Exploring the architecture of Alain de Botton

Austin Williams | 25 January 2011

Billy Butlin, the funfair impresario, opened his first holiday camp in Skegness in 1936 offering high-quality breaks at relatively low prices. Seventy-five years later and Living Architecture (LA), Alain de Botton’s not-for-profit social enterprise is also developing seaside holiday homes on the south-east coast. Cheap they aren’t. For example, his Dune House, designed by Norwegian architects JVA will cost £2,990 for a long weekend in peak season; but then again, a seven night stay at the brand new Butlins Margate costs £1,440 for a family of four these days.

Living Architecture’s completed schemes include MDRDV’s Balancing Barn in Suffolk and The Shingle House in Dungeness by NORD Architects (how long are they going to use the “Young Architect of the Year” moniker from 2006?). Across the Wash in the village of Cockthorpe, Sir Michael and Lady Patty Hopkins’ design for the north Norfolk coast, is entitled The Long House, and is due for completion later this year. All of these projects provide a modern, relaxed setting where groups of the uninitiated can finally realise how nice ‘nice’ architecture is.

Actually, Alain de Botton is a man on a mission. He is driven by a desire to challenge the British public’s dislike – or “their fear” as he puts it – of Modern Architecture. He claims that for too long “modern architecture has, to some extent, traumatised the UK population.”

Really? Hasn’t de Botton’s alter ego, Kevin McCloud been putting modern, domestic glass boxes on our screens for almost ten years without any ill-effects on the nation’s psyche? In his interview with Patty Hopkins, she tells de Botton that “people find modern spaces very exciting”. And a recent V&A exhibition emphasised that every corner of life in Britain has been shaped by Modernism: “The buildings we inhabit, the chairs we sit on, the graphic design that surrounds us have all been created by the aesthetics and the ideology of Modernist design”.

“What would you say to people who are frightened by modernity?” he asks Norman Foster, who replies: “I think there are more people excited (by it) than those who are not”. A lesser mortal might question his own thesis.

In truth, it is Alain who is troubled by these associations. When he was a child, his family moved from a modern Swiss apartment to a British suburban semi. Young Alain became depressed and blamed his faux-Georgian surroundings. He never got over it and Living Architecture is his personal therapy session to exorcise his childhood torment by recreating the modern architecture of his memories. His gift to Britain is to offer the public a desensitisation therapy using steel, glass and er… shingles so that we can all learn to love the ‘new’. He wants to save us from the savage hopelessness of the brick British bungalow.

In some ways, de Botton is the Jeremy Clarkson of architecture. Where Clarkson flaunts Ferraris to Cortina-driving viewers in order to give them something to marvel at and aspire to, de Botton wants us to look at his Top Gear silver machines and lust for a better life. He knows that we’re never going to own one and most of us aren’t going to see the real thing, let alone sit in one, but so what. He says: “it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us, who we might ideally be”. It’s architecture to make you feel better, and, some might say, what’s wrong with that? Unfortunately, therapeutic architecture is not the real thing. Just as Rorschach inkblot tests are not really art, Living Architecture creates interesting, well-designed but self-regarding follies (although Zumthor’s proposal seems qualitatively better).”

There is something peculiarly self-referential about these buildings (which is possibly unavoidable with a single-minded creative director). In “The Art of Travel”, he quotes Ruskin favourably saying that places strike us as beautiful not on the basis of aesthetic criteria… but on the basis of psychological criteria, because they embody a value or mood of importance to us. De Botton’s modern interpretation plays into accepted social policy agendas, where architecture has to deliver the “right response.” Are you unhappy or unsuccessful? Blame your surroundings. Has he never heard of people being miserable in a nice house; or is that not allowed? What if people stay in his holiday homes and hate it, should he be sued?

Actually, de Botton is the 21st century zeitgeist. RIBA Gold Medal Winner, David Chipperfield too notes that “architecture provides a sense of place in an increasingly confusing world”. De Botton is also driven by a frustration, rather than a celebration of modernity.

De Botton’s latest project – a huge boat-shaped, one-roomed structure designed by David Kohn Architects and artist Fiona Banner – will be symbolically stranded on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall as if shipwrecked by a global warming tsunami. Kohn and Banner say that it is a “place to reflect on the nature of transcience”. De Botton calls it “a place of refuge and reflection”, which tends to imply introspection and paranoia. Why else create a series of coastal retreats.

In the same way that de Botton wants to raise the profile of modern design by commissioning “the best of contemporary architecture”, Martin Parr’s photographs remind us of Skeggy’s impressive art deco poolside building in the Fifites. More tellingly perhaps, de Botton is the author of a rather dour book called “The Architecture of Happiness”. Billy Butlin preferred the slogan “Holidays are Jollidays.”

This article first appeared in Blueprint


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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