architecture and happiness

I have just begun reading a book that helps me bring together the two blogs I write. Yes, I have another blog. Even if you’ve been reading me here at this one for nearly a year, you many have never known about the other. I’ve not mentioned it because it didn’t seem to be obviously philosophical. Also, it has been so tempestuous, creating so much heat in the neighborhood about issues that we care deeply about and also disagree — that I had to all but close it down. I barely write there any more. It’s just too fraught.

The book I’m reading is Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness.

The other blog is Hollin Hills Talks, about the midcentury modern neighborhood I live in just south of Washington, DC. I try to explain to friends who don’t live here what it means, and the best I can do is say, if there were a god, this is the kind of neighborhood he would create. The buildings are simple and in harmony with nature; they sit in the land, not on the land; they are sited to the topography, not the street; the aesthetics and design guidelines respect the “borrowed vistas” that we see when looking across and through the land. It’s like living in a park, and in fact we even have park lands we preserve and open to the public.

But mostly, within the houses, there is just sheer simple beauty. Reading in my living room makes me infinitely happier than reading at my desk on campus. There are few walls; there are mostly windows that look out on to overgrowths of trees and azaleas. The walls are white, the materials organic and curved just so. The balance of objects, books, and furniture strikes a good chord within. It is hard to distinguish inside from outside because the outside pours in through all the windows, yet the outside is always framed, not raw, through the rhythmic placing of juxtaposed, floor-to-ceiling window frames.

Our houses are in the suburbs, but drastically different from the other suburbs just over the neighborhood line. They have manicured lawns with shrubs surrounding their houses; we have legions of ivy and canopies of trees.

To get a sense of all this, look at Juliana Sohn’s photos that she took for Wallpaper magazine last March. Notice that the houses are simple, not out of reach, but somehow deeply pleasing. At least to me with my modernist sensibility. I know others are deeply moved by other styles: art deco, victorian, classical, kitsch, arts & crafts. All have their beauty. Each of us may find that one style speaks to us more than others.

So read Alain de Botton’s book. (And notice how beautiful the book itself is — the paper, the size, the art.) Think about your environment as something that meaningfully extends and speaks to who you are.

But beware that in going there you may start to find that your built environment becomes as fraught as mine, because the more connected we become the more important it is, the more at stake we have there, and the more likely we are to get in heated discussions with our neighbors. All because we suddenly find that our deep concerns extend to the houses we live in.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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