Alain de Botton

Balancing Bar - MVRDV

Better known for his books and television documentaries which address the importance of philosophy in our daily lives, Alain de Botton is founder of “Living Architecure”, a company which rents holiday homes designed by renowned architectural practices like: MVRDV, NORD, Jarmund/Vigsnaes, David Kohn Architects and Peter Zumthor. It was while writing the book “The Architecture of Happiness” that Swiss/British philosopher had this idea. He has also been designated honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, in acknowledgement of his services to architecture.

Architects like Alison and Peter Smithson believed that they could transform people’s lives for the better through architecture. Is this sort of innocence important?

The Smithson’s ambition is terrific. The problem is that architects can’t change the world until they become developers. At the moment, the best of our architects are merely hired jesters designed to enliven the egos and bank balances of large property developers.

The current crisis has exposed the existence of a myriad of buildings which are now empty. Promoters, contractors and architects played a part in this. Do you think that in architecture schools a sort of primum non nocere should be taught to students?

Architects are very badly trained in economics. They need to learn to understand finance, how property development is financed – and therefore, they will be better prepared to interpret and in some ways help to prevent crises.

Can an architect’s character and moral be reflected in her/his work just as much as any other virtuous attributes or technical skills?

Yes, humanity is present in buildings, just as it is in music, cooking, fashion and conversation. Part of being a really great architect is being – at some level – a kind person. This is very rare…

Why do you think that architects have been – for a long time – uncomfortable when talking about beauty?

Architects are generally very worried about having to justify to clients that they designed a building in a certain way, “Because it looks beautiful.” That makes them very prone to be attacked and value engineered. So they talk about anything other than beauty. They need to recover their confidence. It is better to be frank about one’s interest in this field.

Do you agree with Dennis Dutton when he said that beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder, rather “it’s deep in our minds. It’s a gift handed down from the intelligent and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors”?

Yes, beauty is objective, not subjective. Everyone agrees that Venice is attractive, no one thinks that Frankfurt is. Enough of relativism – which merely gives property developers an excuse to say that “anything goes” – and then we end up with Dubai…

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