Can a Building Make You Happy?

A new book examines architecture’s influence on your soul.


The most widely discussed design book published last year was The Architecture of Happiness, a meditation on beauty and well-being by the British writer Alain de Botton.

Kaufmann Residence

Great buildings, he wrote, are like mirrors that reflect our greatest aspirations and “speak of visions of happiness.” Thus a Gothic arch pleases our inner selves by conveying “ardor and intensity” and Richard Neutra’s early modern homes in California, like the Kauffmann house (above) express “honesty and ease…a lack of inhibition and a faith in the future.” In other words, architecture pleases us by expressing how we feel.

Palladio Rotonda

This, of course, is what classicism was about. Vitruvius, and later Palladio, believed that people and society would be enriched by following the ideals of symmetry and proportion.

building happiness

Can a building really make a profound psychological difference? Can it lead to anything more than the same passing pleasure you might get from, say, a sunset? Probably not. At least that’s the consensus found in Building Happiness, a new collection of essays by Richard Rogers, Will Alsop, and other British creative types edited by Jane Wernick. The book results from a study called Building Futures on what influences happiness and whether it can be designed into a place.

burrell museum

Asked to name their favorite places, the contributors cited, among other things, a power station, a house by by Luis Barragán, and the Burrell Museum in Glasgow (above). Having made their picks, many of the essayists debunk the idea that design influences our psychology in any lasting way, except in those cases, like the most felicitous dormitories and office buildings, where architecture encourages a sociable mingling of residents.

villa savoye

Is a building more likely to make us happy if it functions well? Not necessarily. As Julia Galef recently pointed out, Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier’s masterpiece, leaked prolifically, and it was deemed “uninhabitable” by the couple who lived there.

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