, and abolish city streets, and glancing across the ocean, to raze Manhattan and start over. For one thing, its skyscrapers were too short.

Getting back to that quality of balance, I’m wondering if my own distaste for concrete is perhaps as closed minded as Prince Charles tends to be. My snobbishness made it hard to appreciate Grace Cathedral when I visited it last month, because though it has soaring arches and design beauty, it lacks the natural stone of the cathedrals I enjoyed in England.

I should remember that concrete is only a type of cast stone, which has a long history in antiquity, as I learned from reading The Pyramids: An Enigma Solved  by Joseph Davidovits. He argues that at least the outer casing stones of the pyramids themselves were built from a masonry product poured on-site. It’s been more than ten years since I read this book when the children and I were studying ancient history, and I plan to read it again soon.

My own church is built of concrete, though one can’t see any of that base material anymore, covered as it is now in plaster and icons and marble. And on the subject of church architecture, I hope to write more, as my excitement grows into deeper understanding.

Thanks to De Botton, I have a little more foundational knowledge to aid me in my explorations. His style is slow and thoroughgoing in explanations of concepts, so much so that it took some getting used to; but I soon came to appreciate his carefulness. He includes many photographs to flesh out the architectural ideas he presents to the reader.

Alain De Botton is a philosopher as much as an artist, and helped to found a school called The School of Life. He has written several books, and my intention is that The Architecture of Happiness will be just the first of other thought-provoking works of his that I read.

6 thoughts on “The Promise of Happiness

  1. Fr Jean Latour is one of my favourite characters in all fiction – I was so happy to discover he was based on a real person. I didn't know that his cathedral was not liked in Santa Fe but, you know, when you think of what priests like Bp Lamy gave up in terms of homeland and family because that generation never went home again, I think he deserved a French church in New Mexico. I hope it gave him joy. Faux-adobe made me laugh, I'm glad that the worst excesses of modern town buildings aren't spoiling Santa Fe but, on the other hand, it can look a teensy bit Disneyfied. I actually like Poundbury. We've moved away from the grim, grey concrete beloved of the 60s and 70s but most of our new builds don't have any character and are basically xeroxes of other places (I saw the same phenomemon in Colorado) so I don't see what's wrong with a copy of something old – it's way prettier than most of the new and it will develop its own interesting 'fusion' character within time anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fun and interesting post. I saw it earlier today, but knew I should wait until I could give it some real attention. Thank you for sharing so generously from your interest and reading. Ironically I read a building description today that really touched me. I may write about it soon. May these insights you're surfacing make the room you are reclaiming a functional, beautiful and happy place.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think this is a book that I'd enjoy. I love looking at buildings and thinking about them and getting mad at the ugly ones and the city planners who allow them.Have you read Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House? It's probably the only book on architecture I've read. I will make The Architecture of Happiness the second. frances

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