Why Architecture Makes Us Better

Why do we build things?

For much of human history we didn’t. Maybe we didn’t have the capacity; maybe we didn’t see the need.  Somewhere along the way – most likely a few thousand years after the Agricultural Revolution with the rise of Civilization –people started to surround themselves with architecture.

Archaeologists and historians can get an idea of what the interior life of those who lived long ago might have been based upon the buildings left behind. Nowadays most people around the globe are surrounded by architecture and, likewise, these surroundings can tell us a lot about ourselves.

Alain de Botton expands upon this in his book The Architecture of Happiness. It centers around an insight and an implication:

  1. Insight: Buildings are psychological molds.
  2. Implication: We can mold ourselves into better humans through architecture.

What is this desire to build things? Botton writes:

“the architectural impulse seems connected to a longing for communication and commemoration, a longing to declare ourselves to the world through a register other than words, through the language of objects, colours, and bricks: an ambition to let others know who we are — and, in the process, to remind ourselves.”

[…]

“We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need — but are at constant risk of forgetting we need — within.”

If architecture longs to communicate in “a register other than words”, then it’s a message we must engage in. But how can we participate in the conversation?

Step one is to listen.

Anyone who has ever had a good conversation and a bad conversation can readily recognize that the absence of listening is what distinguishes the bad from the good. If buildings speak, as Botton asserts, then we must listen to them.

If you’re hearing brick-voices describe their woes, perhaps (but not always) you might need to see a doctor; the type of listening we need  has more to do with an appreciation of form. Buildings speak through “objects, colours, and bricks”. When describing columns, Botton writes:

“We welcome an appearance of lightness, or even daintiness, in the face of downward pressure — columns which seem to offer us a metaphor of how we, too, should like to stand in relation to our burdens.”

Poets walking through forests have seen this grace in the architecture of trees for thousands of years. Their sensitivity to surroundings and their ability to express that through language is mixed with that of the artist and musician to develop a culture’s definition of what is worth paying attention to.

What is worth paying attention to differs from culture to culture and neither is inherently right. In contrasting Japanese culture with Western culture, de Botton writes that the former “has been dominated by a love of irregularity rather than symmetry, the impermanent rather than the eternal and the simple rather than the ornate.”

In traveling, we can actively expand our sense of “what is beautiful” by paying attention to what each culture’s sense of beauty is, by paying attention to what their creatives think is worth paying attention to.

“our visual and emotional faculties in fact need constant external guidance to help them decide what they should take note of and appreciate. ‘Culture’ is the word we have assigned to the force that assists us in identifying which of our many sensations we should focus on and apportion value to.”

To Fortify Truths

“When buildings talk” Alain de Botton writes, “it is never with a single voice.” They shout their multi-lingual messages in a bewildering variety of styles that rise out of the different soils that cover the global floor.

The sense of meaning imparted through the buildings is, like all meaning, dependent upon the context in which it arises. Depends on the culture in which it emerges; in the surroundings that surround it.

“When buildings talk, it is never with a single voice. Buildings are choirs rather than soloists; they possess a multiple nature from which arise opportunities for beautiful consonance as well as dissension and discord.”

The architectural task is to embody the ideals of those who built the surroundings so as to remind them. To wage a fight against the constant risk of forgetting, especially in a world which seems hell bent on increasing the speed with which people forget.

We are different people in different places. That’s an essential dogma for much of religious architecture – “to ensure that what is around them will fortify the truths within them.”

Early Christian and Muslim theologians “proposed that beautiful buildings had the power to improve us morally and spiritually”, a claim that recognizes “an equivalence between the visual and the ethical realms. Attractive architecture was held to be a version of goodness in a non-verbal idiom — and its ugly counterpart, a material version of evil.”

The truths fortified within don’t have to be religious. The insane pace of modern life is truthfully embodied within the architecture of fast-food restaurants.

“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 behaviour of the counter staff invited thoughts of the loneliness and meaninglessness of existence in a random and violent universe. The only solution was to continue to eat in an attempt to compensate for the discomfort brought on by the location in which one was doing so.”

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Outer Space Mistakes

Prison’s aren’t pretty for a reason.

Architecture’s task is based on understanding the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, between the beauty of a thing and its effect on our emotional states. These states build inertia that triggers certain behaviors.

If buildings are psychological molds, then the purpose of architecture is to mold us into better humans. The frozen mistakes of bad architecture can have a horrendous impact on the project of bettering ourselves.

Think first, then build.

Now no one wants “wounds that will be visible from outer space”, grandly displayed abominations that people are forced to surround themselves in. Lets pay a little more attention to the architectural expression we use to show what we think is worth paying attention to.

The speech of architecture talks of things playful and sad, ugly and beautiful, and if we are aware of this and become aware that we are the ones surrounded by this Molds, then why not let them speak of joyous things or at least things worth speaking about?

In the mad rush of modernity, what ideas do we need repeated? What ideas might easily be forgotten because they only arise in the brittle spaces of rare silence that are often so hard to listen to in the chaos of life.

Architecture can be our reminder. A re-focusing. A way to show us what to pay attention to.

Boring by Banksy