Discussion Notes for Friday AM Discussion Group | (the A.M.s)


April 9, 2021

In essence, what works of…architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of visions of happiness. p73


Insofar as buildings speak to us, they also do so through quotation – that is, by referring to, and triggering
memories of, the contexts in which we have previously seen them, their counterparts or their models. They
communicate by prompting associations. We seem incapable of looking at buildings or pieces of furniture without tying them to the historical and personal circumstances of our viewing; as a result, architectural and decorative styles become, for us, emotional souvenirs of the moments and settings in which we came across them.

So attentive are our eyes and our brains that the tiniest detail can unleash memories. The swollen-bellied ‘B’ or open-jawed ‘G’ of an Art Deco font is enough to inspire reveries of short-haired women with melon hats and posters advertising holidays in Palm Beach and Le Touquet.

Just as childhood can be released from the odour of a washing powder or cup of tea, an entire culture can spring from the angles of a few lines. A steeply sloping tiled roof can at once engender thoughts of the English Arts and Crafts movement, while a gambrel-shaped one can as rapidly prompt memories of Swedish history and holidays on the archipelago south of Stockholm.

Relying on our associative powers, architects can dimple their arches and windows and feel confident that they will be understood as references to Islam. They can line their corridors with unpainted wooden planks and dependably allude to the rustic and the unpretentious. They can install thick white railings around balconies and know that their seaside villas will speak of ocean liners and the nautical life.

A more disturbing aspect of associations lies in their arbitrary nature, in the way they can lead us to pass a verdict on objects or buildings for reasons unconnected to their specifically architectural virtues or vices. We may make a judgement based on what they symbolize rather than on what they are. We may decide that we hate nineteenth-century Gothic, for instance, because it characterized a house in which we were unhappy at university, or revile Neoclassicism (as exemplified by the German Ambassador’s Residence or by the work of the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel) because it had the misfortune to be favoured by the Nazis.

For proof of the capriciousness with which architectural and artistic styles fall victim to baleful associations, we need only note that, in most cases, little besides time is required for them to recover their charm. The remove of a few generations or more allows us to regard objects or buildings without the biases which entrammel almost every era. With the passage of time, we can gaze at a seventeenth-century statuette of the Virgin Mary untroubled by images of overzealous Jesuits or the fires of the Inquisition. With time, we can accept and love Rococo detailing on its own terms, rather than seeing it as a mere symbol of aristocratic decadence cut short by revolutionary vengeance. With time, we may even be able to stand on the veranda of the German Ambassador’s Residence and admire the proud, bold forms of its portico without being haunted by visions of storm troopers and torch-lit processions.

We might define genuinely beautiful objects as those endowed with sufficient innate assets as to withstand our positive or negative projections. They embody good qualities rather than simply remind us of them. They can thus outlive their temporal or geographic origins and communicate their intentions long after their initial audiences have disappeared. They can assert their attributes over and above the ebb and flow of our unfairly generous or damning associations.”

Questions: How have you seen history and/or your own memories play a role in how architecture has spoken to you? How would you distinguish between something embodying good qualities and something reminding us of good qualities?


The buildings we admire are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol values we think worthwhile –
which refer, that is, whether through their materials, shapes or colors, to such legendarily positive qualities as friendliness, kindness, subtlety, strength and intelligence. Our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of a good life are intertwined. We seek associations of peace in our bedrooms, metaphors for generosity and harmony in our chairs, and an air of honesty and forthrightness in our taps. We can be moved by a column that meets a roof with grace, by worn stone steps that hint at wisdom and by a Georgian doorway that demonstrates playfulness and courtesy in its fanlight window.

It was Stendhal who offered the most crystalline expression of the intimate affiliation between visual taste and our values when he wrote, ‘Beauty is the promise of happiness.’ His aphorism has the virtue of differentiating our love of beauty from an academic preoccupation with aesthetics, and integrating it instead with the qualities we need to prosper as whole human beings. If the search for happiness is the underlying quest of our lives, it seems only natural that it should simultaneously be the essential theme to which beauty alludes.

But because Stendhal was sensitive to the complexity of our requirements for happiness, he wisely refrained
from specifying any particular type of beauty. As individuals we may, after all, find vanity no less attractive than graciousness, or aggression as intriguing as respect. Through his use of the capacious word ‘happiness’, Stendhal allowed for the wide range of goals which people have pursued. Understanding that mankind would always be as conflicted about its visual tastes as about its ethical ones, he noted, ‘There are as many styles of beauty as there are visions of happiness.’

To call a work of architecture or design beautiful is to recognize it as a rendition of values critical to our
flourishing, a transubstantiation of our individual ideals in a material medium.

Questions: Is it at all possible to come to a consensus as to what is beautiful? If not, what is the benefit of having such conversations?

**All content from The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton unless otherwise noted. Compiled by Chris Fox