Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Loads of style without a polemic to sway the conversation
Elizabeth Farrelly; Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architectural and planning matters for the Herald.
WHAT a week. Forget the footy. For once, in this normally mind-hungry town, there was intellectual fodder to spare. And if the themes are anything to go by, we’re finally – finally – getting worried.
At the International Federation of Landscape Architects convention, a Beijing professor, Kongjian Yu, detailed his attempts to turn the great Chinese titanic towards something resembling survival. At the University of NSW, an American biologist, Janine Benyus, talked about biomimicry, or how science can learn from nature. At the Fenner Conference in Canberra medics and friends chewed over planning issues in the making of green and healthy cities. While at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, with its plethora of performing scribes, the longest queues formed for the enviro-prophets – Ian Lowe (the only speaker spanning both the writefest and the Fenner), Murray Sayle on hydrocarbon civilisation and Clive Hamilton on affluenza, religion and the downside of happiness.
So it’s ironic that the writefest’s most incandescent star was Alain de Botton, for whom the entire environmental thang – indeed, the whole of democratic capitalism – might never have happened. And he is, unquestionably, a star. Anyone who can fill the 2133-seat Opera House Concert Hall for 90 minutes of 30-year-old thinking on architecture for beginners, all delivered in the practised, polymeric stutter of the BBC-Cambridge don, is a star by definition. Anyone who can, within such a lecture, flash a slide of his own baby and get away with it must be some kind of supernova.
For de Botton, happiness has no downside. Indeed, happiness is core business. His genius has been to cloak his intellectual content in charming, languid prose and carapace the lot in bankable self-help packaging. (This is why the covers are so ugly; it’s all part of the plot to talk aesthetics and still look unthreatening.)
Part-writer, part-thinker, part-ad man, de Botton has become the Bill Bryson of happiness. Now, having skated triumphantly across philosophy and sociology, he has settled his meditative gaze on the stones themselves.
And what a civilised gaze it is. The Architecture of Happiness is a kind of Proustian Descartes. Poetic, chinless and sweetly meandering like Proust, meditational and mildly obtuse like Descartes, with twist of ’50s phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard. Nothing, that is, if not French. Even the obvious epithets – amateur, flaneur, dilettante, noblesse oblige – all French, in the nicest possible way, bien sur. Not that de Botton is French, unless being Zurich-born and London-domiciled counts as such.
Read me, The Architecture of Happiness seems to suggest, to find how, and which, architecture can make you happy. In fact, there’s none of that. Thoughtful, analytical and articulate, de Botton minutely observes his own emotional responses to architecture, then flatters his readers by extrapolation. “An ugly room,” he says, “can coagulate any loose suspicions as to the incompleteness of life, while a sunlit one set with honey-coloured limestone tiles can lend support to whatever is most hopeful within us.”
Later he makes a similar, extended comparison between the local Maccas and Westminster Cathedral, as spiritual receptacles of greater or lesser gemutlichkeit, or congeniality.
But there’s no style polemic. No push for mud brick or neo-gothic or even blobs-on-sticks. Indeed, like an adroit politician, de Botton speaks all things to all comers. Architectural beauty makes you happy, and also sad. It represents the society we crave, but also the society we have. It has intrinsic beauty but relies for beauty on its whispered moral messages to our mind’s ear.
De Botton’s Architecture is, though, a delightful book. The plaster of soupy grey-and-white illustrations merely emphasises the sweetly limpid prose, a pacific lake dotted with floating islands of insight. Like this one: “Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites for architectural appreciation …” (sudden images of Christ calling from the cross for a return to the Doric). Or this: “Buildings rarely make palpable the effort that their construction demands.” Or this: “Beauty lies between the extremities of order and complexity.”
So, where exactly does he stand? His friend James Delingpole writes in The Spectator that de Botton wants us to like modern architecture. Personally, I could have sworn there was whiff of gentlemanly nostalgia for the neoclassicism of Quinlan Terry at Richmond and John Wood the Younger at Bath. But that’s the thing.
De Botton advances no thesis, no argument to speak of. Indeed, every time an opportunity for argument arises, he stages a classic passive-aggressive diversion into gentle pre-emptive self-flagellation, pointing out the weaknesses in his own position before you so much as suspect him of having one.
Architecture, he says, exists for our happiness – otherwise why bother with it? – but doesn’t necessarily “generate the happiness on which its claim to our attention is founded”. Architecture has moral force, allowing “political and ethical ideas [to] be written into window frames and door handles”. But at the same time, even “the noblest architecture can sometimes do less for us than a siesta or an aspirin”, possessing “none of the unambiguous advantage of a vaccine or a bowl of rice”. He points to the way the Nazis surrounded themselves with the exquisite.
But persuasion is not de Botton’s purpose. Apart from the overriding imperative of global celebrity, his work is of a more conversational nature. He is not the sower, but the tiller, roughening the surface of our cultural landscape, readying it for the seed and the rains, should they come.
PHOTO: Photo: Virginia Star