Jun 8, 2024

against the sterner setbacks

Reverence for beautiful buildings does not seem a high ambition on which to pin our hopes for happiness, at least when compared with the results we might associate with untying a scientific knot or falling in love, amassing a fortune or initiating revolution. To care deeply about a field that achieves so little, and yet consumes so many of our resources, forces us to admit to a disturbing, even degrading lack of aspiration.

In its ineffectiveness, architecture shares in the bathos of gardening: an interest in door handles or ceiling moldings can seem no less worthy of mockery than a concern for the progress of rose or lavender bushes. It is forgivable to conclude that there must be grander causes to which human beings might devote themselves.

However, after coming up against some of the sterner setbacks which bedevil emotional and political life, we may well arrive at a more charitable assessment of the significance of beauty — of islands of perfection, in which we can find an echo of an ideal which we once hoped to lay a permanent claim to. Life may have to show itself to us in some of its authentically tragic colors before we can begin to grow properly visually responsive to its subtler offerings, whether in the form of a tapestry or a Corinthian column, a slate tile or a lamp. It tends not to be young couples in love who stop to admire a weathered brick wall or the descent of a banister towards a hallway, a disregard for such circumscribed beauty being a corollary of an optimistic belief in the possibility of attaining a more visceral, definitive variety of happiness.

We may need to have made an indelible mark on our lives, to have married the wrong person, pursued an unfulfilling career into middle age, or lost a loved one before architecture can have any perceptible impact on us, for when we speak of being “moved” by a building, we allude to a bitter-sweet feeling of contrast between the noble qualities written into a structure and the sadder wider reality within which we know them to exist.

Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness