Better Living Through Architecture: Vacation Homes for a New Britain

By Katja Thimm in London

Part 2: The Fight Against Nostalgia

Photo Gallery: Alain de Botton's Holiday Homes Photos
Living Architecture

Even at the tender age of 12, when his family left solid, perfect Switzerland, Alain de Botton recalls finding English houses incredibly ugly. He saw crumbling walls and leaking faucets, and felt constricted by the oppressive, historicist style of British architecture. "In this country," he says, "even new buildings are meant to look old. It's time to fight back against the dominance of nostalgia."

He raises his voice, but remains friendly nonetheless. He even consents to climb on to a bookcase because a photographer who's taking his picture thinks it would make a good image. So there he sits between the shelves, cross-legged, his shoulders narrow, and continues his discourse.

Three vacation homes have been completed. Two more will open their doors soon. De Botton has taken Britain's culture minister on a guided tour, and founded a non-profit organization, Living Architecture, which handles all the planning and financing. That may not be quite enough if you want to educate an entire nation, so he intends to soldier on, adding a new house every year, all at special locations.

'A Breath of Fresh Air'

The Balancing Barn by the Dutch architecture firm MVRDV, for example, already juts out 30 meters (100 feet) above a nature reserve in the county of Suffolk, looking to all intents and purposes like a silver bus accidentally driven over the edge and now teetering precariously on the brink.

Not far away, Norwegians Einar Jarmund and Håkon Vigsnæs have built the Dune House, which resembles a glass ship right next to the beach, with windows instead of doors on the ground floor. In Dungeness in the county of Kent, there's the Shingle House, designed by the Scottish architecture firm NORD. Husband-and-wife team Patti and Michael Hopkins are putting the finishing touches to their Long House on the Norfolk coast, while Pritzker Award-winner Peter Zumthor is erecting the Secular Retreat on a hill in southern Devon. All are set in landscapes seemingly untouched in millennia, and their interiors are designer-made, right down to the very last teaspoon.

"It was a breath of fresh air," says a teacher from Norwich who visited the Dune House with her husband, children and grandchildren. Like many Britons, she usually lives in a Victorian terraced house. "Now that we've experienced what modernity can be, we would gladly have it around us all the time."

De Botton says all architecture conjures up an atmosphere, a lifestyle. "That which surrounds us shapes our existence. We should therefore surround ourselves with beauty. In a beautiful environment, our fears, our nagging doubts, hold much less power than they do in an ugly environment."

Architectural psychologists have repeatedly shown there is a decisive interplay between a person's surroundings and their spiritual well-being. "Recognizing this can help people survive," says de Botton. Indeed he even thinks architecture can be character-building. "Whenever we are moved by beauty, that which we appreciate is exactly what is lacking in our own being. We are captivated by bedrooms in which we find suggestions of peace. We seek honesty in our chairs and generosity in our taps. Successful architecture and harmonious design constantly remind us of who we could be, at our best."

He put similar words to paper, enthusing in "The Architecture of Happiness" about honest furniture. And once again audiences loved his book. However, the author himself was overcome by melancholy. "It's only a book", he said. "They are only thoughts."

Reflections During a Mid-Life Crisis

This melancholy grew to crisis proportions, a real mid-life crisis, and again he spent his nights pondering what he considered truly important. "There were two ancient ideals: beauty and wisdom," he says. "I wanted to build a stage for these. That's why Living Architecture was born."

In spite of his undoubted popularity, Alain de Botton always expected his shyness would keep him shackled to a desk. "I used to hate talking to strangers," he says without a hint of irony. "I didn't even want to ask for directions." But he needed sponsors, architects and supporters.

He's still amazed that they even listened to someone like him. Not only did they appear for a lunch meeting, they also gave him between half a million and a million euros for the houses. He also managed to put together a team to handle the bookings and fill the fridge for every guest as part of the welcome package. And he was able to convince skeptics at the various locations about the project's architectural merits. "That was my journey," says de Botton. "From a book full of theory to a kitchen on Dungeness beach."

Sitting at the long bench by the long table in the kitchen, you look straight through a long window and out over a bird sanctuary. All the proportions are perfect. There are fisherman's cottages nearby, while a nuclear power plant around the corner is a silent reminder of the finite nature of all idylls.

Pointing People in the Right Direction

De Botton's promises of a better life have been readily taken up. The houses are booked up for the rest of the year, the people of Britain are being taught about architecture, and large audiences watch the TV interviews in which he philosophizes about the ins and outs of our existence. Alain de Botton has become a star by lowering the bar for anyone who is curious. As such he is like Jamie Oliver, the "Naked Chef" who has been charming Britons into eating healthier for a number of years now.

As different as the two men may be, the down-to-earth cook and the well-educated thinker serve a similar function. Both have taken on a task that was traditionally the responsibility of the nation's religious or tribal leaders: pointing people in the right direction. One reason why the rather headstrong Britons are prepared to listen to them seems to lie in a development that political commentators term "the nanny state." People in the UK have become accustomed to unusual attempts to educate them, at the latest since the debate about obligatory vitamin supplements in baking flour and the introduction of smoking bans in public places.

But what about the philosopher? Has being practical rather than merely theoretical made him any happier?

"Well, yes," De Botton replies after a brief pause. "It has."

In fact, he adds, he probably has most fun choosing soap: "I can spend hours thinking about the question of which one fits best with the holiday homes."

It's sentences like these that cause more status-conscious intellectuals to ridicule de Botton. But perhaps they simply don't want to accept the fact that this pale man is more interesting company than they are.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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