Monday, July 28, 2008


The Architecture of Happiness

What a welcome occurence when one finds a book in which, page after page, one’s own long held, though infrequently well-articulated, beliefs and feelings are validated. I have recently been immersed in such a book, head nodding affirmitively with each paragraph I read. The book is The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton. In it, Mr de Botton expertly articulates his belief that architecture, including design and decoration, can greatly influence the thoughts and feelings of people dwelling within. As someone whose moods are sensitive to my surroundings, I can now point to a wonderful reference on the subject. In one chapter, Mr. de Botton provides an illuminating example for his reader by sharing a personal experience of his own. Escaping a London shower one afternoon, he ducks into a McDonalds in which, surrounded by harsh lighting and plasticine interiors, he observes the behavior of the customers within. Later, he eloquently constrasts their behavior with that of those inside the cavernous, votive-lit Westminster Cathedral across the road, concluding that “the stonework threw into relief all that was compromised and dull, and kindled a yearning for one to live up to its perfections.”

I once stood inside the childhood bedroom of John Lennon at Mendips, his Liverpool home. Not grand, by any stretch of the definition, in fact it was tiny. But with its high ceilings and a gracious leaded glass bay window, it was a most magical room. I could easily picture the young Lennon as he lay on his twin sized bed looking out those beautiful casement windows at the stars, lost in his own imagination. Some thought had gone into the creation of this room. Some thought beyond mere function.

The British writer John Ruskin once said, “A good building must do two things. Firstly it must shelter us and secondly it must speak to us. And it must speak to us of all the things that are most important and that we need reminding of day to day.” Empirically speaking, our surroundings have great influence on our spirits. All this calls up weighty questions with conclusions that are likely far from objective. Questions such as “what is beauty?” and “how does the quality of our environment influence our happiness, our ennui, or our misery?” But I don’t believe these questions to be frivolous. I find them fascinating.

47 comments:

  1. This sounds like a book I would truly enjoy. I'm adding it to my growing list right now.

    The picture reminds me so much of Willow Manor! We even have the same style winding stone walk to the front door.

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  2. I just ordered this book to be send to my library branch. It is a definite must read! I am also inspired by this very subject.

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  3. Great book subject. Yes, McD's could drag one down--the food as well as the plastic design!

    I guess that is one of the reasons I love London so much. Great Architecture, great parks, great surroundings.

    This book will have to be on my read list too!

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  4. I'm so glad you enjoyed my views of Madison Square Park today. NYC has so much wonderful old architecture from the Beaux-Arts era and whenever I am in the city I get a crick in my neck because I'm looking up all the time! I do find that beauty lacking from the more modern all glass structures being constructed these days, although I imagine the views from the interior windows must be magnificent for the workers within!

    This books sounds so intriguing and I will look for it in my public library.

    The illustration accompanying this post is so charming also! Such a children's storybook quality to it. Is it from Mr. de Botton's book?

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  5. I absolutely agree with this notion. I live in a quaint, older home and cannot see myself living (at least for now) anywhere else. I despise brutal architecture and modular homes. Both my husband and I knew when we walked through the front door of this house that (for all it's flaws and failings) it was meant to be ours.

    I think my husband would also love this book (and he has a birthday coming in the Fall).

    Thanks for a lovely post,

    Kat

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  6. Wonderful book to add to my collection of making me happy and building my library of books!
    Lovely illustration!

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  7. Old John Ruskin was a busy guy with the quotes wasn't he? Certainly his influence is still with us. I've been building furniture for almost 30 years now and during those years his references to how things should be made keep popping up. Not many people of that sort of influence with us today - and Oprah doesn't count!

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  8. Oh, and I forgot to say that I'm glad you're enjoying my blogroll! :)

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  9. My ideal home would be a Craftsman. The big porch would say welcome, sit and visit a while, the deep wood paneling would say sit and read here a while, the dormer windows would invite me to sit and dream a while. I would never have to clean because absolutely nothing about the house says clean me!

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  10. A beautiful building can make my hair stand on end. Westminster Cathedral is one of those buildings.

    If I'm thinking of the right one, I've been in that McDonald's by Westminster Cathedral, and I've been in WC, too. Stark contrast.

    Very stark indeed.

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  11. Hello Pamela.. I quite agree with these thoughts.
    When my parents were choosing a secondary school for me, they chose the one with old buildings and a woodland over the modern box, purely because I was to be spending every day of my life there for 5 years.
    Glad you enjoy visiting my hermitage :)
    Rima

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  12. Isn't that the goal of Feng shui, to bring man into harmony with his surroundings. Great architecture andinterior design give one a sense of well being. Great post.

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  13. Thunderstorm outside,blog for a while..and found you! Love the way you write...i will visit you again...greets from holland

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  14. First of all, I love the artwork from this post and agree with this philosophy. We live in an old Victorian- 110 years young:-). It's not a grand "Dame" by any means but we fell in love with this house all the same and had a wonderful time uncovering it's true architectural elements which had been removed or covered up in the 1940's. What a mini restoration project that turned out to be! I'm heading to our libray's web site to see if I can get a copy from there. Thanks Pamela!

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  15. Sounds like a great book! I have thought of how the quality of our environment influences us. The decor in my home and my garden is in continual motion. It lifts my spirits to change the mood of a room accordingly by seasons. Even fresh flowers in the home can greatly influence my emotions. Great subject matter and a book I hope to read soon...

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  16. Each building, or room, has its own identity - or personality. I believe when we enter, we live up to its expectations. The majesty, space, soft velvet, soaring stained glass windows of a cathedral certainly inspires us be quiet, calm, and aware. One must avoid plastic filled rooms as much as possible!
    This sounds like a lovely book - thanks for reviewing and putting me on the scent at my library.

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  17. I agree. What a fabulous book!

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  18. How interesting! I'll have to find that book. I so agree with the premise. That's why I want my house to be a happy place, to inspire creativity.
    Give Edward and Apple a hug for me!

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  19. I just stumbled across your wonderful blog! Wow,not only do you have an appreciation and understanding of "good" architecture, but you are a dog lover too!
    I so agree with the ladies that have posted before me . . I love your accompanying illustration and your gift for writing.
    Hope you will allow me to visit again.

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  20. Thank you for stopping by Sunbonnet Cottage.

    You blog is a masterpiece. Truly beautiful!

    Melissa

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  21. Thanks for stopping by my site and commenting. You've written a number of thought-provoking posts here.

    I shall have to get the book you mentioned. And I am so in agreement with John Ruskin that a building speaks to one's spirit - both my childhood home and the little hollyhock cottage I now inhabit hold me close and live with me, so to speak.

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  22. "What a welcome occurence when one finds a book in which, page after page, one’s own long held, though infrequently well-articulated, beliefs and feelings are validated." You say that so well. Yes, I know exactly what you mean! It's like finding your own message in a bottle.

    I will look out for this book. I have a project where I'd like to apply therapeutic colour and decorating to a nursery room for an ill child.

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  23. The book sounds wonderful but I am equally intrigued by the illustration. The colors are beautiful and the lines are equally interesting. There is no doubt rooms can send us messages. I was a misfit in my home and worked with a Feng Shui expert to try to understand why. The whole situation was puzzling since I had selected the house plans and it was a custom built home.

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  24. This is a great post ... looking forward to reading the book. You bring up some good things to think seriously about ...

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  25. Yes, my surroundings can affect my mood too. Now, please tell me where you found that gorgeous image? It reminds me of some of the story books I read as a child.

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  26. Thank you for visitng my blog.
    This is an interesing subject, I once lived in a dark and gloomy house, my heart sank everytime I walked through the door, I would live in a tent before I would ever live in a dark house again! I try to live up to the quote by William Morris to "have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful"

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  27. What a wonderful Post Pamela!
    And a great book review. The things you discuss I have thought of, but not in such an organized concrete way. Mr de Botton's observations are fascinating!!

    Like you, I am sensitive to surroundings. Light plays a big part. But here is the most important thing in my environment: It's all about the presise placement of thing. As if there is a mathematical equation to allowing me to feel at peace. This is not true in my studio, but in the rest of the house.

    Hello to King Edward and his Court.
    xo
    Constance

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  28. Hi there,
    Thanks for your visit and comment. I agree with this interesting post wholeheartedly. My surroundings influence my mood hugely - I live in a small and beautiful market town in England. Black and white buildings galore and lots of greenery all around.
    Bliss!!!!

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  29. He's rather sympathetic, Mr de Botton, isn't he?

    Beautiful illustration, as always!

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  30. I was introduced to Mr de Botton by Jane Brocket at : http://yarnstorm.blogs.com/, a site well-worth a visit.
    Never did the truth in Mr de B. struck more forcefully than on a visit to Bratislava, several years ago. While its tiny baroque center was relatively intact, the greater part of the city was a testimonial to the horrors of Russian communist architecture. The huge office buildings all over the city must have been awful even when new. After the Russians and their Slovak counterparts left, they were pillaged, then left standing in their dilapidated state all windows broken, covered in graffiti, used as dumping grounds, and invaded by weeds. Having just come from tidy, beautiful Vienna, my eye met ugliness at every turn and the discontent of the people was striking.
    I soon moved on to Prague and my spirits were restored!


    On a different topic, I just started a book I think you might consider: "The Perfect Summer" by Juliet Nicolson, she of impeccable literary lineage. You can read all about it at amazon.com

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  31. It's taken 48 years for our home to evolve into the refuge it is today....I wouldn't trade it for a brand spanking new palatial collection of mortar and stone....

    Sunlight, books, flowers and happy memories certainly are necessities
    where we abide....

    Thank you for dropping by to visit....Betty

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  32. Thank you for visiting my blog and for your kind comments. I've really enjoyed reading your post and I must look out the book you mention it sounds really interesting. I find that places and buildings can alter my feelings quite a lot - some places can make you feel listless and dull others are inspirational and lift your spirits by just being there.

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  33. I am afraid I am numpty when it comes to clever things like this, but I do love love love that illustration...

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  34. Like me, so many of you love this illustration and want to know from whence it came! It is from a very old copy of House and Garden and I am not certain of the artist, but will look it up for you soon!

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  35. I too find it facinating. And the art is it yours or from the book? Just lovely.

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  36. Pamela, this was a great post. You speak of my two great loves, books and architecture. I am also nuts about the illustrations.

    I grew up in a brand new house, we never felt much of an actual attachment to the house. It was devoid of character on the inside, although we added a lot to it over the 12 years we lived there. When I was 15, we moved to a grand old home that wrapped around a corner and was washed in architectural details. From the Star window in the front door to it's breezway, built in bookcases, nooks and windowseats, it was and is a jewel. After living in an old house since 1972, there's just no way I could live in an "off the shelf" new house.
    I was thinking last night, as much as I complain about the floor creaks here and there, and a doorway being out of level, I would not trade my little cottage for 2 brand new houses. I have lived here for 28 years, and I imagine we will go out with toe-tags. What you quoted about a house (or architecture) must speak to us, is so true. Great post.

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  37. Nice to meet you Pamela. And thanks for your visit. I see one of my sweetest blog buddies has commented here too, DeeDee.

    I'm enjoying your lovely blog this morning, Edward is gorgeous. I'll be back to read more and enjoy your wonderful illustrations and photo's.

    KM

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  38. I'm tagging you for a song list meme...Come on over to the Tea Society for details if you'd like to join in!

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  39. Hope you're having a lovely week Pamela! I've nominated 'The House of Edward' for a 'Blog of Excellence Award'.
    ~Kalianne

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  40. Your site has spurred memories. I grew up in a wonderfully happy home that consisted of three rooms (ala Mrs. Obama) I shared a bed with my sister across the room from my parents until the day I married. Many many families lived this way. In the mid sixties I fell in love with a house a few doors from where I was renting. It was beyond my wildest dreams and I hadn't seen inside yet. I knew when the reclusive owner became sick and died. I watched while trucks hauled away trash and paper hoarded for decades. And when it was finally deserted I stacked bricks to stand on so I could peek in the windows. I saw ...looking through the screened in porch and french doors... a beamed ceiling and large carved stone fireplace in the living room. Peeking through the window of the front door into the dark entry a spiral stairway slowly came into view. I had to fight tooth and nail to acquire my house. Not a bank in my city would approve a $12,500.00 loan because it was in the city (St. Louis). When I found a lender, FHA told me I was throwing my money away...that I would never make a penny. I told him I wasn't buying the house to make a penny, I was buying it to raise my family in. I finally got it. Five professional cleaning companies refused to give me a bid. It had a coal furnace. It wasn't easy. It is over forty years later and I still love it. As far as those pennies go...the homes around me now sell for $350,000. and up and I have the last laugh.

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  41. i love mr. de botton's work! his book on proust is a must read. cheers.

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  42. Absolutely right. The influence of our surroundings is immense, beyond our understanding. Your contrast between the church and McDonalds is a superb example. The feeling that overcomes one upon setting foot into a grand old cathedral......that's all the explanation anyone needs !

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  43. I agree! Man-designed surroundings influence us as do our natural ones. Our senses are engaged wherever we are, and we are drawn into what they convey. I appreciate those who create beauty, whether God or man...

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  44. I have had this book way too long not to have read it yet! I am putting it by my bedside this very evening! Thanks for the reminder!
    Lisa & Alfie

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  45. Fascinating stuff .. but its the picture that really draws me in ... is it your's?

    :-Daryl

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  46. I loved this book and you have inspired me to read it again. I have just gotten back from a month in Italy and was deepley impressed by the Italian attitude towards good design in their everyday life. We are eternally affected by our surroundings for good or bad.

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  47. Isn't it quaint how once we have come to an important awareness and clarified it like ghee, a book, a quote, thomething, will come our way to substantiate our enlightenment. It doesn't work the other way aroud - wisdom cannot be leared from a book. Happy discovery journey.

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I love to read your comments! Each and every one! Though I'm always reading your comments, I may not respond in the comment section. If you want to write me directly, you may do so at pamela@pamelaterry.net. Thank you for reading!