The Architecture of Happiness

It`s been a long time since I had contemplated the beauty of houses – maybe because of the underlying fear de Botton describes that everything is going to waste anyway. Surroundings should have no influence on how we feel, if we are only strong enough to shut out the outside world and create our own feelings. Then I went to Britain once again, and my perspective changed. As I entered Lacock Abbey, I recognized that I immediately held my breath, confined my gestures, tried to lighten my steps. Do our surroundings really influence us that much?

According to Alain de Botton, the answer is a clear “yes”. Buildings “speak to us” of the things we find important, the values we hold: “A feeling of beauty is a sign that we have come upon a material articulation of certain of our ideas of a good life.” Given my appreciation of British semi-detached houses with large window fronts and colourful front doors, I certainly have a hidden inclination for the domestic, bourgeois lifestyle, topped with a certain poshness and exclusivity. And yet, we all need such a refuge for the personal, exclusive facets of our soul:

We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us.

Sadness vs. Happiness

Kelmscott Manor, originally erected in 1570, was in later times owned by the writer and designer William Morris. It is a humble limestone manor decorated with Morris` lavish tapestries and furniture fabrics. The house is surrounded by a garden with rather wild-growing trees and flowers, into which the house fits organically. As I walk around the house, a kind of wistfulness takes hold of me – but not because I find the atmosphere gloomy (mind you, it is certainly dark in there with the thick walls and small windows), but because I am suddenly made aware of how little of this particular, gloomy kind of beauty is out there in the world nowadays. The Dürer prints which hang in the attic add to the impression of the manor house as an almost magical place which surely inspired its inhabitants; it is fitting that Morris himself described the decorations as a “very pleasant background for the living people who haunt the room”.

What had happened to me that made me appreciate these kinds of buildings? Because obviously, I was not born with a preference for Victorian – or, in a general sense, vintage – architecture and interiors. Was it possible that with time, I had gotten weary of the functional architecture in my city and the everyday dread that was connected with it; or, on a more fundamental level, of the fact that life in general had turned out to be not as “romantic” or “mysterious” as I had imagined? According to de Botton, appreciation for beautiful architecture always evolves from an interplay between sadness and happiness:

We may need to have made an indelible mark on our lives […] before architecture can begin to 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 wide reality within which we know them to exist.

Profanity vs. Sacredness or Chaos vs. Order

Lacock Abbey, yet another building which should become a residence for a prominent man in later times (Fox Talbot, the photography pioneer), sits complacently amidst green hills covered with sheep’s wool. Magic is present here, also; during the Noughties, parts of two Harry Potter-movies were filmed here. Yet, it is another kind of magic the visitor can feel there: a spiritual, ethereal one, which stems from the intricate struttings of the cloisters` groin vault – a fine example of Sacred Geometry. The dominant structure is the pentagram, representing the five wounds of Christ as well as the Golden Ratio. Walking beneath this vault, one feels orderly and solemn.

Maybe it is the same feeling we get when we look at the intricate patterns of a leaf or at a star sign in the sky: a kind of bliss because of the fact that something functions according to a higher order which can be proof of something greater beyond us. Although Sacred Geometry was always more present in Arabian architecture, it also infused Christian architecture from a very early point on. Alain de Botton suggests that its delicate orderliness points out the beauty and virtue of surrendering individual freedom for the sake of a higher and collective scheme. But conversely, it can also put pressure on the observer, in that it might embody standards of virtue and beauty which we will never be able to reach.

Classicism vs. Romanticism

Stourhead`s landscape garden is world-famous. It features numerous small classical buildings such as the Temple of Flora, the Pantheon and even a grotto. Some are inspired by the “Grand Tour”, a trip often undertaken by English aristocrats in the 17th and 18th century who wanted to see the classic architecture of Italy and Greece – embodiments of sobriety, poise and reserved gracefulness. Classicism has been the stylistic standard for centuries, even in England; only in 1747 did Horace Walpole decide to erect the first neogothic building and spark the revival of Medieval architecture.

“Are you romantic or classical?” is the title of one of the School of Life`s videos, a Youtube channel created by Alain de Botton. While there is much to be said for the romantic view of life (love of spirituality, emphasis on feelings, spontaneity, authenticity), you maybe develop the classical view later on in your life – and for the better. The “classic person” looks at feelings and ideals a bit more soberly. She or he understands that sometimes it saves people a lot of trouble when they wear their persona or find charm in everyday life.

To come back to the beginning and close the circle: The next step to be taken for me (and I am working on it, thanks to meditation and the like) is to integrate the outside world into my inner world, to the point that – ideally – one eventually cannot tell the two apart any more. One can only imagine in what mesmerizing language buildings would speak to me then.

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