“The Architecture of Happiness”

The German theologian Paul Tillich explained that art had always left him cold as a pampered and trouble-free young man, despite the best pedagogical efforts of his parents and teachers. Then the First World War broke out, he was called up and, in a period of leave from his battalion (three quarters of whose members would be killed in the course of the conflict), he found himself in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin during a rain storm. There, in a small upper gallery, he came across Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna and Child with Eight Singing Angels and, on meeting the wise, fragile, compassionate gaze of the Virgin, surprised himself by beginning to sob uncontrollably. He experienced what he described as a moment of ‘revelatory ecstasy’, tears welling up in his eyes at the disjunction between the exceptionally tender atmosphere of the picture and the barbarous lessons he had learnt in the trenches.

It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us.

Taking architecture seriously therefore makes some singular and strenuous demands upon us. It requires that we open ourselves to the idea that we are affected by our surroundings even when they are made of vinyl… At the same time, it means acknowledging that buildings are able to solve no more than a fraction of our dissatisfactions or prevent evil from unfolding under their watch. Architecture, even at its most accomplished, will only ever constitute a small, and imperfect (expensive, prone to destruction and morally unreliable), protest against the state of things.

But if we accept the legitimacy of the subject nevertheless, then a new and contentious series of questions at once opens up. We have to confront the vexed point on which so much of the history of architecture pivots. We have to ask what exactly a beautiful building might look like.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, having abandoned academia for three years in order to construct a house for his sister Gretl in Vienna, understood the magnitude of the challenge. ‘You think philosophy is difficult,’ observed the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, ‘but I tell you, it is nothing compared to the difficulty of being a good architect.’

– Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness


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