Visions of happiness: Evaluating and valuing urban architecture

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What is beauty?

For centuries, artists and thinkers replied to this question with new representations and theories of beauty, or aesthetics.

In the post-modern period, the search for beauty was lost as questions of value were abandoned; who could purport to know what was objectively beautiful, good, or true, when all perspectives were equally subjective, equally valid?

But just as post-modernism failed to provide any way forward philosophically, it has left our physical spaces impoverished, as architecture was displaced by engineering, artistry severed from technology. In many architectural circles, simply mentioning the word aesthetics in relation to a building is considered a faux pas. If the building works, if it is “efficient,” who cares what it looks like?

Looking at the rows of strip malls that wind across our country, or at the high schools that bear a strong resemblance to prisons (unsurprisingly, many schools are built by architects who typically design prisons), there can be little doubt that the question of aesthetics is as relevant today as it was in ancient Greece.

Although aesthetics has become anathema in architecture circles, discussions about the beauty of buildings can regain its legitimacy through reframing conceptions of beauty.

Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton argues that our physical space produces certain emotional responses in us, and how we design our buildings can shape who we are, what we value, what we think about, and who we become.

In his book, “The Architecture of Happiness,” de Botton contrasts the inside of a McDonald’s in London during a sudden downpour with the interior of Westminster Cathedral across the plaza on the same day.

Confronted with several customers eating alone, harsh lighting, the sound of frozen fries descending into hot oil, and frenzied counter staff, de Botton notes that “the restaurant’s true talent lay in the generation of anxiety.” By contrast, inside the cathedral “…the anonymity of the street had here been subsumed by a peculiar kind of intimacy. Everything serious in human nature seemed to be called to the surface: thoughts about limits and infinity, about powerlessness and sublimity.”

De Botton employs this anecdote to demonstrate how physical space and architecture produce emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual responses and argues that by interpreting the speech of the physical world, we can better choose which values we want a building to communicate.

“Buildings are not simply visual objects without any connection to concepts which we can analyse and then evaluate,” de Botton writes. “Buildings speak – and on topics which can readily be discerned. They speak of democracy or aristocracy, openness or arrogance, welcome or threat, sympathy for the future or a hankering for the past.”

“In essence, what works of design and architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them…they speak of visions of happiness.”

In his TED talk, “How bad architecture wrecked cities,” author and social critic James Kunstler also asserts that buildings speak: “Your ability to create places that are meaningful and places of quality and character depends entirely on your ability to define space with buildings, and to employ the vocabularies, grammars, syntaxes, rhythms and patterns of architecture in order to inform us who we are.”

For Kunstler, the “The public realm has to inform us not only where we are geographically, but it has to inform us where we are in our culture – where we’ve come from, what kind of people we are, and by doing that, it needs to afford us a glimpse of where we’re going in order to allow us to dwell in a hopeful present.”

One government building that particularly rankles Kunstler is Boston’s City Hall Plaza. Kunstler calls it “probably the most significant public space failure,” adding, “there’s not enough Prozac in the world to make people feel ok about going down this block,” referring to the back of the City Hall Plaza.

Writing for the American Enterprise Institute, philosopher Roger Scruton agrees that City Hall Plaza leaves much to be desired, but he counters this with the success of one of Boston’s other building projects: Faneuil Hall.

“The first aesthetic success is like the broken window, though working in the opposition direction: just as failure breeds failure, success breeds success. This we have seen in Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which has brought people back to the city center, to some extent undoing the destructive work of the modernist Boston City Hall next door.”

As Boston enters a new period of growth and building, the question of what to build must involve questions of what kind of city we want to become, what kind of people we want to be- will Boston build to capitalize on its status as one of the oldest cities in America, or to emphasize its place as a home to start-ups and innovation, or some fusion of the two?

Will we build government buildings that are open and inviting, public spaces where people from different arenas of Boston’s professional and political worlds can meet?

As city branding becomes ever more important in attracting talent, Boston’s buildings must speak coherently of a certain vision of happiness. What that vision will be has yet to be determined.

Lizzie Short

Lizzie Short

Lizzie Short is a Classics and history scholar, theater lover and writer from the Boston area. Read her past columns and articles here.