Graceful disquisition on the significance of architecture, by a novelist and essayist whose eclectic interests range from How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) to Status Anxiety (2004).
In what may be the only contemporary volume on architecture that doesn’t discuss Frank Lloyd Wright, de Botton sticks to the basics. He deals with questions of style, ideas of beauty, notions about why certain structures appeal to us. One of the most engaging chapters discusses the elements that beautiful buildings require: order, balance, elegance, coherence and self-knowledge. The author argues that we love beautiful buildings because they solidify ideas we have about ourselves and our world. They put into concrete form our aspirations; they compensate for our human weaknesses; in short, they make us happy. He believes that favored architectural styles change because of the “manifold nature of our inner needs.” The author moves easily through historical periods, through fashions and fads, through architects many have heard of (Louis Sullivan) to those known principally to professionals (Michael Hopkins). He offers photographic backup for just about every point he makes and every concept he wishes to elucidate. He is adept, as well, at pointing out relationships between architecture and writing, architecture and painting. He keeps his tone personal and amiable, especially in a vivid section about a recent sojourn in Japan, where he’d hoped to see in contemporary buildings more allusions to the country’s traditional and historical styles. Evident throughout is the author’s fine craftsmanship. Virtually every page contains a sentence any essayist would be proud to have written. Considering the concept of elegance, de Botton writes, “We delight in complexity to which genius has lent an appearance of simplicity.” Gentle affection pervades these pages, as does knowledge of architecture that is both broad and deep.
A lyrical and generously illustrated monograph about the intimate relationship between our buildings and ourselves. (To be a three-part PBS series, Fall 2006)