Alain de Botton is a Swiss writer, philosopher, television presenter and entrepreneur, resident in the United Kingdom. His books and television programs discuss various contemporary subjects and themes, emphasizing philosophy's relevance to everyday life. He is author, among others, of Essays In Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Status Anxiety, and The Architecture Of Happiness (recently released on audio, narrated by Simon Vance.) He was a founding member of "Living Architecture," and was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, as well as being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Tower Review) What draws you to philosophy and to architecture? In what principal ways are they related?
Alain de Botton) I'm broadly interested in wisdom and consolation - and these goals are covered both by philosophy and architecture. What one is reading and thinking evidently has a great impact on one's conduct and thoughts - and so does the location one is in.
Beauty has a huge role to play in altering our mood. When we call a chair or a house beautiful, really what we’re saying is that we like the way of life it’s suggesting to us. It has an attitude we’re attracted to: if it was magically turned into a person, we’d like who it was. It would be convenient if we could remain in much the same mood wherever we happened to be, in a cheap motel or a palace (think of how much money we’d save on redecorating our houses), but unfortunately we’re highly vulnerable to the coded messages that emanate from our surroundings. This helps to explain our passionate feelings towards matters of architecture and home decoration: these things help to decide who we are.
Of course, architecture can’t on its own always make us into contented people. Witness the dissatisfactions that can unfold even in idyllic surroundings. One might say that architecture suggests a mood to us, which we may be too internally troubled to be able to take up. Its effectiveness could be compared to the weather: a fine day can substantially change our state of mind – and people may be willing to make great sacrifices to be nearer a sunny climate. Then again, under the weight of sufficient problems (romantic or professional confusions, for example), no amount of blue sky, and not even the greatest building, will be able to make us smile. Hence the difficulty of trying raise architecture into a political priority: it has none of the unambiguous advantages of clean drinking water or a safe food supply. And yet it remains vital.
TR) One of your themes is that architecture affects how we feel, and one of its main goals beyond function is to point toward universal ideals of beauty and transcendence. In this way it is similar to poetry or music, or the best prose, which is always searching and alluding to values which are often not as visible in everyday life. Which architects or buildings speak to you personally, and why?
Botton) I'd answer the question by saying that broadly, the built environment in the modern world is very disappointing. Given the prodigious wealth of societies in Europe, America and parts of Asia, it is extraordinary just how bad humans have proved to be at creating congenial environments. You can count on two hands but no more the 'successful' cities of the world: San Francisco, Amsterdam, Paris, Edinburgh... but generally, cities are ruined by the inability of the political class to create a well-defined structure for development which will not be undermined by property developers. We shouldn't blame developers: of course they are greedy, that's the point of them. The real disgrace is how governments can't create good playing fields for their energies to be contained by.
Your question focuses on great one-off buildings. Of course, I have some - but more and more, I don't care about the great one-off, and instead mind about mediocre architecture. Why can't we get that going better? What we desperately need is a harmonised building code which will impose a very restricted menu of options on developers, so that streets can recover some unity and a pleasing harmony. For London, here's a development I like, by Squire and Partners. It's a bog standard office building - but is important for that. If all new developments in central London could harmonise with this, we'd be making progress.
TR) Are there artistic trends or schools which can better aid a universal commonality of aspirations (in keeping, say, with Einstein's statement that "nationalism is the measles of humanity") as opposed to the "us versus them" philosophy present in patriotic or propagandist works of art?
Botton) I'm a great believer in patriotism - in the sense that one should be able to feel proud of the achievements of one's community and work towards improving oneself and civic ambition. Of course, there can be dumb ambitions for patriotism, but the fault isn't patriotism itself. As for propaganda, what I'm drawn to is propoganda on behalf of morality. The word morality has become troublesome for the modern age. We don’t tend to respond well to recommendations of how we should behave in order to be ‘good’. We’re terrified of being interfered with. People who readily accept the need for a gym will bristle at the suggestion that they might also work on their moral character, and aspire to virtue as much as they do physical fitness. A key assumption of modern democratic political thinking is that we should be left alone to live as we like without being nagged, without fear of moral judgement and without being subject to the whims of authority. It is not thought to be anyone’s job to promote a vision of how we should act towards one another. An abhorrence of the more crude varieties of moralism has banished talk of morality from public life. The impulse to probe at the behaviour of others trembles before the incensed question of who anyone might be to dare to tell anyone else how to live. And yet it’s evident that a lot of the best art produced throughout history has been concerned with an explicitly moralistic mission - an attempt to encourage our better selves through encoded messages of exhortation and admonition.
We might think of works of art that ‘exhort’ as both bossy and unnecessary. But this would assume that an encouragement to virtue would always be contrary to our own desires. However, in reality, when we are calm and not under fire, most of us long to be good and wouldn’t mind the odd reminder to be so; we simply can’t find the motivation day to day. In relation to our aspirations to goodness, we suffer from what Aristotle called akrasia or ‘weakness of will’. We want to behave well in our relationships, but slip up under pressure. We want to make more of ourselves, but lose motivation at a critical juncture. In these circumstances, we are in a position to derive enormous benefit from works of art that encourage us to be the best versions of ourselves - something that we would only resent if we have a manic fear of outside intervention or think ourselves perfect already.
TR) Was wondering if any skyscrapers are your favorites, and what you think of the grandiose vision of Sheikh Mohammed in Dubai.
Botton) I think skyscrapers work best when they are tightly huddled together in a geometric grid system. ie. They work well in Chicago and Manhattan. Also, they need to be the homes of the very rich rather than the very poor, because they are sophisticated pieces of technology that have enormous maintenance costs. Therefore, it's been disastrous to use skyscrapers as social housing, as has been done to disastrous effect in places like the suburbs of Paris. I rather like the Chrysler building.
TR) China has been planning to build the world's tallest for a while, with construction to last only 90 days. That's two records in one project. Beyond awards and bragging rights for cities, are there other architectural ego factors at work anywhere? What's good and bad about this?
Botton) It's so easy building skyscrapers. It requires very little ingenuity. The real challenge is to create good ordinary streets. Here it's really the Dutch showing the way. The redevelopment of the Amsterdam docklands at Borneo-Sporenburg is exemplary and deserves to be widely known and copied.
TR) You've written about religion too. My thoughts are that sports has become a religion for most people. With the Olympics having come to England, what thoughts do you have on sports, and the architectural preparations there?
Botton) Anything which draws people to the UK is good. I'm not into sport myself, but see the virtues in sport as transferable; ie. the loyalty or courage you discover in sport might well travel into other parts of life.
TR) The narrator Simon Vance reads your The Architecture of Happiness. He strikes me as the ideal reader for the book. What do you think?
Botton) Yes, he has a beautiful voice and real understanding of what he's reading.
TR) What's next for you?
Botton) I've just written a little self-help book on sex for a school I founded called The School of Life.