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Newsmaker: Alain de Botton

July 2010

By Lamar Clarkson

Alain de Botton
Photo © Vincent Starr
Alain de Botton

“Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design,” writes pop philosopher Alain de Botton in his heartfelt case for good building, 2006’s The Architecture of Happiness. Having grown up amid Switzerland’s clean modernism and luxuries such as underfloor heating, the now London-based author observes that in the United Kingdom, most people associate modern building with hastily constructed postwar tower blocks. By contrast, the crumbling country cottage—loaded with both history and suspect plumbing—enjoys a powerful grip on the British psyche, a condition that, he argues, has led to a lot of bad design.

After The Architecture of Happiness came out, de Botton decided that building would prove more effective than books. To promote the value of modernism to an often-skeptical British populace—and bring high design beyond of the realm of the rich—he formed the UK-based nonprofit Living Architecture, which launched in May. (De Botton serves as creative director.) With a mission to give the public a way to live and sleep in exceptionally designed spaces, the project commissions top-notch architects to build modern vacation homes and rents them to the public.

Of the five initial designs, one of the first—opening in October—is the Balancing Barn, a cantilevered house by the Dutch firm MVRDV that appears to hover atop a Suffolk hill. On another hilltop, in Devon, the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor is mounting the not-yet-completed Secular Retreat, a calm-inducing sort of mini-monastery in rammed concrete. And on the North Norfolk coast, Sir Michael and Lady Patty Hopkins are blending old-fashioned craft with the latest technology in their sand-colored Long House. With prices that begin at £20 per person per night and a plan to add one new house a year, bit by bit de Botton hopes to send a nation of vacationers to architectural rehab.

The Balancing Barn
Image courtesy MVRDV and Living Architecture

The Balancing Barn, MVRDV. slideshow

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Lamar Clarkson: What exactly is the hold that quaint old architecture has on the British imagination?

Alain de Botton: It has a pretty strong hold, paradoxically because Britain is so modern. It industrialized very quickly, uprooting millions of people from their traditional ways of life, and it created an immense nostalgia that is expressed in part through architecture—a nostalgia for a rural, class-based society, where things were settled, where there were not so many outsiders.

LC: How do you see the public's current relationship to modern architecture?

AdB: It's divided. Twenty years ago one could generalize and say it was almost uniformly hostile. Modern architecture was seen as a foreign growth that had taken root in the UK. That situation has changed partly, but it is still a relatively metropolitan experience. It's very centered around London and a certain socioeconomic class, and when you look at [the nostalgia-heavy housing] the big property developers are building, it remains tragicomic, as if modernism never happened.

LC: What is it about living in a modern building that you hope will change people's minds, in a way that just looking at one has failed?

AdB: It's partly to do with how much time you can spend in a space. Time is often a neglected dimension in our understanding of architecture and indeed of art. Generally we have a very intellectual approach to aesthetics in the modern Western world. We imagine that you can get what there is to understand quite quickly so you don't need to hang around. You go to a museum you look at the picture 10 minutes max, and then you've got it. Some of these aesthetic experiences need to be taken in bit by bit over a longer period. This is not like a book that you need to read; it's a full sensory experience, and as with many sensory experiences you need repetition and time.

[In the houses] air and light and touch and sound will be quite different—little things but important things. An overwhelming proportion of people in the UK are still living in houses that are older than the Second World War. Since then, floors and windows have been revolutionized. Windows use different sizes of glass; there are different acoustic properties; they let in different amounts of light and air. Also think of plumbing. Plumbing was a very backward business in the UK for a long time. Things that you might take completely for granted are still the level of the extraordinary here.

All the houses are relatively playful in their plans. The roof shapes are not exactly what one might expect. The floorplans are a little bit different. Things don't have to be done in a completely standard way—there are other ways of organizing spaces, and that should be a relaxing, life-enhancing idea.

LC: What about the designs is different from what we're used to?

AdB: One of the houses, by the Norwegian firm Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects (JVA), has four bedrooms designed almost as individual houses, which gives a sense of privacy and coziness for each occupant, and they then come down to a very large, open space, a living-dining area. I'm interested there in the feeling of enclosure contrasted with a more communal space.

We've got one house by a young Scottish practice called NORD which is on a bizarre landscape, a giant shingled beach in the shadow of a nuclear power station. What we were trying to do was to challenge the idea of the kind of pastoral English countryside and say you can actually holiday in quite a different area and see that as beautiful. It's the modern sublime rather than the traditional beauty.         

LC: One of your ideas for a vacation house is a conjoined home for a divorced family. How does that work? Is it on the way?

AdB: An architect came to us and was thinking about it with us, and we're very taken with the idea. It's just one of the needs of the 21st century: how do divorced couples with children holiday? We’re not at a concrete stage, but it’s an idea that intrigues us and that we see as typical of how we might go in the future—stretching the boundaries of who’s holidaying and how.

LC: Do you think something like Living Architecture could work in the US?

AdB: It depends on the part of the US you're talking about. On the West Coast or down in some of the southern states, there's a kind of routine acceptance of modern architecture. That said, there does remain the point that, on the whole, good domestic architecture is for the very few. Staying in a Frank Gehry house is the privilege that belongs to one or two movie moguls.

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