By: Andy Patton
[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]
A few years ago I went on a retreat to a remote farm in the Missouri woods with a few other people for a week of rest and study. The farm was set back on 500 acres of forest and pasture. We stayed in an old French hunting lodge; it felt rustic, homely and lived-in. On one wall of the great room was a large stone fireplace surrounded by bookshelves. Stuffed chairs and couches were scattered throughout along with lamps that suffused a soft, yellow light through the room. The space itself seemed perfectly suited toward reading, thinking and having conversations—the exact things we were there to do. The architecture of the place had a profound affect on us which you could not escape.
Or so I thought …
Near the end of the week one man, said somewhat angrily, “All of this doesn’t really mean anything anyway, does it?” By “all of this” he meant architectural beauty. There were two architects on the retreat so conversation had often strayed onto the topic of aesthetics. The man who asked the question disagreed with the general consensus that aesthetics were something worth talking about. He was asking if the way a place looks has any significance. Can it affect us? Can it make us flourish? Can it make us feel miserable? At peace? Anxious? Contemplative? Can it make us feel anything at all?
It is a good question. Alain de Botton, author of The Architecture of Happiness, proposes an answer.
De Botton’s book is a good introduction to architectural aesthetics and the central concern of the book is the question “What is architectural beauty?” De Botton traces the history of the debate over that question in simple, concise terms. After closing the last page the reader is left with a new vocabulary with which to analyze the spaces he or she enters, and a strengthened conviction that not only does architecture matter, it matters a great deal.
De Botton comes to his thesis early on: Architecture has the power—and therefore the responsibility—to help make us the people we want to be. It can raise us up. It can push us down. It can shape our experience of life for the better or worse. He writes:
“Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or worse, different people in different places—and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”
He opens his book by defining the significance of architecture, which he says is truly something, but not everything. It can put us at ease. It can move us to tears. Architecture can raise our inclination toward the noble. However, de Botton says, “You can still be an evil person in a beautiful building.” It cannot efface pain and grief. It is not the secret talisman against the slow anxiety which can gnaw at us. There is a power in aesthetics, but it is not a comprehensive power, and it is a power that some people can be more susceptible to than others. De Botton writes:
“Of almost any building, we can ask not only that it do a certain thing, but also that it look a certain way, that it contribute to given moods of religiosity or scholarship, rusticity or modernity, commerce or domesticity. We may require it to generate a feeling of reassurance or excitement, of harmony or containment. We may hope that it will connect us to the past or stand as a symbol of the future, and we would complain, no less than we would about a malfunctioning bathroom, if this second aesthetic, expressive level of function were left unattended. … We want our buildings to shelter us and also to speak to us – to speak to us of whatever we find important and need to be reminded of.”