Sep 16, 2008

the architecture of happiness

i took alain de botton's architecture of happiness out of lamont last week. it may be the pleasantest architectural theory i've ever read, and he manages regardless to discuss several things of special interest to me. care is often a tacit component of the discussion of craft. de botton, because of his particular orientation to the affective quality of architecture, provides a particularly crisp summary of the meaning of care in craft and the conditions that allow it to be practised:

in a busy, often heedless world, they stand as markers of patience and generosity, of a kind of sweetness and even love: a kindness without ulterior motive.

Although we belong to a species which spends an alarming amount of its time blowing things up, every now and then we are moved to add gargoyles or garlands, stars or wreaths, to our buildings for no practical reason whatever. In the finest of these flourishes, we can read signs of goodness in a material register, a form of frozen benevolence. We see in them evidence of those sides of human nature which enable us to thrive rather than simply survive. These elegant touches remind us that we are not exclusively pragmatic or sensible: we are also creatures who, with no possibility of profit or power, occasionally carves friars out of stone and mould angels onto walls. In order not to mock such details, we need a culture confident enough about its pragmatism and aggression that it can also acknowledge the contrary demands of vulnerability and play -- a culture, that is, sufficiently unthreatened by weakness and decadence to allow for visible celebrations of tenderness.
security (just a synonym here for confidence) seems a prerequisite for people to imbue their work with generosity (toward age and decay, space, light). perhaps this is why it seems to be that the only artists able to make work that is not overwrought are those psychologically secure in a body of work or a conceptual space in which to work.

another attraction of the book is its conscious and constant exploration of the fine line separating normalcy from bathos: for example, discussing those who eschew physical possessions because of a refined sensitivity to their eventual decay:
Such melancholic enthusiasts will see the moth hole beneath the curtain swatch and the ruin beneath the plan. They may at the last moment cancel and appointment with an estate agent, having realised that the house under offer, as well as the city and even civilisation itself, will soon enough be reduced to fragments of shattered brick over which cockroaches will triumphantly crawl.

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