Wednesday, August 20

De Botton on architecture

I've often enjoyed reading Alain de Botton's take on things, so when I stumbled upon his new book on architecture last night at the downtown library I quickly became engrossed and had to take it home. De Botton has a talent for mining some basic philosophical insights from all over the canon of Western thought and applying them to contemporary situations.

A thought gleaned from John Ruskin serves as a departure point for the book. Buildings serve two purposes; to shelter us and the speak to us. Modern architects, confronted with the collapse of an agreed aesthetic standard, sought to banish all questions of beauty from the table and concentrate on function. However, De Botton contends that even the most stark modern structures were not successful in eradicating meaning - they just replaced it with an alternative vision, perhaps a hope in the progress of technology or the simple transparency of democratic institutions. Either way, buildings still say something to us.

Here's one experience De Botton shares from a rainy day in London. He stepped into a Mcdonalds franchise to take shelter. You don't need his description to picture the setting.

"The setting served to render all kinds of ideas absurd: that human beings might sometimes be generous to one another without hope of reward; that relationships can on occasion be sincere, that life may be worth enduring. The restaurant's true talent lay in the generation of anxiety. The harsh lighting, the intermittent sounds of frozen fries being sunk into vats of oil and the frenzied behavior of the counter staff invited thoughts of the loneliness and meaninglessness of existence in a random and violent universe."

Maybe marketers for McDonalds could consider the "random and violent universe" angle for their next campaign. Just a thought. Next, he stepped outside the Mcdonalds and walked across the plaza to Westminster cathedral.

"After ten minutes in the cathedral, a range of ideas that would have been inconceivable outside began to assume an air of reasonableness. Under the influence of the marble, the mosaics, the darkness and the incense, it seemed entirely probable that Jesus was the son of God and had walked across the sea of Galilee. In the presence of alabaster statues of the Virgin Mary set against rhythms of green, red, and blue marble, it was no longer surprising to think that an angel might at any moment choose to descend through the layers of dense London cumulus, enter though a window in the nave, blow a golden trumpet and make an announcement in Latin about a forthcoming celestial event."

Is this a universal reaction that these two buildings evoke? Probably not, but I remember having a very similar experience while following a typical tourist circuit through New York city. We went immediately from Saint Patrick's cathedral down fifth avenue to the FAO Schwartz anchor store. It did not necessarily put me in the mood to purchase any giant stuffed animals. There may be more of a connection between our physical space and our mental state than is readily apparent.

1 comment:

Zed said...

Of course, Starbucks is the other obvious example of a disheartening architecture. While efficient for delivering hot beverages to people of a certain demographic, it is an entirely uninviting location for lingering, chatting with neighbors, and relaxing.

Instead, there are tables too small for a newspaper, uncomfortable stools instead of lounge chairs or sofas, and a constant soundtrack just a little bit too loud for pensive reflection or conversation. It is also worth noting that the line or queue to order and pay frequently winds through the middle of the store.

Sadly, the use of soft colors, framed prints, display cases for pastries and spot lighting all deliver the trope of a warm, inviting location. The image is powerful, the reality less so.

Even more sadly for us coffee-junkies, the introduction of cooked-in-the-store breakfast foods has destroyed the aromas of freshly brewed coffee!