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The Architecture of Happiness

Explore the hidden links between buildings and our well being

By Alain de Botton
  • Read in 12 minutes
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton

The Architecture of Happiness (2006) is about how humans relate to architecture and design. These blinks demystify the power of architecture by explaining why different people prefer specific buildings, how design speaks to us and how we can use architecture to bring out our best.

Key idea 1 of 7

Standards of architectural beauty have changed over time.

It’s common for one person to find a building stunningly beautiful while another thinks it’s the most atrocious thing they’ve ever seen. But are there rules that define architectural beauty?

Well, historically there certainly have been. For centuries, the standard of architectural achievement was called the classical style, a form that endeavors to reproduce the main characteristics of Greek buildings. Just think of the Athenian temple, with its wide, symmetrical facade, finely detailed columns and repetitious geometric shapes.

The Romans were deeply inspired by this architectural style and applied the principles of Greek architecture to their own cities. Then, nearly 1,000 years later, the classical style was brought back into the limelight by the Renaissance class of Italy.

From there, it spread like wildfire across Europe and even to the United States. For instance, Thomas Jefferson’s campus at the University of Virginia, built in 1826, displays a distinctly Roman style.

While classical architecture returned to become wildly popular long after it first appeared, in the 1800s, it wasn’t the only legitimate standard of architectural beauty. There was also the Gothic style, which originated with the castles and cathedrals of the Middle Ages, and which experienced a revival in the late-eighteenth century.

This came about because of Horace Walpole, the son of then-British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Between 1750 and 1792, he built a massive Gothic residence for himself in London’s Strawberry Hill. With this resurgence, architectural beauty remained fixed within the categories of either classical or Gothic for some time. The furthest divergence came from certain architects who combined the two styles in one project, only to face harsh criticism.

But that all changed when industrial engineers formed their own ideas about architectural beauty. This transformation came about with the new machinery of the Industrial Revolution, which gave engineers more and more influence over new buildings’ design.

Their opinion was that buildings should be as efficient as possible. For instance, the ideal bridge would be the one that was lightest, cheapest and longest. For some, like the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, efficiency and simplicity were the essential elements of architectural beauty.

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