Alain de Botton’s Quest for The Perfect Home and Architectural Happiness

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.


Relat­ed con­tent:

Socrates on TV, Cour­tesy of Alain de Bot­ton (2000)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling­wa­terAni­mat­ed
Gehry’s Vision For Archi­tec­ture

Ice Cube & Charles Eames Rev­el in L.A. Archi­tec­ture

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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