Wabi Concrete Box

I was recently reminded of the writings of Alain de Botton by a friend, so I decided to pick up The Architecture of Happiness. What I found was a well-written exploration of Western architectural history, and a severely disappointing lack of imagination.

De Botton writes eloquently about the various architectural trends and styles that have characterised Western cultures for the last few hundred years. His exploration of modernism, and his description of them as being just as ideologically motivated as previous trends, was particularly enjoyable. However, when he attempts to make any statement about the role of architecture in our society, and its connection to the land, he displays a real narrowness of thought that seems below him.

I would understand if the scope of the book were too narrow for a broader set of ideas to really be explored; it's a short book. But to not even hint at the existence of a broader horizon is a real shame.

A journey of aesthetic education

We are introduced in the closing chapter of the book, The Promise of a Field, to a piece of land that a developer has set its eyes on. De Botton's summary of the corporate approach to housing rings true:

Ask the property development company what sort of houses will go up on the doomed field, and you'll be sent a waxy marketing brochure showing five different house types, each named after an English monarch. The Elizabeth II boasts chrome door handles and a stainless-steel oven; the George V has a fibreglass-beamed dining room and a Neo-Arts and Crafts roof; and the Henry VIII is, inevitably, a Neo-Tudor loyalist.

If, after browsing through the elegant presentation material, we still felt inclined to question the appearance of these buildings, the property developer would almost certainly retaliate with a familiar and apparently invincible argument: such houses have always sold rapidly and in great quantities. We would be sternly reminded that to scorn their designs would therefore be to ignore commercial logic and attempt to deny others a democratic right to their own tastes, bringing us into conflict with two of the great authoritative concepts of our civilisation, money and liberty.

This might have led to a mention of the problems with the developer-centric model of housing development, the corporatist economies most Western nations find themselves mired in, or the poverty of our relationship to the land. But instead, de Botton focuses on the construction of the individual houses.

Despite the technological abilities of our modern age, de Botton percieves that we lack a certain genius which might direct those capabilities to create things of beauty. We settle instead for estates of the same cookie-cutter houses, unimaginatively arrayed in endless suburbs. "Our cranes, diggers, quick-drying concrete and welding machines", he laments, "leave us with nothing to blame but our own incompetence."

At this point the author takes us on a brief detour into a foreign concept of beauty:

A word emerged, wabi, of which no Western language, tellingly, has a direct equivalent, which identified beauty with unpretentious, simple, unfinished, transient things. There was wabi to be enjoyed in an evening spent alone in a cottage in the woods hearing the rain fall. There was wabi in old ill-matching sets of crockery, in plain buckets, in walls with blemishes, and in rough, weathered stones covered in moss and lichen. The most wabi colours were grey, black and brown.

It's a beautiful idea (whether or not you agree with his interpretation of this element of Japanese culture). But the revolution arrives when ordinary folk are educated enough to truly appreciate this delicate, intellectual kind of beauty:

After being properly introduced to the true range of architecture, the prospective buyers of a red-brick, Neo-Tudor house might look beyond their original wish. A few might even surprise themselves by registering an interest in a raw wabi-looking concrete box, to whose virtues they had, through a journey of aesthetic education, been led to feel newly sensitive.

I don't think de Botton is suggesting that his concept of wabi is somehow more evolved than current tastes, necessarily. Or that it is the ultimate pinnacle to which all tastes will aspire, resulting in fields of wabi concrete boxes. He seems to be suggesting, charitably interpreted, that we lack a more sensitive appreciation for architecture, which if cultivated would increase the diversity of styles and choices we see around us. With this I heartily agree.

However, the close of this chapter, and the book as a whole, spectacularly fails to make good on that optimistic vision.

What we owe to the worms

The field, so full of promise, has been spared the indignity of being buried by red-brick Neo-Tudor abominations, thanks to our collective journey of aesthetic education. The field is now the foundation for a plethora of houses of different styles and sensibilities, all with their own beauty, each appreciated by the cultured architectural minds of its owners.

The field, de Botton imagines, will rejoice! Stripped of its natural covering, friendless for lack of bees and foxes, stung by the surgery that inserted pipes and cables and drainage, and starved of sunlight -- the land rejoices, for being host to such beauty is its own reward.

When bands of workmen arrived to sketch out the crescents of Bath or Edinburgh's New Town, as they cut their way through brambles and hammered measuring ropes into the earth, few tears would have been shed at the impending destruction.

... what was planned in their place was expected to provide more than adequate compensation. There was a fitting alternative to a field of daisies in St James's Square, there was beauty of a type to which even a tree could not aspire in Carlton Hill, there was serenity such as no stream could match in the Royal Crescent.

The final words of the book echo ominously, as if against the insides of a featureless concrete cube:

We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.

Will the highest kinds of happiness really come from concreting over the earth in the name of aesthetics? If we truly believed we owed the land anything at all, would this be our response to it?

The larger context of life on earth

The work of Christopher Alexander provides a refreshing antidote to de Botton's parochial focus on aesthetics. The architect-philosopher is famous for his monumental handbook A Pattern Language, and infamous for a heated 1982 debate with starchitect Peter Eisenman. ("If you were an unimportant person, I would feel quite comfortable letting you go your own way. But the fact is that people who believe as you do are really fucking up the whole profession of architecture right now by propagating these beliefs." 😮)

Contrast de Botton's approach to the land with this description of a housing project Alexander was involved with:

The first thing I did when I visited was to spend a day walking about on the land. The director/originator of the project, to my astonishment, said he had never walked about on the land before to that extent. It’s not a very big bit of land. He was amazed by what I pointed out that needed to be protected and repaired. Every few hundred feet, I’d talk about that in detail. I said a proper plan, that has respect for the earth and nature, needs to weave what is built into what must be protected in the land itself. He acquiesced completely with his lips and in his actions did nothing about it – forgot about it virtually as soon as it had been discussed.

This, from an interview with Alexander on the subject of sustainability, is a shocking departure from the way business is done currently, and from any idea we find in de Botton's offering.

Well, one of the first things that I did when I was invited to Fairview was to meet with a group of people who were excited about being part of such an important, genuinely sustainable thing.
We had an evening together. I explained what it was like to build houses so that they had a real relationship to one another and to the land they were on, and how I would do that by working with them, in small groups and individually, to place each house with care. The emerging neighborhood they themselves would essentially fashion by walking on the land and choosing spots. Some of them were very moved by this approach, which was then presented to the hierarchy of this organization, who again ignored it completely. ... What I was talking about was a form of organization of construction where people had the ability to find their spot on the land the way a cat finds its spot in a room when it wants to go to sleep.

Only by incorporating more factors into decision making (and therefore into the economic structures within which decisions are made) can we arrive at decisions that produce sustainable outcomes. This idea is echoed in a more limited way in the advice of pattern 104 in A Pattern Language, "Site Repair":

Buildings must always be built on those parts of the land which are in the worst condition, not the best.

The rationale for this advice comes from a logic that cannot be understood simply by looking at the aesthetics of buildings (even if following this advice improves the aesthetics of buildings). It comes from a logic that considers a world, an ecology, much greater than the building:

I’ve got absolutely no doubt that the real issues of sustainability cannot be dealt with except in the framework of a view of land, people, individual, animal, plant as a reflection of the underlying “I”.

Missing perspectives

Having read Dark Emu last year, I can confidently say that I know approximately 0% of what I should know about the culture and traditions of Australia's indigenous peoples.

I believe that any genuinely sustainable approach to construction on the land should consider both the social relations it has with the traditional owners of that land, but also the experience they built up over millennia of successfully managing it.

Alexander's thought aligns with many of the attitudes I have heard from indigenous leaders in Australia and overseas. Instead of imagining that the land will celebrate our destruction of it, it seems more common for indigenous peoples to understand the land as having its own value, and our interdependence on it for our own survival.

Wabi concrete box

We cannot have the revolution in taste that de Botton hopes for without breaking the elistist/corporatist capital mode of construction. People's attitudes to the land they live and work on will not change unless the structure of the market changes to allow genuine ownership and relationship.

Alexander says later in the same interview:

This is a social revolution because it creates genuine fibers of connection between people, human groups, community and the land.

That wabi concrete box will not exist in a vacuum. It will be part of an ecology of earth, land, neighbours, social structures and regulation. It cannot ignore any of them if it is to have the chance to exist, to survive, and to thrive.


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