Author, philosopher and founder of Living Architecture, Alain de Botton brings contemporary architecture to the fore in an ambitious project that aims to change the UK's prejudice towards modern domestic homes.
Alain de Botton’s definition of luxury:
Anything that’s hard to come by and also very good, such as love, time and happiness.
If luxury were...
A beautiful building, a very nice space such as all of these architects could produce, but perhaps a Peter Zumthor house would be my ideal of happiness.
A warm bath continues to be a luxury and a pleasure. We forget that for centuries people shivered and now it’s a normal thing in the developed world, but it remains a great luxury.
My children. A happy child is one of the world’s great luxuries.
A Korean moon jar. Korea has a great tradition of pottery where they make giant pots with a white glaze, which they call moon jars because they look like the moon and potters compete to produce the biggest and nicest moon jar. It’s been going on for centuries, there’s a giant one in the V&A in it’s new Korean gallery. It’s very expensive and very nice.
How did you choose the architects, and were there any that you personally chose?
We all chose together, as we all had very similar tastes. There were five of us in the decision making. I was pushing for a Swiss and I also wanted there to be a Dutch firm as I think that both countries have done very well in architecture. Other than that, we ran some competitions and JVA won a competition, as did NORD.
How did you choose the locations?
We pinpointed general areas, very broad areas. We didn’t always get our first choices. We knew we wanted to be relatively close to London. They are quite touristy, quite beautiful areas because we couldn’t forget that at the end of the day people want to go on holiday in nice places, even if it’s quite weird, like Dungeness, which is very strange, very ghostly, but in a nice way. We may go to other areas too.
Had you had any experience working with architects prior to this project?
No, so it was a fairly new experience. I’d written a book about architecture (The Architecture of Happiness), so I’d come across a lot of architects through that.
What have you learnt from the Living Architecture project?
I think that there’s nothing more satisfying than a good building, it’s a joy. I also think that to be a client and to be in a good relationship with an architect is tricky, somebody once compared it to getting someone else to scratch your back for you, you have to tell them “a bit to the left, no, no, a bit to the right” and on the whole architect/client relationships are tense because architects want to do what they want to do and clients have their ideas. There are moments of tension, but i think that the good and wise architects will learn sometimes to make compromises. We had fierce battles over things for the houses, but I think that the houses are better for them. For example in JVA’s first scheme each room was going to be accessed by a ladder. We liked the scheme and thought it was fun, but it was just impractical. They were very disappointed. That sort of thing happens quite a lot because we have to think practically as clients and architects often don’t think practically, but then again we didn’t want architects that would only think practically, we wanted architects that would push us. It’s a fruitful dialectical process. It’s not smooth, but i don’t think it should be.
Which is your favorite of the five projects?
I think that the JVA house is going to be really quite special. It’s also the most surprising. I thought that it would be nice but i think it’s going to be absolutely exceptional. It’s quite modest, but it’s going to be really very sweet.
Do you intend to take Living Architecture overseas?
We don’t really have plans to, but we’ll see if opportunities come along. I don’t really know whether it’s needed overseas. If you go to Spain a hundred million villas are modern white boxes.
Your books are based on personal experiences, what was The Architecture of Happiness inspired by?
I think that living in London you are faced on a daily basis, with bad architecture that’s the result not of poverty, so much as bad ideas. As a thinking person, it seemed to be a challenge the way that people still say “You can’t tell what’s attractive, it’s all subjective, it’s down to the individual.” That seemed to be a very dangerous argument and not one that you would make about morality, or law, for example. It seems strange that when it comes down to aesthetics the argument is made that nobody knows what a good building is. I think this is a bonus for developers who think that they can do just whatever they like, then when people don’t like it you can just use one of those classic rebuttles like “who are you to say?” so it seemed like an interesting area.
As I say, it came out of personal distress and wasted opportunities because bad buildings last so long. You only have to look at the South Bank of the Thames at the new developments around there to see that there are such missed opportunities in London that confront you every day. Obviously there are some nice new things as well, but certainly some very poor things.
Which countries do you think we should look to as an example of good contemporary architecture?
We should be looking to the Netherlands. It is a supreme example for all sorts of reasons, some are cultural, some of it down to the fact that they had to reclaim some of it back from the sea and the Dutch are also very comfortable with modernity, while not being ignorant of their past either. For all kinds of reasons that country has just got it right in a way that so many other countries haven’t. I also think that good urbanism is, by nature, a communal activity, it demands a communal spirit, which comes readily to the Dutch, while in the UK it seems incredibly difficult. It is an extremely depressingly individualistic country where the first thought is always “somebody else is telling me something” rather than, “maybe it’s a good idea that somebody else is telling me something” and evaluate the idea that somebody else is suggesting. This stubborn individualism is responsible for a lot of bad developments
What is it about architecture that makes you happy?
I think it’s very subjective, but I don’t think it’s mysterious the way that it’s subjective. I argue in my book that somehow we are moved and touched and find beautiful spaces that do a bit of work for us that we can’t do ourselves but that we kind of admire. A good question to ask someone is what do you fear? I most fear overload so I’m very attracted to calm places, as are many people, because it’s one of the key ways in which people become unhappy. They have too much on their plate, particularly in the modern world, so that’s something that I’m attracted to. I’m also attracted to a kind of elegance in architecture, by which I mean that complex things have been resolved so that they look quite easy, and I think that’s just an inherently pleasing thing. I like buildings that don’t advertise the work that’s gone into them, but you pick up that there’s a lot of thought gone into it, but it’s not shouting about it. That can be done in all sorts of ways, such as the way the windows or stairs are arranged.
Which are your favourite and least favourite examples of architecture?
In terms of domestic buildings, I think I’ve got a picture of a Herzog & de Meuron house in the Italian Alps that stands out as a real favourite of mine. I like the domestic architecture of Louis Kahn the late American architect and perhaps the London houses of David Adjaye.
What are you currently working on?
I’m enriching the projects that I am already working on. What I’m really interested in is education and architecture; beauty and wisdom if you put it pretentiously. I think there’s lots of ways of attacking these areas, and I think that the School of Life and Living Architecture are two attempts. You can see them growing and see them being enriched in different ways, those are the things that excite me. I feel that education and aesthetics is what interests me and that can take many forms, it can be a book, a film, a shop... lots of different ways, but that’s where my heart lies.
I’m also currently writing a book about religion, I’m inventing a secular religion. The belief system is very ordinary, it’s what everybody believes: that you should be nice, etc, so that’s not very distinctive. My interest is the way that religions organise themselves and structure things. I’m looking at things like rituals and calendars, architecture and education, all that side of religion that gets forgotten. When people ask if you are religious or not, they think of it as merely a set of beliefs, so I’m escaping that debate and really just focussing on what religions get up to, the meals they cook, the buildings they inhabit, etc..
Could you describe your writing process?
I think a lot and jot down unstructured notes, often for years around a certain topic until it feels like it might be a book, rather than chaos. Then I try and solidify it into themes and arguments and then try and nuance them. It’s a bit like a bird building a nest, little bits of things come from everywhere then try to get stuck together into a solid form.