I always enjoy reading Alain De Botton, he always approaches meaty topics in an accessible and humourous way. Since having an architect ex-boyfriend I have always been interested in architecture. This book deals with key questions such as changing trends in architecture, why are so many buildings ugly and how our emotions react to beautiful or ugly buildings.
De Botton makes the point that many buildings reflect what we want to be or to say about ourselves; for example the Doge´s Palace ceiling in Venice shows the virtues of Meekness, Fidelity and Moderation whereas at the same time Venice was trafficking slaves, ignoring the poor and dissipating her resources. The London Atheaeum Club has sculptures of classical figures such as Athena, the goddess of craft and wisdom whereas “its members wasted their days slumped in leather armchairs, ….. and neglecting their families, bearing as much resemblance to the contemporaries of Pericles as Piccadilly Circus did to the Acropolis”.
De Botton expands this point that we want our architecture to reflect the qualities that we lack ourselves. The modernist architect Le Corbusier is mentioned a great deal, normally in a negative light, as De Botton argues that his work did not really reflect the needs of the people. For example his houses for factory workers in 1923 in Lége and Pessac were a series of undecorated boxes with bare walls and a lack of rural allusions. The tenants however wanted things to distract them from the monotony of their lives so therefore added shutters, gardens and picket fences, making the houses the antithesis of what Le Corbusier envisaged. De Botton says that architecture should be a response to genuine psychological needs, “we can condemn gnomes while respecting the longings which inspired them”. Le Corbusier´s Villa Savoye also gets a slagging for its failure to be leak proof as does his highly controversial plan for knocking down the second arrondissement in central Paris and replacing it with “a demented plan” to dynamite this area and replace it with eighteen sixty storey towers. To be fair Le Corbusier planned this as a response to the horrific conditions and spread of disease in Paris at the time, still I’m glad this didn’t happen. The argument is if architects are not empathetic to their clients the results will be horrific.
The book ends with a beautiful description of a field that is about to be bulldozed and built upon which actually made me feel quite sad. The final point is that if we are going to destroy a beautiful field then the end result should not be inferior to the original, and architects have a moral duty not to build ugly buildings.
So very interesting, the art of travel is still my favourite though. You can watch the TV series to go with this book on youtube.