One always finds something unexpected in a book by Alain de Botton. When he describes architecture and interior design as appeals to our hunger for beauty, he tells us nothing that the magazines and billboards don’t argue everyday. But when he suggests that “the buildings we admire are ultimately those which, in a vairety of ways, extol values we think worthwhile”, he prompts us to consider how we assert our values through consumption.
The perfectly ordered home- the one in which every object is carefully stored and organized- suits the psychology of modern man who refuses to leave any nook or cranny of the cranium unexamined or unexplained. Ironically, it is this type of mind which is most unsuited to the artist, whose mess and disarray signal the act of participation in the creation of something meaningful. Do we clean our homes to hide the chaos inside? Alain de Botton takes a page to thank the aesthetes, “those eccentric figures who must watch over their houses with the vigilance of museum guards, patrolling their rooms in search of stains, a damp cloth or a sponge in hand”.
Aesthetes will have no choice but to forgo the company of small children and, during dinner with friends, will have to ignore the conversation in order to focus on whether someone might lean back and inadvertently leave a head-shaped imprint on the wall.
It would be pleasant to refuse in a muscular spirit to lend stray blemishes significance. However, aesthetes force us to consider whether happiness may not sometimes turn on the presence or absence of a fingerprint, whether in certain situations beauty and ugliness may not lie only a few millimetres apart, whether a single mark might not wreck a wall or an errant brushstroke undo a landscape painting. We should thank these sensitive spirits for pointing us with theatrical honesty towards the possibility of a genuine antithesis between competing values: for example, an attachment to beautiful architecture and the pursuit of an exuberant and affectionate family life.
Dear friends and family, that pile of books and miscellany stacked in the corner promises me that I am welcome in your home- welcome to breathe and live and exist in all my mischief and verbosity. Don’t apologize for your messes; this suggests you think I am the sort of person who judges others by such things (which I don’t). On the other hand, your immaculate, polish-perfect home stuns and impresses me- “how can something in which people live remain so pristine”?- and I will surely search for a spot of muddle in which I can comfortably sit given that I feel bad upon entering such a museum without having purchased a ticket.
Alain sums it best: “How wise were the ancient philosophers in suggesting that we exclude from our vision of contentment anything that might one day be covered by lava or blow down in a hurricane, sucuumb to a chocolate smear or absorb a wine stain.” Perfection is an ideal for which we may hope and dream- but never covet. Have we abandoned the corset for the miseries of other bindings just as grotesque?
An excerpt from de Botton’s book
Video segments from the documentary
Audio from book on topic of “Coherence”
The Living Architecture Project prompted by Alain