In the first episode of The Perfect Home, embedded above, philosophical journalist and broadcaster Alain de Botton contends that we don’t live in the modern world. Rather, we do live in the modern world in that we exist in it, but we don’t live in the modern world in that few of us choose to make our homes there. As de Botton sees it, the residents of the developed world have, despite keeping up with the latest cars, clothes, and gadgetry, chosen to hole up in shells of aesthetic nostalgia: our mock Tudors, our restored cottages, our Greek Revivals. Having written books and presented television shows on philosophical subjects — you may remember Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness — he even brings in Nietzsche to diagnose this architectural disorder as an abject denial of reality. According to old Friedrich, he who builds himself into a fake reality ultimately pays a much greater price than what enduring real reality would have cost. With that ominous bit of wisdom in mind, de Botton travels the world in search of buildings designed with modern sensibilities and modern technology that nevertheless make us happy without enabling self-delusion.
The search takes de Botton all over the world, from Victorian theme-parkish English suburban developments to a Japanese Dutch village to Egyptian and Scandinavian embassies in Berlin to a helicopter soaring above London with the architect Norman Foster to the concrete-modernist Zurich apartment of his own childhood. Just as Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness grew from the same intellectual soil as de Botton’s book The Consolations of Philosophy, so grows The Perfect Home from The Architecture of Happiness. That book’s explorations proceeded from the idea that we desire in our architecture whatever we feel we lack in our character: the undisciplined gravitate toward starkness and simplicity, perhaps, while the straight-laced build with more whimsy. What does this say about the lady visited in this first episode who devotes her every domestic impulse to constructing a “cozy” setting, bursting in every direction with teddy bears? Though de Botton demures from that question, he otherwise goes to great lengths to find an escape from tiresome “pastiche” architecture and a way our buildings can embrace our times — a way, that is, we can finally live in the present.