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


March 12, 2021


“The philosophy of the engineers flew in the face of everything the architectural profession had ever stood for.
‘To turn something useful, practical, functional into something beautiful, that is architecture’s duty.’ insisted Karl
Friedrich Schinkel. ‘Architecture, as distinguished from mere building, is the decoration of construction,’ echoed Sir George Gilbert Scott.”  p47


“Governed by an ethos conceived by engineers, Modernists claimed to have supplied a definitive answer to the
question of beauty in architecture: the point of a house was not to be beautiful but to function well. Yet this neat separation between the vexed matter of appearance and the more straightforward one of performance has always hung on an illusory distinction. Although we may at first glance associate the word ‘function’ with the efficient provision of physical sanctuary, we are in the end unlikely to respect a structure which does no more than keep us dry and warm…In a more encompassing suggestion, John Ruskin proposed that we seek two things of our buildings. We want them to shelter us. And we want them to speak to us – to speak to us of whatever we find important and need to be reminded of.”

Question: Do you agree with Ruskin’s proposition?


“In reality, the architects of the Modernist movement, just like all their predecessors, wanted their houses to speak. Only not of the nineteenth century. Or of privilege and aristocratic life. Or of the Middle Ages or Ancient Rome. They wanted their houses to speak of the future, with its promise of speed and technology, democracy and science…It wasn’t that they ever lost sight of the importance of arousing feelings; their argument was, instead, with the family of feelings that previous architectural styles had generated.”

“Despite their claims to a purely scientific and reasoned approach, the relationship of Modernist architects to their work remained at base a romantic one: they looked to architecture to support a way of life that appealed to them.

Their domestic buildings were conceived as stage sets for actors in an idealized drama about contemporary existence. So strong was the aesthetic interest of the Modernists that it routinely took precedence over consideration of efficiency. The Villa Savoye might have looked like a practically minded machine, but it was in reality an artistically motivated folly. The bare walls were handmade by artisans using costly imported Swiss mortar, they were as delicate as pieces of lace and as devoted to generating feelings as the jewel-encrusted naves of a Counter-Reformation Church.”

Question: Do you agree with Botton?


“If Modernist architects privately designed with beauty in mind, why did they justify their work principally in technological terms? Fear seems to have lain at the heart of their discretion. The end of a belief in a universal standard of beauty had created a climate in which no one style could be immune from criticism. Objections to the appearance of Modernist houses, voiced by adherents of Gothic or Tyrolean architecture, could not be shrugged off without inviting accusations of high-handedness and arrogance. In aesthetics, as in democratic politics, a final arbiter had grown elusive. Hence the attractions of a scientific language with which to ward off detractors and convince the wavering. Even the God of the Old Testament, faced with the continual querulousness of the tribes of Israel, had occasionally to ignite a piece of desert shrub to awe his audience into reverence. Technology would be the Modernists’ burning bush. To speak of technology in relation to one’s houses was to appeal – now that the influence of Christianity was waning and Classical culture was being ignored – to the most prestigious force in society, responsible for penicillin, telephones and aeroplanes. Science, then, would apparently determine the pitch of the roof.”

“Yet, in truth, science is rarely so categorical…Even in more complex commissions, the laws of engineering seldom dictate a particular style. The Montjuïc Telecommunications Tower in Barcelona, for example, could have taken on any number of forms while still managing to transmit its signals adequately. The antenna could have been sculpted to look like a pear rather than a javelin; the base might have been made to resemble a riding boot rather than the prow of a spacecraft. Dozens of options would have each worked well mechanically. But as its architect, Santiago Calatrava, recognized, only a very few designs would have conveyed with appropriate poetry the promises of modernity to the people of Barcelona.”

Question: What role(s) can science play in creating an appealing house? What (if any) limitations does science have in this area?“


We return to the carnival of architecture. Why not carve flowers on our buildings? Why not use concrete panels imprinted with pictures of aeroplanes and insects? Why not coat a skyscraper with Islamic motifs? If engineering cannot tell us what our houses should look like, nor in a pluralistic and non-deferential world can precedent or tradition, we must be free to pursue all stylistic options…The question of what is beautiful is both impossible to elucidate and shameful and even undemocratic to mention.”

“However, there might be a way to surmount this state of sterile relativism with the help of John Ruskin’s provocative remark about the eloquence of architecture. The remark focuses our minds on the idea that buildings are not simply visual objects without any connection to concepts which we can analyze and the evaluate. Buildings speak – and on topics which can readily be discerned. They speak of democracy or aristocracy, openness or arrogance, welcome or threat, a sympathy for the future or a hankering for the past. 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. To describe a building as beautiful therefore suggests more than a mere aesthetic fondness; it implies an attraction to the particular way of life this structure is promoting through its roof, door handles, window frames, staircase and furnishings. A feeling of beauty is a sign that we have come upon a material articulation of certain of our ideas of a good life.

The notion of buildings that speak helps us to place at the very centre of our architectural conundrums the question of the values we want to live by – rather than merely of how we want things to look.”

Question: Respond to Botton’s concluding remarks to this chapter.

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