Alain de Botton’s Philosophy of Aesthetics

4 06 2010

I’m currently reading through Alain de Botton’s ‘The Architecture of Happiness’ (Yes, the book from “500 Days of Summer”…) and some of his simple conclusions are what have impacted me the most.  He presents various philosophical conclusions from buildings we typically think of as “beautiful”. These various conclusions range from typical points such as ‘style’, ‘proportion’, and ‘cohesion’ to abstract, introspective perceptions such as ‘what is missing in our own lives?’ I must say it’s an interesting note, one I had never thought of before.

To explain further, close your eyes and imagine your ideal home.

Start with in outside and the big things: how big is it?, where is it located?, does it adhere to using local materials/architectural styles?

Then move indoors: is it organized, clean, or cold? does it feel lived in, or is it a blank slate?

He explains that we tend to fantasize towards what we don’t have. If your life is hectic or home is cluttered, de Botton would guess you find clean lines, modern designs, and highly organized/efficient things more ‘beautiful’.  The move of culture towards the ‘modern’ design is to note the disconnection to our lives. Busy cities are quite… busy… these days, so the majority of buildings being produced are simple, almost dauntingly so.  He draws this conclusion out further to art; we find pictures which mire two extremes together interesting, for example cityscapes/skylines because there is the business of the city in the foreground, while sky and (possibly) mountains remind us there’s more out there – and it’s unmoved by deadlines or law, imposed by our society.

I can say that I agree with de Botton’s assessment, but there are still exceptions to this ‘opposition draws seduction’ theory. I personally feel I live a cluttered life, one that’s simply full of miscellaneous and extravagant notes; naturally, this means I’m drawn towards simplistic designs and clean spaces but I find myself in awe of buildings that don’t adhere to these standards. Older buildings in New York, ones with ornate brickwork and gargoyles statues adorning the rooftops still interest me.

As the old adage goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Which means there is room for every sort of beauty – and building – in this world.



2 responses

5 06 2010

One of the most confusing things to me building-wise was the idea in the 60s that harsh, bare, concrete buildings looked good. Think about the old Milwaukee Train Station. I still get nightmares about that place.

But what is more confusing to me is that bare concrete somehow looks good in other applications. The two examples I have are uniform design of underground DC Metro stations, and the Hoover FBI Building, also in our Nation’s capital. Why is Brutalism so ironically delicate? It either makes buildings look Soviet, cold, and UGLY, or look authoritative, clean, and powerful.

5 06 2010

If that really is a nagging question on your mind, I highly suggest skimming – if not reading – de Botton’s view on this. He’d state that the way those materials hit you is not due to the material itself, but to it’s proportions, layout, and relative style to other similar/local buildings.

Think of your neighborhood: Isn’t there some house that looks completely out of place? I know by my house there are several. It’s not because they use different materials (typically material is limited to what is locally availble), but rather it’s odd proportion or attempt to be something it’s not. The houses in our subdivision were all built in the 1950’s so most are brick and mortar, occasionally metal sided, but the newer homes aren’t using 1950’s designs – Some are medieval (those McMansions that look like castles), while others have uber contemporary features.

You’ve also got to take into effect the role of the human perception of buildings – simply look at how you described those locations. You probably held more respect for those buildings in D.C. because they were ‘new’ and probably things you didn’t mind seeing.

To go further, surroundings also change the ‘feel’ of a building. Is it possible the locations of those examples change the way you perceive them?

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