QUOTE | The Architecture of Happiness

Posted on 11/12/2009

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My partner, John, read an extract from Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness to me yesterday. It raises so many issues that I wanted to reproduce it here so that I can begin to unravel and consider it as part of Placing. On pages 254 – 255, de Botton writes:

The building of new houses is typically synonymous with desecration, with the birth of neighbourhoods less beautiful than the countryside they have replaced.

However bitter this equation, we conventionally accept it with passivity and resignation. Our acquiescence stems from the authority that buildings can acquire through the simple fact of their existence. Their mass and solidity, their lack of clues as to their origins, the difficulty and cost involved in removing them, lends them the unchallengeable conviction of an ugly cliff-face or hill.

We therefore refrain from raising of the tower block, the new antique village or the riverside mansion that most basic and incensed of political questions: ‘Who did this?’ Yet an investigation of the process by which buildings rise reveals that unfortunate cases can in the end always be attributed not to the hand of God, or any immovable economic or political necessities, or to the entrenched wishes of purchases, or to some new depths of human depravity, but to a pedestrian combination of low ambition, ignoreance, greed and accident.

A development which spoils ten square miles of countryside will be the work of a few people neither particularly sinful nor malevolent. They may be called Derek or Malcolm, Hubert or Shigeru, they may love golf and animals, and yet, in a few weeks, they can put in motion plans which will substantially ruin a landscape for 300 years of more.

The same kind of banal thinking which in literature produces nothing worse than incoherent books and tedious plays can, when applied to architecture, leave wounds which will be visible from outer space. Bad architecture is a frozen mistake writ large. But it is only a mistake, and, despite the impressive amounts of scaffolding, concrete, noise, money and bluster which tend to accompany its appearance, it is no more deserving of our deference than a blunder in any other area of life. We should be unintimidated by architectural mediocrity as we are by unjust laws or nonsensical arguments.

We should recover a sense of the malleability behind what is built. There is no predetermined script guiding the direction of bulldozers or cranes. While mourning the number of missed opportunities, we have no reason to abandon a belief in the ever-present possibility of moulding circumstances for the better.

I love this as both writing and ideas. And yes, there are times when I look around my suburb demanding to know who did this so that I can assert some expectation that they take responsibility. At the Material Inventions conference I recently attended, Paul Carter made a statement that has stayed with me. In discussing the question of whether poetry and planning talk to each other, he was quite derisive about masterplanning and, even, the normative ideas around place making (e.g. genius loci). The problem of the masterplanning narrative (in which community can often seem like ‘product’) is that it seeks to put something new into place and in this placing, it eradicates and erases valuing. For Carter, in planning, the ground is what is original and every rewriting of it is a corruption of the original. Poetry, on the other hand, more likely begins with the less original (the first draft) and then through a process of rewriting becomes poetry. How might, Carter queries, we create a reversal where the ground is unoriginal? For me, what this evokes if the idea of poesis – if poesis means ‘making’ or ‘craft’, then how is it inflected in the practices of city-making or place-making? Both de Botton and Carter address these questions and as I scrutinised, pass through and walk across them, I am considering this question. Perhaps one way of thinking about this, as de Certeau claims, walking makes the city – walking is vernacular and poetic action and creativity.

In a slightly different trajectory, I am quite taken by Jeb Brugmann’s ideas – lately reading The Urban Revolution – and concerned that if the city’s growth cannot be stopped then should we continue to undertake development in such a fragmented way: the city and its communities are not a product despite what we are taught in property development and real estate schools. Brugmann states

The current economic crisis is ultimately traceable to the rise of a relatively new approach to city building: the industrial batch production of standardized urban “product” for anonymous, increasingly transient consumer groups. We have been witnessing more extreme “busts” at the peaks of urban growth cycles as industrial batch cityscapes have become the dominant transnational development approach … industrial batch production is being taken to its logical conclusion: growing numbers of large and small investors have participated in the commodification of the city, producing, purchasing, and flipping generic units (i.e., square feet) of “city” for speculative purposes.To prevent future crises as we build the City for two billion more people, we must re-establish our capacity to create the kinds of robust city districts only achievable through real urbanisms … [and] forms of urbanism that align competing interests to co-create efficient, productive, resilient ways of living and producing value.

As I read the websites about emerging developments pitching their destination, lifestyle and community oriented developments, the language meshes urban living as a commodity or product. As I glance at or venture through these precincts I just see people eating and shopping – walking between points of consumption. Product development methods leave me cold as strategies for city-making because the product is a fait accompli (like the masterplan?). Product development and design, in keeping with the very foundations of industrial design, is a cog in the drive towards consumerism. Where is the space for participation and volition? Where is the space for citizenship and agency? Brugmann also discusses ‘strategic cities’ which develop new urbanisms and they are “explored [through] their practices of “urban strategy” [which] offer strategies to address the City’s biggest challenges: poverty, social exclusion, climate change, resource scarcity, criminality, and insecurity”.

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