Search for meaning ... in a skyscraper
For someone who isn't an authority on any one thing, Alain de Botton certainly behaves like one – at least for the two or three years he's writing a book.
Topics that Mr. de Botton has already tackled include the life-transforming power of literature ("How Proust Can Change Your Life"), the relevance of philosophy ("The Consolations of Philosophy"), the lure of travel ("The Art of Travel"), and the importance of what others think of us ("Status Anxiety").
"I suppose we do live in an era of specialization, where people are supposed to be curious about only a few things," de Botton says via telephone from his home in London. "That never seemed very plausible to me. It always seemed natural to be quite curious about a lot of things."
"Intellectual puzzle" solved, he'll veer off to the next project.
His latest, "The Architecture of Happiness," aims to discover why we like or despise certain buildings. Equal parts psychological investigation and aesthetic treatise, the book contends that buildings affect us deeply: They bolster our happy moods or they can cause misery. A church, bridge, or office tower has much to say to us about discipline, bravery, or idealism – if we'd only pay attention.
"I think that way of talking about buildings is not common at all, but it seemed to be that was the way most people respond [to them]," de Botton says. "We find it hard to talk that way because it sounds almost stupid."
De Botton already had three novels under his belt when, in 1997, he released his first "essayistic book" on Proust. "What I never got on with in novels was telling stories. I've always been more interested in ideas and not stories."
"How Proust Can Change Your Life," a bestseller in the US and Britain, opened up a whole new genre for the author – what some call the "philosophy of everyday life" – that melds his personal experience with the work of other thinkers before him.
De Botton's meandering, almost naive curiosity gives him entrance to disciplines typically seen as the sole province of academia, even when scholars cry foul.
"Experts have accused me of all sorts of things, as experts will," says the Swiss-born author. But he feels justified in giving himself permission to take on subjects that intrigue him in unconventional ways.
"There is a space for outsiders to a subject to come in and examine [it]. There shouldn't be very high walls around every single topic."
In "The Architecture of Happiness," his strategy is neither chronological nor arranged by era or style.
"I don't feel the agenda set by other people is the agenda I should follow," de Botton says, "I start from a more individualistic route. I don't feel constrained by how topics have been handled in the past."
Through it all, de Botton's guiding principle is this: If he can get excited about architecture, anyone can.
"In a crazy way, I can take my audience with me," he says. And he has. His books have been translated into 20 languages. A tour in October brings de Botton through major US cities on both the East and West coasts (see dates, end of story). A series on "The Art of Travel" and "The Consolations of Philosophy" aired on PBS this July, and "The Architecture of Happiness" becomes its own series in early 2007.
"The Architecture of Happiness," de Botton says, had roots in his frustration with ugly design. "A lot of that ugliness is recent," he says, adding that many architects fail to understand how their buildings are experienced and used.
De Botton writes that an architect like Le Corbusier failed to predict how residents of his housing complex in Pessac, France, actually lived. Over time, they cluttered his ultraminimal, Modernist style home with countrified shutters, picket fences, and flowered wallpaper. Likewise, the sleek, new capital of Brazil, Brasilia – unveiled in 1960 to inspire nationwide efficiency and order – succumbed to chaos and poverty: cracks in the walls, beggars in the streets.
But buildings also recover: London's St. Pancras Station, once associated with Victorian arrogance and "stuffy grand-parents playing croquet," had been slated for demolition. "Nowadays people are quite keen on it," he says. "Time is often needed to rescue buildings."
De Botton's point being that even when architecture fails, it embodies memory and emotions.
He admires the delicate Salginatobel Bridge, near Schiers, Switzerland, because it accomplishes what we cannot: By defying gravity and withstanding the forces of nature, de Botton writes, the bridge can "compensate for our inadequacies."
That may be asking a lot of architecture. For while we'd all like to be uplifted by a Gothic cathedral, more often than not, it's the drab hotel room we must endure, and we wonder why we suddenly feel so alone and unhappy.
For his part, Alain de Botton hopes a heightened awareness of how buildings affect us will, eventually, positively affect how future ones are designed.
"Architects are in an incredibly responsible position, but many architects aren't good," de Botton says.
Still, he admires them, and knows their job is difficult. It's no wonder there aren't that many successful buildings, he says.
"To be a good architect you have to be a good psychologist."
• Alain de Botton will be in New York City Oct. 9; Washington, D.C., Oct. 10; Los Angeles on Oct. 12; San Francisco Oct. 13; and Seattle Oct. 14.