Monthly Archives: February 2012

Cards Part One.

The other day while exploring Melbourne‘s Southbank I discovered  the restaurant Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons. One wouldn’t have known from the dramatic, semi-transparent, entrance that inside the walls were covered with cards left behind by past patrons.

Similarly, the cards for the toolkit have been informed by the submissions of patrons to (the) happy spaces project. Currently there are 52 cards, each with one word and lots of notes in my notebook. Below is a detail.


Toolkit: Cards.

“IDEO Method Cards is a collection of 51 cards representing diverse ways that design teams can understand the people they are designing for. ” –

This week I will be developing a set of cards that identify the elements that make up spatial happiness and well-being.  I will take cards (index cards or stock paper) and write one distinct element of spatial happiness on the card, with simple visual illustration of the idea, when appropriate.

These cards may become an element of the toolkit, regardless of whether or not they are, however, they will surely inform the toolkit. The hope is that through noticing the simple elements of spatial happiness will allow one to combine the elements into more complex and complete spatial ideas that foster happiness.

from: Take Care of Yourself by Sophie Calle

Similar to a tarot reading or the periodic table of elements, though one element or card can represent a great deal, it will be how the cards/elements work together that will tell the most dynamic and complete story of how to create a “happy space.”


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Happy Spaces: Toolkit


In culmination of my seven week time exclusively devoted to (the) happy spaces project I will be creating an reference guide to creating spaces that foster happiness and well-being based on the data that has been collected through the submissions and through research.

The next two weeks will be mainly devoted to this project, though blog postings, and user submissions will continue during this time and into the future.

The format of the “toolkit” or reference guide is still undecided but will be accessible online regardless of the format.


Martha Stewart's Cooking School

It will draw on inspiration from cookbooks, especially the “tools” sections and recipe formats. As well as how to books, infographics, and diagrams.

This “toolkit” aims at fulfilling the “resource” goal of (the) happy spaces project, “We hope this blog will serve as a resource to architects, interior designers, designers of any sort really, aesthetes, and anyone who has ever been curious about why people create spaces the way they do.”

All of the information regarding how the environment affects human cognition, behavior, and well-being comes from an experiential understanding of the world. Here at (the) happy spaces project we understand that though happiness and space can be measured, together they will remain incredibly subjective.

This is not to say that spatial happiness can not be designed for. Spaces can facilitate and suggest happiness and well-being by being easier to understand, relax in, be productive in, and encouraging of positive social behavior, but will never have the capacity to dictate any trait or behavior.

In this visual, textual, and graphic representation of how to create spaces that foster happiness, I will outline the taxonomy of elements of spatial happiness that have emerged as a result of my research and analysis of the submissions. Included in this project will also be an analysis of submissions so far — where they come from, what they are of, what they talk about, and what significance this has on conceiving spaces that encourage happiness.

The toolkit will assist in noticing what brings us happiness in spaces that we encounter and understand what to implement in spaces we have the opportunity to curate that will foster happiness.

Look for more posts about this piece of the project as the toolkit develops, and its release at the end of February.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Slow and Steady Wins the Race is a conceptual clothing and accessory line that reinterprets the classical everyday wardrobe. It is built on the belief that high design can be, and should be, accessible to all.”

Slow and Steady Wins the Race asks: What do we wear, why do we wear it, and how can we create new classics that are timely and timeless, unique yet universal? The work is a logical dissection of fashion, an investigation into the basic elements of what we wear, and a considered response to the hyper-consumerist pace of fashion.

-Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Website

When I read this description of the clothing line Slow and Steady Wins the Race I imagined replacing the ideas of fashion design with the ideas of spatial design and how poignant it would be if designers’ “about pages” explained their intentions in designing spaces as follows:

Design Firm X is a conceptual spatial design firm that examines and reinterprets the classical everyday use of space. It is built on the belief that high design can be, and should be, accessible to all. Design Firm X asks: What do we use space for, why do we use space, and how can we create new spaces that are timely and timeless, unique yet universal? The work is a logical dissection of space, an investigation into the basic elements of how we move through and use space, and a considered response to the unresponsive, hyper-consumerist pace of spatial design.”


Unhappy Spaces: Housing Developments

Mass Housing in Ixtapaluca, Mexico

300 Units

Really no different than Daly City, this housing development just lacks integration or diversity in its inherent design schema.

Cabrini Green. Chicago IL

3,607 units over 70 buildings

Cabrini Green, a public housing project, has become associated with violence and poor facilities management and upkeep that led to such incidents as a 15 story garbage chute pileup. The projects were “Badly designed, badly located, overly dense, excluded from the remaining city.” ( In the late 90s it was decided that the buildings would be demolished in favor of mixed-income residences. Demolition concluded in 2011 and tenants have moved into the mixed-income developments.

Puitt Igoe. St. Louis, MI

2,870 units over 33 buildings

“The apartments were deliberately small, with undersized kitchen appliances. “Skip-stop” elevators stopped only at the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth floors, forcing residents to use stairs in an attempt to lessen congestion. The same “anchor floors” were equipped with large communal corridors, laundry rooms, communal rooms and garbage chutes.  The stairwells and corridors attracted muggers. Ventilation was poor, centralized air conditioning nonexistent.” -wikipedia

Suburban Sprawl. USA

“In one three-city study, suburban residents were 18% more likely to be killed or injured by traffic accidents or crime. ” – Jeff Speck. Besides uniformity and density that dissuades neighborly and community participation, Suburban developments are often segregated by zoning type. By this I mean you may have a CVS within walking distance of your home but because it is in the “commercial zone” there is no possible way to access it without a car. This leads to poor health and environmental outcomes.

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Happy: The Movie


“HAPPY combines cutting-edge science from the new field of “positive psychology” with real-life stories of people from around the world whose lives illustrate these findings. We see the story of a beautiful woman named Melissa Moody, a mother of three who had a “perfect life” until the day she was run over by a truck. Disabled for nine years and disfigured for life, amazingly she is happier now than before her accident. Manoj Singh, a rickshaw puller from the slums of Kolkata, India who lives in a hut made of plastic bags with his family, is found to be as happy as the average American. Through these and other stories HAPPY leads us toward a deeper understanding of how we can all live more fulfilling, healthy and happy lives.”

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Great Places Award.

What kinds of spaces foster happiness is what (the) happy spaces project is hoping to understand more deeply. Here are some non-user space that have been given the “Great Places Award” by the Environmental Design and Research Association (EDRA) for demonstartion  “that an understanding of human interaction with place has generated the design.”

The EDRA award submissions that have shown “how research and/or citizen participation is linked to or part of practice”

Here are a few awardees:

Great Places Award, 2011

Steel Yard. Providence RI

Great Places Award, 2009

The Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Oslo, Norway

Great Places Award, 2008

Olympic Sculpture Park. Seattle, WA

Great Places Award, 2007

The Ferry Building. San Francisco, CA


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What is Happiness?

My college roommate had a collapsible umbrella with black polka dots and a wooden handle carved into a duck’s head. I never saw her use it, but I would always smile when I saw it hanging on the back of our door, imagining all of the adventures one could have while kept dry by a duck and some polka dots.

Philosophers, writers, psychologists, have all tried to define happiness. I can say with confidence that none have succeeded, because like most experiential things, no sentence can completely embody what happiness means. Stendhal, a realist writer from the 19th-century, wrote, “To describe happiness is to diminish it.”

I do not know that telling a friend about a happy experience diminishes it, but it surely doesn’t capture it in its fullness and complexity. But to define happiness, a type of description, surely subtracts dynamism from the concept and experience.

(the) happy spaces project has asked its users to “describe why a space makes them happy” in order to understand the spatial elements of happiness, but not to define happiness completely. Everyone has interpreted “describe” differently, some posts never even mention the concept of happiness, but their seems to be an implicit understanding that happiness is central to their association and comprehension of the space.

 The associations that users have made between happiness and other concepts has been quite interesting to watch develop. Many speak of family, well-being, friendship, sharing, light, growing up, view, relaxation. Even if happiness is “the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence” as Aristotle proclaimed, perhaps it is not happiness itself but rather what makes us happy that should be of focus. Perhaps through the acknowledgment of that which makes us happy, and integrating those things more deeply into our lives, we can achieve happiness.


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Embodied Cognition.

In a experiment  conducted by MIT professor Josh Ackerman, and colleagues, they discovered that sitting in a hard chair made would-be car buyers more likely to drive a stiff bargain. Ackerman explains, “The way people understand the world is through physical experiences. The first sense they develop is touch.”

While reading an article by designer and consultant Dylan Kendall, Aesthetics and Happiness: How Space Affects Well-Being, I discovered the philosophical, psychological, and scientific field of study, Embodied Cognition.

Embodied Cognition looks at how the environment affects an organisms’ cognitive development. Embodied cognition researchers claim that the way in which an organisms’ sensorimotor capacities interface with the environment determines which cognitive capacities will develop. Embodied cognition explains that if we change aspects our physical selves or our physical surroundings our cognitive abilities change as well.

 The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains Embodied Cognition:

“In general, environmental factors are very important because they can influence not only what options are available to a particular organism, but also why an organism might choose one option over another when performing a particular goal-directed activity. For instance, weather conditions, the size of the ball, the rules of the game, and whether or not an individual has any broken limbs will most likely factor into their decision to throw the ball, or kick it. Yet, all of this person’s past experiences with an object in these varied activity-based contexts will in some way contribute to their current understanding of the activity. The individual’s understanding of these past experiences is directly informed by the kinds of sensorimotor experiences their form of embodiment allows.”

Developmental psychologist Esther Thelen explains Embodied Cognition:

“To say that cognition is embodied means that it arises from bodily interactions with the world. From this point of view, cognition depends on the kinds of experiences that come from having a body with particular perceptual and motor capacities that are inseparably linked and that together form the matrix within which memory, emotion, language, and all other aspects of life are meshed. The contemporary notion of embodied cognition stands in contrast to the prevailing cognitivist stance which sees the mind as a device to manipulate symbols and is thus concerned with the formal rules and processes by which the symbols appropriately represent the world.”

Our development is influenced by the environment which we live in, our cognitive capacities determined by the embodied experiences we have. All experience is spatial in some sense, our waking life is spent in physical space and our sleeping life often lets us dream of another comprehension of physical space. Therefore, it is crucial that in the development of space that designers are at least are familiar with the fact that space does have a powerful impact on our cognition. As Thelen explains, our cognitive development will affect our memory, emotion, language, and interpretation of the interactions and action which we carry out throughout our life.

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What I’m Listening to Now.

Alain de Botton

My first post to (the) happy spaces (blog) was about Alain de Botton’s Book, The Architecture of Happiness. Today I found a lovely Talk of the Nation Interview with Botton.

The Audio Program

The Transcript:

CONAN: Author and philosopher Alain de Botton has written about big thinkers, big ideas and about some of the giants of literature. In his latest book, he reveals his own ambitions to think large, this time about design and architecture and what he calls an aesthetic revolution. He describes why style, a beautiful house or exquisitely designed teacup, can bring such joy and why a gloomy hotel room can make us question the meaning of life.

In a collection of essays he challenges us to take a look at our surroundings to see how they shape us and how we shape them. Does a home filled with dolls and teddy bears, he wonders, reflect a wish to escape from a harsh and cruel world? Can a love of white, spare and minimal spaces be an attempt to fight a sense of chaos and disorder? He questions the notion that aesthetic issues are shallow and argues that if we look a little deeper, our furniture, our houses, and our public buildings will speak to us in distinct personalities.

Later on in the program we’ll address the controversy over a new report on civilian deaths in Iraq. But first, The Architecture of Happiness.

Has the majestic arch of a building ever made your mood soar? What does a couple’s argument over the style of a couch say about their relationship? Is the style of a house or a building largely superficial or can it serve as a guardian of ones identity? Join the conversation. Our number in Washington is 800-989-8255. That’s 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

Alain de Botton’s latest book is The Architecture of Happiness. We speak to him today from the CBC Studios in Toronto, Canada. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. ALAIN DE BOTTON (Philosopher and Author, The Architecture of Happiness): Hi, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And it’s interesting. One of the first things you address in your book is some suspicions, some doubts about the nature of architecture and its ability to change our world. You question its seriousness and its moral worth.

Mr. DE BOTTON: That’s right. I mean I think anyone who really likes art in general, but architecture more specifically, comes up very quickly against some uncomfortable sort of insights and truths. One of the people with one of the nicest houses in all of 20th century Europe was Hermann Goering. He ransacked Europe looking for beautiful pieces of art and furniture and built this really sumptuous house. And it didn’t do him much good.

I think somewhere at the back of our minds there’s an assumption that investing in good art and design and creating a beautiful series of spaces will in some way improve us, will sort of make us better. But the example of Goering’s house quickly shows us that I think that works of architecture do have kind of moral messages, you could say, but they’re not laws. They’re not legally binding. They can’t force you to be nice. They can only suggest that you be so.

CONAN: And I think you quote – was it John Ruskin(ph) as saying – he’s in the great, beautiful city of Venice and said, well, it doesn’t seem to make the people here much happier than anybody else.

Mr. DE BOTTON: That’s right. Having spent about 15 years of his life studying the glories of Venice, in a moment of kind of depressive lucidity he was forced to acknowledge that many Venetians were not cheered up on a daily basis by their surroundings. That’s not to say that architecture doesn’t matter. It’s just one has to acknowledge some of the hurdles in the way.

CONAN: And it is a fundamentally ephemeral art.

Mr. DE BOTTON: Yes, I mean this is something that – you know, the 19th century offered us that lovely word the effete, somebody who cares in a way too much about architecture and beauty. The most famous effete of the 19th century was of course Oscar Wilde, who famously said that the wrong kind of wallpaper could upset him far worse than a death in the family. And there is a way in which a love of architecture can push aside concerns for other things.

I mean, I often feel this because I live with somebody who’s completely uninterested in questions of art and design. He’s 22 months old. He’s my son Samuel. And despite long speeches to him, he loves to destroy the furniture, write on the walls. I care a lot about him, but he doesn’t care about the surroundings.

And I think, you know, that anyone who’s manifest a strong interest in beautiful places quickly has to weigh that desire and that interest up against competing claims, including those of family life.

CONAN: One of the most interesting passages I thought in your book: We may need to have made an indelible mark on our lives, to have married the wrong person, pursued an unfulfilling career into middle age or lost a loved one before architecture can begin to have any perceptible impact on us. But when we speak of being moved by a building, we allude to a bittersweet feeling of contrast between the noble qualities written into a structure and the sadder, wider reality within which we know them to exist.

Maybe your son hasn’t married the wrong woman yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DE BOTTON: Yes, I mean there is an odd way in which – I don’t know, when I was younger, I was extremely indifferent to things like sunsets, flowers, you know, beautiful walls, a beautiful room, et cetera. And it’s only as, you know, I’ve aged and problems have come along that haven’t necessarily been easy to solve, et cetera, that I’ve begun to appreciate those moments in life. And they’re not moments that last forever; they are literally moments when you see something beautiful, something attractive, when something is nice. You come to live more in the moment.

And I think the beautiful things are things of the moment. You know, you’re passing through a room. You happen to appreciate the way the wooden floorboards are arranged or something. So I think that there’s – in a way, people who put their faith in architecture have to remember that it’s not a faith akin to, I don’t know, trying to restart the world anew or create a revolution or something. It’s a modest ambition, a very, very important ambition, but a modest one.

And I think many, especially younger people who are studying architecture, sometimes want to remake the world through architecture. And I think, you know, to some extent you can, but you have to be modest about it as well. Because sometimes, you know, you can be in the most beautiful building in the world, but if you’ve got a headache that headache will wipe out any advantage that the building might have been able to provide.

CONAN: Let’s get some listeners involved in this conversation. Our number: 800-989-8255. E-mail: And Pat joins us on the line from Buffalo in New York.

PAT (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to talk about some churches, especially one in particular – Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna, New York, right outside of the city of Buffalo. And, you know, it’s kind of all the artwork and just when you walk in it kind of has the spiritual sort of uplifting effect on you, you know, not only the architecture itself but a lot of the artwork inside.

And I just wanted to comment on how, you know, coupled with being there for mass, it just kind of has a surreal, almost spiritual feeling and effect on -and I think that building has affected me more than any other, you know, building I’ve stepped in before.

Mr. DE BOTTON: I think that’s fascinating. I think that churches and religious buildings generally teach us a lot about architecture. They really teach us a very basic lesson, which is we don’t think the same way wherever we are, that there are certain buildings that put us in certain frames of mind.

You know, a well decorated, a beautiful church will put us into a mindset where we’re more receptive to dwelling on certain issues. And, you know, a supermarket will direct our thoughts in other ways. And that’s why religions have, perhaps more than any other entity, been very aware of the power of architecture. Because we’re not the same people wherever we are. And if we get the buildings right, we’ll end up, according to certain religions, we’ll end up being the sort of people that these religions want us to be.

CONAN: Can you describe that building for us a little bit, Pat? Is it one of those gothic structures with sweeping curves that lead your eyes upward?

PAT: Yeah, it’s a very gothic basilica built around, you know, the turn of the century. And it’s got a huge dome and arches. And it’s got a, you know, a lot of angel statues on the inside and on the outside. It’s very intricate and, you know, very sophisticated.


PAT: Father Baker, who’s trying to get into sainthood early, his advocates are, it was his dream and it finally came to reality. And it’s been kind of a focal point of, you know, the religious in this area. There’s a lot of Catholics in the city of Buffalo and Buffalo area, so (unintelligible).

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Pat, and enjoy your next visit.

PAT: I will, thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. It’s interesting. He’s talking about a gothic building, and you write a lot in the early part of your book about how there was once a consensus amongst architects on what we describe – how we define a beautiful building. A consensus that collapsed.

Mr. DE BOTTON: That’s right. I mean if you look at architecture all over the West, you know, right from, I don’t know, San Francisco to St. Petersburg, there was a consensus for hundreds of years that a beautiful building, especially a courthouse or an important building, should be a classical building. You know, classical buildings still around in an awful lot of places.

But that consensus starts to break down in the 19th century and then on into the 20th. And suddenly a lot of different styles come about: the gothic style, the Jacobean style, the Islamic style. Suddenly you get a new choice in architecture.

And whereas choice is a wonderful thing in many areas of life, when it comes to architecture, if you have a city or a town where all the buildings look different, they all seem like they’re in a way having an argument among themselves. That can be very disorienting and confusing. And among many architects for really a hundred years or so, there’s been a search to try and find some style which would win everyone over so that we wouldn’t have chaos in our cities, and that search is ongoing.

CONAN: You point, for example, to the city of Bath in England which is beautifully designed, unifiedly designed, and presents an incredible impression when you come upon it that was not built at much greater expense or much greater trouble than a lot of places which are considerably less distinguished.

Mr. DE BOTTON: That’s right, and what’s nice about a city like Bath is that every street is more or less the same. I mean there are some wonderful kind of showpiece avenues, but on the whole it’s just a repetition of a basic kind of structure. And some of the nicest cities in the world are really quite simple. You know, it’s just the same unit that keeps being repeated.

And part of the problem with contemporary architecture is the belief that the architect is a kind of lone genius whose task it is to produce something utterly different from what’s come before. And that’s led in many cases to streets which are seriously sort of disconnected and are not giving out a coherent message.

And your point about money is I think very interesting. You know, many people say, well, surely we need a lot of money to create good architecture. You know, if only it were that simple. Anyone who’s ever driven along, I don’t know, some of the more unfortunate streets in Beverly Hills or in Bishops Avenue in London will realize that a lot of money does not itself guarantee good architecture. Just as anyone who’s wondering around certain hill villages in Italy, say, will quickly realize that a modest budget never condemns a building to ugliness either. It’s unfortunately about the intelligence of the design.

CONAN: We’re talking with Alain de Botton about his latest book, The Architecture of Happiness. If you’d like to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail us,

We’re going to come back after a short break with an update for you on the crash of a small aircraft into an apartment building in New York City, so stay tuned for that. I’m Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington. We’ll get back to our conversation with Alain de Botton in just a moment.

But first, joining us now is NPR’s Robert Smith. He’s on the telephone with us from the scene of a plane crash, an aircraft crash, in New York City. Robert, what can you tell us?

ROBERT SMITH: Well, right now we see the smoke coming up from what is supposedly a 50-story apartment building here on the very East Side of Manhattan at about 72nd and York Street. And it’s a 50-story building and there was an impact of some sort of aircraft – I guess they’re saying now a helicopter – around the 20th floor. There were reports of flames coming out, an explosion and debris coming down. But right now it’s just a mess here. There’s a massive, massive police and fire response. This is the kind of thing that they’ve been training for since 9/11.

CONAN: We’re getting word from the Federal Aviation Administration; it’s still too early from their point of view to determine what kind of aircraft was involved or what might have caused this crash. Obviously, though, there’s got to be a lot of speculation.

SMITH: Well, there is word from WABC here in New York that the FDNY, the fire department, is confirming that it was a helicopter, although reports, earlier reports, vary between a very small plane and a helicopter going down.

(unintelligible) It’s sort of two different issues. A plane crash is pretty rare, obviously, around here. But helicopters, recently over the last year, they’ve had a number of different problems, them dumping into the East River. One, a tourist helicopter about a year ago, and then there was a business helicopter that crashed not too long ago. Now those were minor events and those happened into the water off Manhattan. But it’s sort of good to know that – at least informative to know that these things happened before.

CONAN: Any word on injuries?

SMITH: Not yet. I mean there’s just an amazing emergency response. Now I see at least 20 ambulances, maybe 30 or 40 fire department vehicles, police vehicles packed with officers. You know, they’re taking no chances around here, but no word yet on who might have been injured or what might have happened.

I mean, we do know it was a residential building. There are some business parts of the building that are on the lower floors. And it looks like initially from some of the helicopter shots, who have a better view of this than I do, that it was probably five or six apartments, or six units I should say, that looked like they were affected by smoke and fire.

CONAN: It looked like flames were gushing out at one point of two apartment buildings, one – two apartments, one on top of the other. And it did look – again, I’m watching this on television from a couple of hundred miles away – it did look as if you could see the hoses of firemen dousing the flames.

You now see continued smoke gushing out of the buildings and obviously staining the building. And certainly other apartments in that building might have been involved. But – and, again, there’s no word yet from NPR’s Robert Smith on casualties. And all the indications we have thus far is no indication that any kind of terrorism is involved in this incident.

Robert Smith, thanks very much for being with us.

SMITH: You’re welcome, Neal.

CONAN: Robert Smith with us from the scene, 72nd Street and York Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City, where an aircraft has crashed into the middle of a high-rise residential apartment building in Manhattan. We’ll have more for you later in this program, and stay tuned to NPR News throughout the day. We’ll have the latest for you.

But let’s get back to our conversation with Alain de Botton about his new book, The Architecture of Happiness. And, Alain de Botton, I realize it’s disconcerting to be talking about damage to a high-rise apartment building in New York City and the philosophical principles of architecture, but it is an important point. We were discussing before the break the idea of money, and you say we don’t have to put up with mediocrity anymore.

Mr. DE BOTTON: No, that’s right. I mean I think that some of the problem is that in our education system we get taught a lot about literature, we get taught a lot about pictures, about art. What we don’t ever get taught about is architecture, even though it’s the art form – of all the art forms, it’s the one that has the greatest influences on us. It’s the one that costs the most, and it’s the one that really colors our lives. And it sticks around for a very, very long time.

So I think it’s very important for people to, as it were, educate themselves in architecture so that we’ll be less at the behest of property developers who come along and, as it were, abuse our ignorance of architecture by saying, well, you know, no one really knows what’s beautiful and what’s ugly so, you know, here’s a condominium block and, you know, I’m sure you’ll like if you looked at it in the right way.

So we’re very at the mercy of people telling us what’s good and what’s bad and often don’t trust our own judgments, whereas people’s ordinary judgment is often much closer to the mark.

CONAN: Let’s get another caller on the line. This is Elizabeth. Elizabeth calling us from Provo, Utah.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi.



ELIZABETH: I was calling because I really kind of agree a little bit with what you just said about how a lot of commercial architects will just make something and, you know, if it’s good enough to live there, people will live there. And right now I’m looking for my first apartment with my husband. And just looking at some of the apartments, some of the ones you can tell they were built in a certain time – like they’re a couple of decades old and they’re kind of rundown and they’re not very attractive. They’re very, very blockish, I guess.

And then some of the other ones have a more classical style, the kind of things you would see on a movie or on TV where like a happy family would live, and they almost look like little homes. I mean those are the places that I want to live because they give me a good feeling just looking at the architecture, you know. Like this is where I want to live. We’re going to have a happy family.


Mr. DE BOTTON: Yes, I mean I think the desire for people to have that quality of homeliness is really, really important. And, you know, it’s not something that ever gets taught in architecture school. Architects don’t get taught to create homely feelings. Unfortunately, what that’s done is that it makes generations of people always look towards old buildings as the sort of places they want to live in. They don’t want to live in them because they’re old. They want to live in them because older architects, older schools of architecture were much better off than more modern ones at capturing the feelings of homeliness.

I mean, my own personal hope is that actually contemporary architects can do good, nice feelings of domesticity just as well as their predecessors could. They just have to be given a proper chance. So, you know, I don’t believe in necessarily always building in a nostalgic way. And sometimes buildings are as absurd as people who, let’s say, love the past and decide to walk around with a wig and garters and speak in Shakespearean English. That’s not a good response to loving the past. And I don’t think we should always live in houses that are modern but look like they might have been built 200 years ago. But I think if the houses are to be modern, they should also remember some of those lessons from the past.

CONAN: Elizabeth, thanks very much…


CONAN: Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cut you off. Go ahead.

ELIZABETH: No, it’s okay. I also had another question. Because when you were just talking about the city of Bath and how a lot of the streets – the architecture all looks the same.

Mr. DE BOTTON: Mm-hmm.

ELIZABETH: Relatively.

Mr. DE BOTTON: Yeah.

ELIZABETH: I mean do you think that sometimes when architecture is repeated in a row, like on a street, is it poor architecture that gives you a bad feeling when you see something like that? Because my family moved to a neighborhood when I was a teenager and the houses were all the same. I mean they all looked exactly the same, and I couldn’t stand it.

CONAN: Does the phrase ticky-tacky apply here?


CONAN: Does the phrase ticky-tacky apply here?

ELIZABETH: Kind of. I mean, like they were just all the same, and I just couldn’t stand the neighborhood. And I just didn’t know if that was because it was poor architecture, because it just didn’t give me a sense of comfort.

Mr. DE BOTTON: Yeah. I don’t think that buildings being alike on their own will necessarily make it good, but when you have a good design like you do in Bath and like you have in many parts – I mean, many parts of New York City, for example, are very repetitive. It’s the same kind of building type just repeated again and again.

And it looks nice because, you know, the building type is good. And I think one of the things we often seek from our architecture is a kind of calming influence. We don’t necessarily want every single building to be different, because that’s as irritating and as aggravating as, you know, if people are all shouting at the same time. So we’re often looking for calm, and repetition can be a good quality.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH. All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. DE BOTTON: Thank you.

CONAN: You also address issues of public buildings and the way public buildings speak to us. And there’s a fascinating example you give in the book, comparing buildings drawn by two different German architects for two different World’s Fairs and how they express absolutely clearly the nature of the governments that built them.

Mr. DE BOTTON: That’s right. I mean, buildings are extremely – sort of, if you want – eloquent things. They do communicate all sorts of emotions. And whenever architects are asked to design things like embassies – but also kind of parliaments and big civic buildings – they often have to ask themselves, you know, what does my country believe in? What do I want to say about the world through my building?

And if you look at the history of German embassies in the 20th century, it’s fascinating. You know, during the Nazi period, you see a building – which even if you take away the Nazi flags, etc., you look at it and you think that is an aggressive building. You just – you feel the aggression coming out of the window frames, the roof, the ceiling moldings – everything about it says aggression.

You look at some of the embassies that were done in the ‘50s by German architects, and it says this is the product of a country that is devoted to democracy and openness and lightness and communication between the inside and the outside. And in a way, you get a kind of moral message. So – and this is true not just of embassies. All buildings, as it were, tell us a story about how their owners see the world.

And when we say that a building is beautiful – when we use that word beautiful – really what we’re saying is we kind of like the vision of life that’s coming out of a building. So, beauty isn’t just a sort of aesthetic word. It’s a word about, you know, how we want to live – which is why it sort of inspired me to give my book the title The Architecture of Happiness, because there’s a lovely quote from the French writer Stendhal, where he says to think of something as beautiful is to see in it a promise of happiness. So it’s all about seeing in beautiful things a promise of a good life.

CONAN: Yet you also write about how at various in the history of architecture, architects gave up the idea of talking about beauty at all.

Mr. DE BOTTON: That’s right. Particularly in 20th century, you know, the words like beauty can be easily associated with effeminacy, with aristocracy, with luxury – kind of not the basics of life. And in the 20th century, architects became obsessed with seeming a bit like engineers. They wanted to be like the guys. You know, engineering is a very male-dominated profession. And architects – there’s almost, you could say, a sort of gender anxiety among 20th century architects. What they didn’t want to be seen as was decorators – interior decorators, traditionally associated with gay men.

So they wanted to be like sort of macho guys putting up bridges, etc. And it meant that they were very against words like pretty and beautiful and sweet. And actually, of course, as ordinary homeowners and buyers and users of architecture, one of the things that we do very often seek from buildings is qualities like prettiness. And my hope for the 21st century is that architects rediscover the idea of prettiness, they rediscover the feminine – rather like many fashion designers have been doing. So it’s been an unfairly neglected quality in the 20th century.

CONAN: I have to say, that seems – reading your book – more than a hope. You are calling for an aesthetic revolution.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DE BOTTON: That’s right. That’s right. I’m being British and self-deprecating, but yes, absolutely. I think it would be wonderful if architects learned from some of the best lessons of the past and stop producing cold, clinical boxes which don’t please anybody.

CONAN: We’re talking with philosopher and author Alain de Botton about his new book The Architecture of Happiness. If you’d like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is And you’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let’s see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Phil. Phil’s with us from Fort Myers in Florida.

PHIL (CALLER): Hi. Good afternoon. How are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

Mr. DE BOTTON: Hi, Phil.

PHIL: Hi. Here I am on the west coast of Florida where we have some of the ugliest buildings decorating the coastline. But I’m also within hours of the major theme parks, some of the major theme parks of the world. And my question is how are they successful at manipulating our mood and attitude as we get off the traffic-ridden interstate and into their parks? And how do they help us feel happy about being there?

Mr. DE BOTTON: Well, I think theme parks are really fascinating because at one level, they are attractive places. Kids love them. Families like them, etc. So clearly, they’re doing something right. Nevertheless, there’s also a problem. And that problem, if I can use an analogy, it’s rather like somebody who makes a good joke but has trouble living in a serious way.

Theme parks are like jokes. And it’s nice to hear a joke, but at some point you’ve got to get back to real life. And, you know, there are some qualities of, you know, Disney World, etc., that we would all like to have in our communities – the peace, the attention to detail, etc. But there is also fantasy element. You feel like real people are not living here. Real people don’t have the challenges of ordinary life.

And my hope is that we get away from this terrible dichotomy between on the one hand, lovely theme parks, and on the other hand, complete massive industrial estates and highways, etc. You know, the ideal would be to create an ordinary environment – neither theme park nor industrial park – an ordinary environment where ordinary families can live that is attractive. That surely seems to me to be the challenge.

CONAN: And speaking about some of those houses you were just describing, Phil, Alain de Botton writes in his book, the same kind of banal thinking which in literature produces nothing worse than incoherent books and tedious plays can, when applied to architecture, leaves wounds that will be visible from outer space. Bad architecture, he continues, is frozen mistake writ large.

PHIL: All right, I love it. I just had one follow up piece then. Have you been to Celebration, which is Disney’s attempt at community building, and how they use some of the principals of architecture there to create a community people actually live in?

Mr. DE BOTTON: Yes. I mean, I do know that community, and I think it’s partially successful. What’s wrong with it – and I think many people have attacked it for it – is that it’s somehow nostalgic. It’s like going to see, you know, your great-grandmother and having cookies with her or something. There’s something about it that’s disconnected from the challenges of contemporary life.

And so it’s like a pleasant dream, and there’s something unreal and eerie about it. And I think the best, the really, truly best communities are those that don’t try and say the modern world is awful. They try and find things to celebrate in the modern world, and so try and make us at home in the world we actually live in rather than always trying to send us back to a world of our great-grandparents which is no longer with us, and, indeed, perhaps was never that perfect anyway.

PHIL: It’s also obsessively controlling there, which is why we don’t live there and live far away toward the beach. Thank you very much. I appreciate you taking my call.

Mr. DE BOTTON: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Phil. Let’s see if we can squeeze Lee in on the line. Lee’s joining us from Muskegon, Michigan.

LEE: Hi, your previous subject about interior design was actually a perfect segue, because I was calling to make a connection often between what people choose as careers and this subject. I started out originally as an environmental science major, and then I got pregnant and decided that I couldn’t go off saving the world with a baby. And I realized that I hated the house I lived in because I couldn’t change anything about it, and it was really frustrating.

So I decided to go into interior design. I went through a whole program on that and came out realizing that was not at all what I wanted to do, because what I wanted to do was to change the outside world that I lived in. And so, I guess I wanted to know your guest’s opinion on maybe other architects or people who take their own life experiences with their environment – their interior environment or their architectural environment – and make it into what they want to do with their life.

CONAN: And we’ll give him 20 seconds to do it.

LEE: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DE BOTTON: All right. Well I think in North America, we’re now all obsessed with our houses, particularly our interiors. But I think a really good community depends not just on having nice individual houses, but on creating a genuinely nice community. You know, what was great about ancient Athens, for example, was that people didn’t worry about their individual homes. They wanted to create a beautiful city, which we still celebrate today.

And I think the best cities and communities are those that put a certain amount of their income not just into decorating the front room and the kitchen and the bathroom, but they make sure that the whole community looks beautiful and is its own kind of celebration.

CONAN: And Lee, thanks very much for the call. I’m afraid that’s all the time that we’ve got. Alain de Botton, thank you very much for you time.

Mr. DE BOTTON: Thank you.

CONAN: Alain de Botton’s new book, The Architecture of Happiness. And he joined us today from CBC Studios in Toronto, Canada. When we come back from a short break, we’ll talk with the lead author of the controversial new report on the number of civilians killed in Iraq. It puts the total well over 600,000. We’ll also bring you an update on the plane crash in New York City. I’m Neal Conan. It’s the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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