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


March 26, 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. 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.”       pp73-74

Questions: Think of the buildings around you, the ones you inhabit and live around. What are they saying? What are their articulations “of certain ideas of a good life”? What are their visual communication of the “values we want to live by”?


If our interest in buildings and objects is indeed determined as much by what they say to us as by how they perform their material functions, it is worth elaborating on the curious process by which arrangements of stone, steel, concrete, wood and glass seem able to express themselves – and can on occasions leave us under the impression that they are talking to us about significant and touching things.          p78

Question: What are the “significant and touching things” the places you inhabit are saying?


We will, of course, run a risk if we spend extended periods of analysing the meanings that emanate from practical objects. To be preoccupied with deciphering the message encoded in a light switch or tap is to leave ourselves more than usually vulnerable to the commonsensical scorn of those who seek little from such fittings beyond a means of illuminating their bedroom or rinsing their teeth. To inoculate ourselves against this derision, and to gain confidence in cultivating a contrary, more meditative attitude towards objects, we might profitably pay a visit to a museum of modern art. In the whitewashed galleries housing collections of twentieth-century abstract sculpture, we are offered a rare perspective on how exactly three-dimensional masses can assume and convey meaning – a perspective that may in turn enable us to regard our fittings and houses in a new way. p78

Questions: Summarize de Button here, what is he suggesting? Does he think we “read too much into” stuff or not enough?


It was in the first half of the twentieth century that sculptors began eliciting equal measure of awe and opprobrium for exhibiting pieces to which it seemed hard to put a name, works that both lacked an interest in the mimetic ambitions that had dominated Western sculpture since the Ancient Greeks and, despite a certain resemblance to domestic furnishings, had no practical capacities either.

Yet, notwithstanding these limitations, abstract artists argued that their sculptures were capable of articulating the greatest of themes. Many critics agreed. Herbert Read described Henry Moore’s works as a treatise on human kindness and cruelty in a world from which God had recently departed, while for David Sylvester, Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures expressed the loneliness and desire of man alienated from his authentic self in industrial society.

It may be easy to laugh at the grandiloquence of claims directed at objects which on occasion resemble giant earplugs or upturned lawnmowers. But, instead of accusing critics of reading too much into too little, we should allow abstract sculptures to demonstrate to us the range of thoughts and emotions that every kind of non-representational object can convey. The gift of the most talented sculptors has been to teach us that large ideas, for example, about intelligence or kindness, youth or serenity, can be communicated in chunks of wood and string, or in plaster and metal contraptions, as well as they can in word or in human or animal likeness. The great abstract sculptures have succeeded in speaking to us, in their peculiar dissociated language, of the important themes of our lives.

In turn, these sculptures afford us an opportunity to focus with unaccustomed intensity on the communicative powers of all objects, including our buildings and their furnishings. Inspired by a museum visit, we may scold ourselves for our previous prosaic belief that a salad bowl is only a salad bowl, rather than, in truth, an object over which there linger faint but meaningful associations of wholeness, the feminine and the infinite. We can look at a practical entity like a desk, a column or an entire apartment building and here, too, locate abstract articulations of some of the important themes of our lives.      pp78 & 81

Questions: Which do we tend to see more of “earplugs and lawnmowers” or “the important themes in our lives” regarding the things around us?

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