Alain de Botton (right) discusses his new book on design with philosopher Robert Adam.
What do you get when you bring an arch-traditionalist architect and a modernism-loving ‘pop philosopher' together to discuss the latter's new book on design? The answer is a high-speed debate in which a few areas of agreement never threaten to stand in the way of the verbals.
Alain de Botton arrives in the lobby of the RIBA with the endearing look of a polite schoolboy. Though in his late 30s, the writer is youthfully studious in his glasses, V-neck navy blue jumper and dark trousers. His latest book, The Architecture of Happiness, in which he reflects on the idea of beauty in buildings, was due to be published yesterday.
He hopes the book will persuade people to become more comfortable articulating their feelings about architecture. Building got hold of an advance copy and passed it to architect Robert Adam. Adam is an advocate of the traditional style that de Botton - a card-carrying modernist - regularly criticises.
Adam regally waits for his interviewee at the top of the RIBA's stairs. A personal anecdote from his student days at the institute is used as an icebreaker. The encounter is being recorded for Building's website, and Adam even deigns to impart a piece of advice to our struggling novice cameraman: "There's probably a button called ‘record'."
As soon as the button has been located, Adam launches into de Botton: "There is quite a lot that I would actually agree with in The Architecture of Happiness. But I am not going to dwell on what I agree with because it makes boring discussions." This discussion never becomes boring; de Botton later describes it as "fast and furious". Here goes …
Whether or not Adam enjoyed the book, he has studied it assiduously, adorning pages with Post-it notes and highlighting passages. The debate resembles a professor commenting on his student's thesis as he points out historical mistakes and questions the choice of words. Adam has even prepared handouts and pictures to make his points.
But the first problem to emerge is with literary rather than architectural style: Adam objects to the way de Botton writes. In particular, his habit of using the first-person plural to express opinions. So the book says: "We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to be a helpful vision of ourselves."
Adam finds this jarring: "What interested me is, who is ‘us'?" De Botton is ready for this one: "The style in which I write is provocative to try to rope in the faithful and provoke responses from those who disagree." Adam is wholly unimpressed, pointing out that a recent study showed that only 5% of the population is interested in culture and therefore in de Botton's book. His point is that de Botton has no right to assume that others will share his views.
De Botton dismisses Adam's statistic, arguing that if people haven't gone to the Tate Modern, they might well later. "The reasons for not going are simply accidents."
"I am not sure I agree," retorts Adam. De Botton says he's more optimistic than Adam about the state of culture. Adam begs to differ: "I wouldn't call myself a pessimist because it would mean I feel bad about popular culture, which I don't. What I think we have at the moment is people who are unprepared to take on the language of the greater part of the population."
Fascism, democracy and concrete
The two scholars pause to hunt cultural artefacts that appeal to the vast majority as well as the tiny elite. De Botton, in a playful move, suggests Abba's Dancing Queen - it uses a classical Swedish harmony - but Adam has already moved on: it's round two.
His next complaint is that the book uses a number of "Establishment expressions that I am allergic to". He cites "unapologetically modern" and de Botton's claim that concrete is a "quintessentially modern democratic medium", because it is readily available and used for social housing. "I have a problem with concrete being democratic," he says, showing de Botton a picture of the concrete Museum of Eugenic Health in Nazi Germany. He adds: "It's like Rogers saying that the Smurf roof on his Welsh parliament is democratic. I think it's bollocks, basically. And that glass is a democratic medium, which is twaddle." He essentially accuses de Botton of snuggling up to the pretensions of his audience: "I had the feeling that you talked too much to the architecture establishment."
De Botton reacts rather waspishly to this accusation, suggesting that he would hardly know how to communicate with architects: "I hardly read any architects' work because their writing is impossible to understand." Adam ignores the hint that he could be part of this band of baffling writers, and is even moved to agree with his rival.
De Botton moves on to one of his pet hates. "Most people driving around Regent's Park sense that something's gone wrong." Adam smiles at the words ‘most people': "It's the ‘us' again." By this stage, de Botton is offering a fairly unconvincing explanation of what "us" refers to … actually, they're "the sensible people who ride in my car … We don't like the villas in Regent's Park. Who does?" Adam can't resist this, announcing that he does, rather.
One of de Botton's theories is that British people are "terrifically nostalgic for traditional architecture" as a reaction to the unappetising nature of the modern buildings they have been given.
Nevertheless, there is a nagging sense among some Britons that an alternative, and more authentic, account of modernism is possible. De Botton says: "The people who live in Hoxton lofts, with concrete walls - what's going on there? These people are the descendants of 400 years of peace in the British Isles and what they're longing for is a bit of grittiness from the architecture. The metropolitan elite likes concrete." De Botton jokes that Tony Blair probably likes concrete too. "He thinks he ought to," says Adam.
The conversation moves to the avant-garde, modernism and market-led decisions. Adam reminds de Botton that, according to CABE, only 15% of the population longs to live in a modernist property. De Botton repeats his point that most people have never experienced good modern architecture because it hasn't been built. He says: "They have had appalling modernist buildings, social housing … the worst mistakes. And they've seen better - yet still third-rate - examples of traditional architecture, so they say they prefer it."
What much of this conversation has been leading to is a definition of what qualifies as good taste. It's a thorny issue for Adam: "At one stage we were asked to design a pavilion for the courtyard of the British Museum. Michael Hopkins, who was one of the trustees, opposed this as it would be bad taste. He thought that anything that is not what he does is bad taste."
De Botton thinks he knows the principal cause of bad taste in architecture - the housebuilder: "We do have a small elite who are governing taste. They are the leaders of the great volume housebuilders. The heads of Barratt, Wimpey …"
Adam, naturally, takes a contrarian position: "I have a more complex view about this. It's a market view. Housebuilders actually don't give a stuff about style. They'd build anything. They just take a market view." When de Botton says the power is still in the housebuilders' hands, Adam contradicts him: "I don't think it's true. I don't think they command the market. I think the market commands them."
To fight what he sees as a conservative architecture, de Botton does not hesitate to employ his favourite pronoun: "An ideal thing would be an enlightened government, governed by ‘we'. We'd be like CABE having a say in certain decisions."
But what about the argument that what people really want is Tudorbethan semis? De Botton has a robust, if paternalistic, answer …
"I think it's important to retain the view that some people will have bad taste and they do need to be edged towards good taste. Now this is such a dangerous point that teases on the edge of snobbery and elitism and fascism but I am hanging on to this slippery slope and I am trying to make a home for myself on the slope because I think it's compatible to believe in democracy and at the same time to say actually there is such a thing as vulgar taste, there is such a thing as bad taste, there is such a thing as ignorant taste and one can educate people. And the capacity to be educated, to be open to education, is a very important one."
Before departing, the writer quizzes the architect on how he deals with clients who have vulgar taste. "You try to steer them towards something you think is good," says Adam. "If they're unsophisticated - let's put it that way, unsophisticated in terms of taste - they are not going to be very sophisticated in judging what you give them either."
He adds: "I have a client at the moment who has gradually got more educated as time goes on, which is quite encouraging."
"Under your tutelage?" de Botton mischievously wonders, well aware he has been given quite a lesson himself.
Some people have bad taste and they do need to be edged towards good taste. Now this teases on the edge of snobbery and elitism and fascism
Alain de Botton
Adam’s commitment to the classical tradition is exemplified by his work on the Sackler Library in Oxford, the Wakeham solar house in West Sussex and the Crux Easton house in Hampshire. Born in 1948, a scholar and designer of what he calls “traditional and progressive classical architecture”, Adam is a director at Winchester-based Robert Adam Architects. One of his latest projects was the masterplan for the Edinburgh Forthside waterfront development.
Although considered an old-school traditionalist, he says: “I’m always worried by Establishment views, even if people think I am a member of the Establishment. There is Establishment and Establishment …” And then there’s his admission that he’d rather eat at McDonald’s than in a fancy sandwich chain.
Alain de Botton
Born in Switzerland in 1969, Alain de Botton moved to England when he was eight. He is the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, The Art of Travel and Status Anxiety, books that have led to him being described as a pop philosopher in some quarters. Others, however, have taken his contributions more seriously. The French government made him a chevalier of the order of arts and letters in 2003, one of the country’s highest artistic honours. His passion for architecture, he says, comes from growing up in Switzerland where civic and domestic design is generally excellent. He had a shock when he moved to the UK and was faced with the low quality of what’s built here. He says: “When describing what I see as better architecture, I am generally expressing a nostalgia for my childhood country.”
Will de Botton’s book change your life?
In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton tries to find out what makes a good building, using well-known architectural examples, the history of architectural movements, personal memories and artistic theories from the usual suspects: Ruskin, Schiller, Wilde and Goethe.
Describing the 18th-century ceiling of Kenwood House, the neoclassical building on Hampstead Heath, he says: “The ceiling is a repository of the qualities man would like to have more of in himself: it manages to be both playful and serious, subtle and clear, formal and unpretentious.”
The same aspiration seems to apply to this book. As a teller of architectural anecdotes, de Botton is engaging because he can write lighthearted prose. The book is elegantly illustrated and the author’s concern with the kind of buildings our generation will leave to posterity comes across as genuine and carefully thought through.
However, some of his psychological analysis of buildings sounds clichéd. Take this: “Not only do beautiful houses falter as guarantors of happiness, they can also be accused of failing to improve the characters of those who live in them.”
The book may appeal to Wallpaper* readers more than the committed architecture geek – although one of the most entertaining anecdotes on Le Corbusier was unknown even to our very learned architectural editor.
De Botton relates how the great man’s wealthy clients for Villa Savoye in France wanted to sue him because the house roof was leaking and their son caught pneumonia. What is considered a landmark of modernism was actually an uninhabitable home. The architect was saved from a potentially ruinous trial by the Second World War.
The Architecture of Happiness is available this month from Hamish Hamilton, £17.99. A television show called The Perfect Home presented by de Botton will be broadcast on Channel 4 on 6 May.
De Botton will deliver the RIBA Trust annual lecture, entitled The Question of Beauty in Architecture, on 25 April at the RIBA in London.