The Moral Significance of Buildings

Author Alain de Botton works from the assumption that architecture can shape human experience. It is not that he accepts these claims blindly. He is critical of those who overestimate the powers of human artistry over the soul. “Architecture may well possess moral messages; it simply has no power to enforce them.” He is right in this respect, given the patent failure of aestheticism to transform mankind – this being the rather silly dream of romantics and modernists of the previous two centuries.

But even in his criticism, de Botton is also hoping to disarm those who would deny architecture a legitimate role in shaping the mental and moral world we live in. In this respect, I think it is safe to say that things like art and ornamentation are both a reflection of a culture as well as a source of inspiration (or degradation). Ultimately, people will draw – even from the most beautiful things – only what is already inside their own souls. That is why, as de Botton points out, madmen and murderers can inhabit the most lovely dwellings while very decent individuals make the most of much shabbier environs. That said, there are moments when works of art provide transcendent experiences.

De Botton gives the example of a soldier returning from the horrors of the First World War. During a leave from the front he finds himself in front of a Botticelli Madonna in the magnificent Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. The stark contrast of war with sublime beauty and tenderness only makes the experience that much more profound. As the author puts it rather poignantly:

It is in the dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us.

De Botton is “ecumenical” in his tastes. He is as much a fan of Gothic stonework as he is of poured concrete. I cannot embrace his enthusiasm for some of the more extreme modernist and post-modernist styles, though I appreciate his censure of the horrific sterile visions of Le Corbusier, who wanted to demolish Paris and replace it with mile after mile of cloned highrises. From what I have read so far, there is much pleasure and instruction to be derived from his book. I hope to comment more on de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness (2006) in future posts.

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