The lines of beauty

 

The philosopher Alain de Botton has turned his attention to architecture. The result is a series of holiday homes that should give their renters a lift, writes GEMMA TIPTON

CLOSE YOUR EYES and imagine your ideal holiday home in the countryside. Is it a thatched cottage? A Regency hunting lodge? Maybe it’s a geranium-festooned bungalow with sunburst gates. I’m only assuming the latter because we have so many of them in our countryside that they have to be someone’s idea of the ideal place to be. Whatever you have been thinking of, it’s unlikely to be a huge open-plan space, cantilevered over a sheer drop, with a glass floor, and clad in shiny steel. Look at Living Architecture, the brainchild of the philosopher Alain de Botton, and that may change.

So why is a philosopher building houses? And how much does our environment change the way we think and feel about life? For de Botton, who has come to public attention with such books as The Consolations of Philosophy and How Proust Can Change Your Life, which accessibly apply the wisdom of philosophers to the day-to-day problems of living, architecture is a fundamental ingredient of both happiness and misery.

Born in Switzerland, de Botton grew up in a modernist apartment in Zurich before his father, a banker who was both an art collector and a philanthropist, moved the family to Britain and into a “postwar 18th-century pastiche house. . . I remember thinking that this country is horrible, and one of the reasons it’s horrible is because they build this sort of thing.” A 2006 book and television programme, The Architecture of Happiness, led de Botton to consider the issue more deeply and to investigate how and why our surroundings are able to influence and inflect mood, feeling, even thought, so profoundly.

“Some writers say that they are writers and don’t do anything else,” he has said. “I’m interested in ideas and changing things, and my books have been about that. But as a writer you do always wonder about your relevance.” The Living Architecture project, de Botton’s latest essay in relevance, has been conceived as a contemporary version of the Landmark Trust, the group that rescues and restores old buildings and lets them out for self-catering holidays. Three Living Architecture houses are already up and running across England, with plans to add a new one each year. Sleeping eight to 10 people, they cost from about £1,400 (€1,675) a week in low season to £3,000 (€3,575) in high.

The first house, the Balancing Barn in Suffolk, on the east coast of England, was designed by the Dutch firm MVRDV, and it is an architect’s fantasy home. Guest reports since it opened last year have been uniformly positive, proving that the weird and wonderful can also be eminently liveable. Of course, the kind of people attracted to Living Architecture holidays will most likely be converted to the modernist cause already, which also raises the question of whether architectural taste is also an issue of wealth and possibly class.

“Definitely not,” says de Botton. “Living Architecture is all about making good design accessible to all. Just as good food, education or clothes shouldn’t be for the rich only, nor should architecture. We’re about democratising modern design.” I ask him why architectural debates tend to become so polarised, for example in the UK, between those in the Prince Charles camp, where the new is to be feared and loathed, and those championing what often seems to be attention-seeking design, and innovation for innovation’s sake. “There has been some really terrible modern stuff,” says de Botton, “which has put many people off the whole movement. So it’s a case of reminding people that amidst the horrors there are some brilliantly talented architects, whose work you can now enjoy first hand.”

Part of the reason for these horrors was the postwar building boom, which saw the necessity of getting buildings up as quickly and as cheaply as possible; the results were not necessarily intended to be more than stopgaps. There is also the issue of nostalgia: it seems to be part of the human condition to believe that the past was always a better place. De Botton’s nostalgia is for the modernism of his childhood in Switzerland. “The world is changing so fast,” he says. “People cling to what is ‘old’ and familiar. But the point we make is that we need to learn to make ourselves at home in the modern world.”

Another reason to update our ideas of the architectural vernacular is that our lives have changed. Dining rooms and “good rooms” are less necessary, and kitchens are now where we do most of our living. Our concepts of space have also altered, and the traditional Irish cottage, built for shelter and warmth, with small windows, tucked out of the winds, is a charming testament to a former set of necessities. Nowadays, says de Botton, “we crave space; we want wide open spaces to appease our cluttered minds. We don’t want poky rooms; we need light and clarity.”

The second Living Architecture building to come on stream, by the Norwegian firm Jarmund/Vigsnaes Architects, is the Dune House, also in Suffolk. Here there are the more familiar shapes of pitched roofs, but it is as if the whole house has been lifted and set on a glass box. The living rooms are bright and open, with stunning views across the beach and sea, while the bedrooms are more enclosed and cosy. “Good architecture,” says de Botton, almost in explanation, “is a funny mixture of intelligence, elegance and appropriateness. It’s about knowing what to leave out and when to allow yourself some play and fancy. It’s about translating goodness into matter.”

This question of goodness is an interesting one, because we do seem, as humans, to have a tendency to equate aesthetics with ethics, finding it harder to believe that beautiful people can do bad things than ugly ones. Describing a correlation between beauty and goodness is one of philosophy’s impossible tasks, yet de Botton insists on the role that aesthetics and beauty have in life. They “have a huge role to play in altering our mood. When we call a chair or a house beautiful, really what we’re saying is that we like the way of life it’s suggesting to us. It has an attitude we’re attracted to: if it was magically turned into a person, we’d like who it was . . . We’re highly vulnerable to the coded messages that emanate from our surroundings. This helps to explain our passionate feelings towards matters of architecture and home decoration: these things help to decide who we are”. He agrees that it is all too possible to be miserable in the midst of fabulous architecture. “Witness the dissatisfactions that can unfold even in idyllic surroundings. One might say that architecture suggests a mood to us, which we may be too internally troubled to be able to take up.”

Thinking about this suggestion of moods through architecture, and our current national feelings of gloom, I remember another de Botton line – that we are not internally robust enough to be left untouched by our environment – and I wonder what he thinks of our architectural landscape in this country, having visited both for work and holidays many times.

“Bits of Ireland have been really spoiled, but it’s a beautiful country, and the architecture is getting so good. There are some world-class Irish firms, and the bungalow era is passing. The country is resilient – its natural beauty will overcome the odd nasty bungalow – and, with time, people’s taste will improve, as it has done with food. It’s not about class; it’s about education. . . in terms of thinking more deeply about what looks good.”

If looking good is all about feeling good, a holiday in Living Architecture could be just what the psychologist, as well as the philosopher, ordered.

Holidays in modernism

Want to holiday in the modernist dream in Ireland? You have a few options.

  • Number 31Off Leeson Street in Dublin, this was the fantasy home of Wood Quay architect Sam Stephenson. Now a guest house, it’s a Bond-villain pad of a place. See number31.ie.
  • Bothar BuiThe holiday home of the architect Robin Walker, of Scott Tallon Walker, on the Beara Peninsula, takes original stone farm buildings, and mixes in seductive modernist structures. Available for short lets. Sleeps 10. See sarahwalker.ie.
  • Castlepark holiday villageBuilt in Kinsale in the 1970s by Diamond Redfern & Anderson architects, these are an updating of the Irish cottage in a beautiful seaside setting. See seasiderentalsireland.com.

See living-architecture.co.uk. Irish Landmark Trust properties are available to rent through irishlandmark.com