Friday, February 23, 2007

The Architecture of Happiness

Alison Lurie has a review of Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness in the latest New York Review of Books. I think I'll have to take a look at it -- the subject is, quite literally, how architecture can make a person happy, or sad, or angry, or anxious, or so on. This has been a hobby horse of mine ever since I read James Howard Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere which is about more or less the same thing and apparently was originally supposed to be titled Why America Is So Fucking Ugly.

(Here's an example: Chicago's Union Station. When I got off a train there a few (okay, many) years ago, the original part of the station was an incredible example of public architecture: soaring, cathedral-like ceilings, wide open, sound-absorbing spaces, long pew-like oak benches. It made you feel important, awed, soothed, and excited, all at once. But when you left the old part of the station and entered the newer, rehabbed part, you were confronted with low ceilings, gray fluorescent lights, uncomfortable plastic seats, stained carpeting, and blaring TV screens in every corner. Why, why, why???)

Lurie points out that much of de Botton's oeuvre, particularly How Proust Can Change Your Life, is about how to be happy, and notes that "this goal maybe be particularly relevent" now that some colleges are actually teaching courses in "The Psychology of Happiness." If kids are now paying 40K a year to learn basic life skills, instead whatever they were learning before, I don't know, but I think we might be in some kind of trouble.

(Another example: I once read a memoir about a guy struggling with his depression, in which he described living in his dark, damp, basement apartment. I kept thinking, Dude, move out of the freaking basement! Sure enough, near the end of the book he moved into a light-filled house on a hill and his depression miraculously lifted. I mean, people aren't supposed to live underground. Corpses live underground.)

Anyway, Alison Lurie is an Ithaca neighbor of ours and even though she has now gracefully blown through her seventies, she is still churning out erudite but incredibly readable criticism and hilarious fiction at a rate those of us less than half her age deeply envy. Wish I knew her secret. Maybe it's these frigid upstate winters??


kjww23 said...

May be Lurie's secret is the space she lives in. At least in part. If asked I wonder if she would give an answer, like those elder's asked about their longevity who cite drinking, smoking and a high fat diet, that defies de Botton's observations or confirms them. The fact that she is twice your age may be exactly why she is so productive. I find that the older I get, the more able I am to laugh about the very things that frustrated me while I was in the middle of it all (such as watching my daughter raising her little ones). At any rate, I love your writing and am waiting for more. I find your work delightfully disturbing, and I mean that in the best of all ways. I am being patient because I know it will be worth the wait. And now I have a couple of new authors to check out.

zoe said...

Interestingly, there was a TV series made to run with the book in the UK and my husband and I were interviewed for it. We were talking about the Maggies Cancer Care centres and whether architecture can speed recovery, reduce stress and help with grief.

The series was pretty thought provoking. Some of the points that were discussed was, why do modern housing developments generally copy old style housing (eg Tudor)? Why is there not a present day response to mass housing more often? Why do we associate older styles with status? I wonder if there's a storybook link sometimes.