De Botton's Text Essay

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¶ … Architecture of Happiness: Why Ideals Change

Alain de Botton asks the very apt question in his text, the Architecture of Happiness, why it is that society constantly has shifting values about what it finds beautiful, positing this question, very simply: "Why do we change our minds about what we find beautiful?" (154) This is an important question as De Botton demonstrates that what we consider to be aesthetically pleasing swings from polarities which are difficult to predict, and which are subject to the influences of time: "Precedent forces us to suppose that later generations will one day walk around our houses with the same attitude of horror and amusement with which we now consider many of the possessions of the dead. They will marvel at our wallpaper and our sofas and laugh at aesthetic crimes to which we are impervious. This awareness can lend to our affections a fragile, nervous quality" (154). This is entirely accurate, and part of the reason that De Botton explains that architects truly scrutinize and agonize over their designs, precisely so they have the assurance that their designs will stand the test of time. When something has withstood the test of time, it almost always seems in good taste or in fashion and is never an eyesore. For example, some say that Georgian architecture is a classic type which has done precisely this (Spencer-Churchill, 40); others offer London's controversial Centre Point development as a modern example of something that has also succeeded in this regard (Sebestye & Pollington, 50).

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With architecture, the stakes of design are so much higher than with fashion or interiors. Architects create buildings that are larger than life, that can't be shoved to the back of a closet like a hideous dress and which can't be painted over like an ugly color scheme. Architecture can be overwhelming and often exudes a palpable sense of permanence. it's no wonder, as De Botton eloquently points out, that architects really scramble to create pieces that will be considered timeless and not become eyesores or laughingstocks to later generations (154).

Essay on De Botton's Text Assignment

De Botton then plunges into an analysis of what design generally means to society without explaining why this necessary, instinctual transition has been made. De Botton is apt indeed, knowing that before one can understand why tastes change, one needs to understand how society gravitates to particular tastes and styles as a reflection of their time. De Botton refers to the work of Worringer who developed a theory about society and art, stating essentially: "The determinant lay, he believed, in those values which the society in question was lacking, for it would love in art whatever it did not possess in sufficient supply within itself. Abstract art, infused as it was with harmony, stillness and rhythm, would appeal chiefly to societies yearning for calm -- societies in which law and order were fraying, ideologies were shifting, and a sense of moral danger was compounded by moral and spiritual confusion" (155). This theory makes perfect logical sense and can clearly explain human nature, both individual and collective. In fact, this theory can be clearly seen in romantic relationships, as human beings often seek out a partner who possesses all the qualities that one lacks in oneself, drumming up the theory that opposites attract. Buildings actually don't begin with a blueprint; rather they start with an expectation (Craven); often tangled up in that expectation is a marrying of opposites.

A contemporary aspect of this as it occurs and has for many decades in pop culture is via the work of Tim Burton. While some might argue that Burton is a director first and a not a designer, one needs to remember that he first started as an animator at Disney and that all of his films are imbued with the same, dark, subversive, gothic style that suggests Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Corman and comic books (Winter & Hughes, 70). Tim Burton grew up in the squeaky clean suburbs of Burbank, CA, a place where the lawns were manicured and the houses were pastel and where this starkness and lack of originality fostered his dark creative genius: "Suburban banality rubs against the gothic exotic in Beetle Juice (1988) Edward Scissorhands (1990) Ed Wood (1994) and Big Fish (2003). The typical Burton hero is a misunderstood misfit who strays between these two worlds: child-man Pee-Wee Herman; Edward Scissorhands, a teenager cut off from the world by his destructive/creative blade-fingers; neurotic crime fighter Batman…" (Winter & Hughes, 70). One could argue that without the banality and conformity of Burton's surrounding environment and growing up in the pristine suburbs of Burbank coupled with deafening lack of creativity and imagination were precisely the type of scarcity that compelled and fostered Burton's unique style. The macabre and ghoulish appealed to a mind that was surrounded by the opposite and yearned for more.

This is a dynamic that De Botton illuminates in his theory: "But in societies that had achieved high standards of internal and external order, so that life therein had come to seem predictable and overly secure, an opposing hunger would emerge: citizens would long to escape from the suffocating grasp of routine and predictability -- and would turn to realistic art to quench their psychic thirst and reacquaint themselves with an elusive intensity of feeling" (155). The phenomenon describes the situation in which Burton's distinct creative style emerged and the propensity that draws audiences in to watching his often gloomy and ghoulish films. For example, one can argue that it's the attraction of opposites that makes people want to leave their safe, secure, clean and predictable middle class homes to watch a film about a corpse bride whose eyeball pops out from time to time and whose body is infested by a maggot, as Burton illustrated in the film Corpse Bride and dozens others. Suburbia estranged Burton (Boyars); one wonders if Burton's genius would've emerged in just the same way without that feeling he had growing up.

A more traditional example of this phenomenon is the emergence of Art Deco architecture and design style in history. Famed American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that this style was shaped by and a reaction to, "all the nervous energy stored up and expended in the War" (Bennett, 2011). One can argue that in the 1920s and 1930s this style of architecture was so appealing to American culture because it signaled a reprieve from the austerity imposed by World War One. The rationing of food and supplies was over; men were back in the homestead. A great sense of safety and security abounded throughout human day-to-day life, not to mention a triumph for American troops. The Art Deco style of architecture was a strong reaction to the lack, the sheer lack that Americans had been sidled with for nearly half a decade. Art Deco was at once elegant, graceful and powerfully modern, a deft conglomeration of a range of design styles, symbolizing a wealth and abundance in a powerfully modern manner. Others see art deco as an explosion out of austerity (, 2012). "The bold and linear symmetry -- a departure from Art Nouveau -- embraced influences from a large number of movements and styles of the early 20th century including Constructivism Cubism, Futurism, Modernism, and Neoclassical design. It drew inspiration from Aztec and Egyptian designs, which told stories and used stylized icons that had symbolic meaning" (Passikoff, 5).

Thus, in certain respects, the Art Deco movement was like a platinum calla lily growing out of a brick: art deco was borne out of an environment and atmosphere of absence and scarcity, countering that immediate history and background with a dazzling profusion: gold sunbursts shooting to the sky with geometric rays, a shunning of organic lines and pastels with an embrace instead of geometric lines and dense precision, sharp angles, and strong stylistic choices not often found in nature. "Viewed in this light, a given stylistic choice will tell us as much about what its advocates lack as about what they like. We can understand a seventeenth century elite's taste for gilded walls by simultaneously remembering the context in which this form of decoration developed its appeal: one where violence and disease were constant threats, even for the wealthy" (De Botton, 159). Indeed, this quote aptly demonstrates how the things that one gravitates towards in a stylistic manner can be extremely illuminating about the climate of a collective of people, a period in history, and their corresponding needs and fears.

This dynamic is present in the world of fashion design as well and in the preferred form of the female body. Just as some decades have preferred a shapelier, curvier and plumper female form, other decades have clearly preferred one that is bonier and skinnier. Just as there was a time in the 1800s to appear plump, pear-shaped and fertile, there was a time in the 1920s for women to cultivate a "washboard profile" and boyish figure (Vongkhamchanh). The curvy and… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "De Botton's Text" Essay in a Bibliography:

APA Style

De Botton's Text.  (2012, August 30).  Retrieved January 24, 2021, from

MLA Format

"De Botton's Text."  30 August 2012.  Web.  24 January 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"De Botton's Text."  August 30, 2012.  Accessed January 24, 2021.