Have you ever read a book that was so good that you flip through it trying to find a representative passage that you would like to share with others, but you end up seeing that you are faced with the dilemna of re-writing the whole thing from page one because all of it is so indispensibly rich and worthy of regurgitation?
This is what is happening to me, here at Starbucks, having just finished reading Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness.
Oh, such an amazing book.
Recently, I met a group of friends at [no surpirise] a Starbucks and because I arrived early, I brought my book in and read for a while. Soon they showed up and I set the book aside. My pal picked it up and read the title, flipped through it a bit, and promptly looked at me as though I had three heads, and all of them were Martian!
"What the hell are you reading this for?" he asked.
"I am totally immersed in the topic," I said. And went on to explain....
It's not about architecture, as in, how to build things. It's about the appreciation of the art that surrounds the process of all creative effort, architecture included.
The author discusses the development of so many things, from teacups to chairs to vending machines. Windows, bridges, water faucets, theatres, entire plans of cities, tables, factories, empty fields... the way we think [or don't think] about all of these things. Of course, buildings, from homes to skyscrapers, being perhaps the most prominent aesthetic consideration in our day-to-day field of vision, these get the most attention.
Why do we build as we do?
What is the history, the genesis and evolution of what we have now come to consider as architectural norms?
Architecturally speaking, in what ways have we progressed? In what ways have we regressed? Or, [most intererestingly] have we done both things?
Having defended myself thus, I looked back at my friend as though he had three heads, all of them very architecturally interesting!
I cannot help it. I must offer the following excerpt. Here, de Botton was discussing the topic of beauty in strength, or the "elegance" with which so many of our magnificent structures and machines are constructed...
"It follows from this that the impression of beauty we derive from an architectural work may be proportionally related to the intensity of the forces against which it is pitted. The emotional power of a bridge over a swollen river, for example, is concentrated at the point where the piers meet but resist the waters which rise threateningly around them. We shudder to think of sinking our own feet into such turbulent depths and venerate the bridge's reinforced concrete for the sanguine way it deflects the currents which tyrannise it. Likewise, the heavy stone walls of a lighthouse acquire the character of a forbearing and kindly giant during a spiteful gale which does its best to pant them down, just as in a plane passing through an electrical storm, we can feel something approaching love for the aeronautical engineers who, in quiet offices in Bristol or Toulouse, designed dark grey aluminum wings that could flex through tempests with all the grace of a swan's feathered ones. We feel as safe as we did when we were children being driven home in the early hours by our parents, lying curled up on the backseat under a blanket in our pyjamas, sensing the darkness and cold of the night through the window against which we rested our cheek. There is beauty in that which is stronger than we are." [p.205]
Every page of this book is magnificent like that.
Throughout, the author is critical of the non-critical acceptance of architectural norms. Especially toward the latter sections of the book he continues to remind the reader of the importance of being wary of unquestioningly adopting societal dictates, regarding architecture. He cautions [and I wildly paraphrase] that in order to appreciate architecture as we ought, we need to cultivate and maintain a similar ability to appreciate the beauty of an empty field. "We owe it to the fields," he says, "that our houses will not be inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness." [p.267].
Because our own culture will tend to dictate the aesthetic style we should adhere to, we ought to be diligent in expanding our horizons beyond that which we have always seen, and always known. We should beware the veneration of the regular. [? My summation].
So much of our sense of artistic appreciation is either innate or injected into our being as a result of our cultural conditioning. But there is this other thing to consider..... that it is possible to train ourselves "to appreciate a beauty that we were not born seeing. And, in the process, we will puncture the simplistic notion, heavily promoted by purveyors of plastic mansions, that what a person currently finds beautiful should be taken as the limit of all that he or she can ever love." [p.261]
To train ourselves to appreciate beauty.
Reading this book is, in itself, a great step in the direction of such an accomplisment.