"The Significance of Architecture..."

“Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or worsedifferent people in different places – and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”    The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton 

If you know any architects, then you probably know us to be visual thinkers rather than verbal ones.  And if you know those architects well, then you probably know us as a cultish bunch: mute priests bound together by a conviction, beyond our ability to describe, of the significance that our practice holds for the world.   And if you understand all this you may also appreciate my surprise, and relief, when I came across these words by Alain de Botton.

De Botton is not an architect, but as a writer who loves architecture he has built a stunning argument for the significance of architecture in our world.  And most importantly, he has founded it on a premise that we can all understand: “that we are, for better or worse, different people in different places.”   

Testing his premise is easy.  Just think of the person you are in everyday life, and then compare it to the person you become when you, say, enter a stadium for your favorite team, go to a night club, or visit a place of worship.  Vacations offer another great example of how we become different people in different places, and point to the fact that in their planning we actively seek to change our environments in order to become different people, if only for the weekend.

Many architects will object to de Botton’s premise because it is NOT formulated from the architect’s perspective; the modernist’s genius loci.  But for architects like me, who accept the post-modern era that we live and practice in, this perspective seems self-evident.  This is especially true for those of us who design houses, and observe how our clients wrestle through the design process with questions about who they are in the process of becoming.  (The house is a symbol for the Self!)     

From his premise, de Botton takes what seems like a comfortable step to his conclusion: “…that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”  Wow, this has something for everyone!  For those clients who can imagine their ideal selves, architecture offers one of the greatest opportunities there is for self-expression.  While for those clients who cannot, architecture offers an adventure in self-discovery.   But for architects, de Botton's words hold a special challenge.  After all, if we are truly different people in different places then those of us who make places also have a responsibility to look beyond the individual client, to imagine in the largest sense “who we might ideally be,” and to ask how architecture can positively influence who we are to become, both as individuals and as a society.   

Only architects are in a position to leverage architecture to those ends.  And, really, can you imagine a more significant vocation?

 

 

Illustrating reflections like this one can be difficult.  The accompanying project was selected because it offered my clients a stark contrast from their Manhattan apartment, and supported the people they like to become on the rugged mountainsides of Sun Valley, Idaho.  It demonstrates how, in responding to clients who idealize neither the log-lodge vernacular nor the international style revivals of this region, we were able to find design inspiration in the natural landscape they care about most.  

 


Video by Josh Wells

“Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or worsedifferent people in different places – and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”    The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton 

If you know any architects, then you probably know us to be visual thinkers rather than verbal ones.  And if you know those architects well, then you probably know us as a cultish bunch: mute priests bound together by a conviction, beyond our ability to describe, of the significance that our practice holds for the world.   And if you understand all this you may also appreciate my surprise, and relief, when I came across these words by Alain de Botton.

De Botton is not an architect, but as a writer who loves architecture he has built a stunning argument for the significance of architecture in our world.  And most importantly, he has founded it on a premise that we can all understand: “that we are, for better or worse, different people in different places.”   

Testing his premise is easy.  Just think of the person you are in everyday life, and then compare it to the person you become when you, say, enter a stadium for your favorite team, go to a night club, or visit a place of worship.  Vacations offer another great example of how we become different people in different places, and point to the fact that in their planning we actively seek to change our environments in order to become different people, if only for the weekend.

Many architects will object to de Botton’s premise because it is NOT formulated from the architect’s perspective; the modernist’s genius loci.  But for architects like me, who accept the post-modern era that we live and practice in, this perspective seems self-evident.  This is especially true for those of us who design houses, and observe how our clients wrestle through the design process with questions about who they are in the process of becoming.  (The house is a symbol for the Self!)     

From his premise, de Botton takes what seems like a comfortable step to his conclusion: “…that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”  Wow, this has something for everyone!  For those clients who can imagine their ideal selves, architecture offers one of the greatest opportunities there is for self-expression.  While for those clients who cannot, architecture offers an adventure in self-discovery.   But for architects, de Botton's words hold a special challenge.  After all, if we are truly different people in different places then those of us who make places also have a responsibility to look beyond the individual client, to imagine in the largest sense “who we might ideally be,” and to ask how architecture can positively influence who we are to become, both as individuals and as a society.   

Only architects are in a position to leverage architecture to those ends.  And, really, can you imagine a more significant vocation?

 

 

Illustrating reflections like this one can be difficult.  The accompanying project was selected because it offered my clients a stark contrast from their Manhattan apartment, and supported the people they like to become on the rugged mountainsides of Sun Valley, Idaho.  It demonstrates how, in responding to clients who idealize neither the log-lodge vernacular nor the international style revivals of this region, we were able to find design inspiration in the natural landscape they care about most.  

 


Video by Josh Wells