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


January 29, 2021


An ugly room can coagulate any loose suspicions as to the incompleteness of life, while a sun-lit one set with honey-coloured limestone tiles can lend support to whatever is most hopeful within us. Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places – and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.

The Architecture of Happiness


“Architecture is perplexing, too, in how inconsistent is its capacity to generate the happiness on which its claim to our attention is founded. While an attractive building may on occasion flatter an ascending mood, there will be times when the most congenial of locations will be unable to dislodge our sadness or misanthropy.

We can feel anxious and envious even though the floor we’re standing on has been imported from a remote quarry, and finely sculpted window frames have been painted a soothing grey…We can fall into a petty argument which ends in threats of divorce in a building by Geoffrey Bawa or Louis Kahn. Houses can invite us to join them in a mood which we find ourselves incapable of summoning. The noblest architecture can sometimes do less for us than a siesta or an aspirin.

Those who have made architectural beauty their life’s work know only too well how futile their efforts can prove. After an exhaustive study of the buildings of Venice, in a moment of depressive lucidity, John Ruskin acknowledged that few Venetians in fact seemed elevated by their city, perhaps the most beautiful urban tapestry in the world. Alongside St. Mark’s Church (described by Ruskin in The Stones of Venice as ‘a Book of Common Prayer, a vast illuminated missal, bound with alabaster instead of parchment, studded with porphyry pillars instead of jewels, and written within and without in letters of enamel and gold’), they sat in cafés, read the papers, sunbathed, bickered and stole from one another as, high on the church’s roof, unobserved, ‘the images of Christ and His angels looked down upon them.’”

The Architecture of Happiness

“Evangelist Billy Graham once told Walt that Disneyland was ‘a nice fantasy.’ This did not sit well with Walt. He replied, ‘You know the fantasy isn’t here. This is very real…The Park is reality. The people are natural here; they’re having a good time; they’re communicating. This is what people really are. The fantasy is – out there, outside the gates of Disneyland, where people have hatreds and people have prejudices. It’s not really real.”

Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City, Sam Gennaway (p66)


  • De Botton seems to be contradicting himself. Are we “for better or worse, different people in different places” or do we find ourselves “incapable of summoning” the mood a house is inviting us to? Despite Walt’s claims, people still get mad and upset in Disneyland. How much influence does our environment really have over us?


Endowed with a power that is as unreliable as it often is inexpressible, architecture will always compete poorly with the utilitarian demands for humanity’s resources. How hard it is to make a case for the cost of tearing down and rebuilding a mean but serviceable street. How awkward to have to defend, in the face of more tangible needs, the benefits of realigning a crooked lamppost or replacing an ill-matched window frame. Beautiful architecture has none of the unambiguous advantages of a vaccine or a bowl of rice. Its construction will hence never be raised to a dominant political priority, for even if the whole of the man-made world could through relentless effort and sacrifice, be modelled to rival St. Mark’s Square, even if we could spend the rest of our lives in the Villa Rotunda or the Glass House, we would still often be in a bad mood.

The Architecture of Happiness


  • How do we find a balance between caring about the “utilitarian demands for humanity’s resources” and the less tangible and, according to de Botton, less reliable, things like beautiful architecture?

Philip Johnson, The Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1949


“Not only do beautiful houses falter as guarantors of happiness, they can also be accused of failing to improve the characters of those who live in them.

It seems reasonable to suppose that people will possess some of the qualities of the buildings they are drawn to: to expect that if they are alive to the charm of an ancient farmhouse with walls made of irregular chiselled stones set in light mortar, if they can appreciate the play of candlelight against hand-decorated tiles, can be seduced by libraries with shelves filled from floor to ceiling with books that emit a sweet dusty smell and are content to lie on the floor tracing the knotted border of an intricate Turkoman rug, then they will know something about patience and stability, tenderness and sweetness, intelligence and worldliness, scepticism and trust. We expect that such enthusiasts will be committed to infusing their whole lives with the values embodied in the object of their appreciation.

But, whatever the theoretical affinities between beauty and goodness, it is undeniable that, in practice, farmhouses and lodges, mansions and riverside apartments have played host to innumerous tyrants and murderers, sadists and snobs, to characters with a chilling indifference to the disjunctures between the qualities manifested in their surroundings and in their lives.

Medieval devotional paintings may try to remind us of sadness and sin, they may seek to train us away from arrogance and worldly pursuits and render us properly humble before the mysteries and hardships of life, but they will hang in a living room without active protest while butlers circulate the finger food and butchers plot their next move.

Architecture may well possess moral messages; it simply has no power to enforce them. It offers suggestions instead of making laws. It invites, rather than orders, us to emulate its spirit and cannot prevent its own abuse.

We should be kind enough not to blame buildings for our own failure to honor the advice they can only ever subtly proffer.”

The Architecture of Happiness

“Beauty exists where Truth and Goodness meet Mystery. Art advances the celebration of this intersection.”

Friday Arts Project Vision Statement


  • Can beautiful architecture make us better people?

**All content unless otherwise noted from The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton . Content for this discussion compiled by Chris Fox