Better Living Through Architecture: Vacation Homes for a New Britain

By Katja Thimm in London

Philosopher and bestselling author Alain de Botton wants to improve the lives of the British population and teach them to appreciate modern architecture. He is hoping to transform society with a series of avant-garde vacation homes designed by top architects.

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

The streets around Belsize Park underground station in London are lined with stores selling organic food and wooden toys. Local children have names like Peach or Petal Blossom Rainbow.

The residents of the Victorian houses behind rose-filled front gardens are Oscar-winners, star chefs and pop musicians, happy-go-lucky bohemians for whom success is a given. And right in their midst lives a pale man with a receding hairline who spends his time thinking and writing -- and planning how to re-educate the British population.

Alain de Botton wants to revolutionize Britain's long-held tastes in housing, design and architecture, and thus change the entire outlook of people in this rather traditionally-minded country.

Yet de Botton is a philosopher, not a rebel, and his British accent sounds like what used to be called BBC English. When he spoke to SPIEGEL, he was wearing neat, dark-blue trousers, and his tone of voice was polite and quiet. He says he is shy, sometimes almost reclusive. Having spent his childhood in Switzerland as the son of a banker before attending prestigious Cambridge University in England, 41-year-old De Botton was certainly not destined to deal merely with everyday life. And yet he is fascinated by the humdrum, its raw baseness, and it, in turn, has provided him with insight, wealth and fame.

De Botton's books have titles like "The Art of Travel" and "The Consolations of Philosophy." His ability to express profound concepts in a simple way has made him a millionaire. As such, the philosopher of everyday life could easily sit back and enjoy a bohemian existence.

Clear, Light Architecture Leads to a Good Life

Yet he still ponders and writes and hatches plans. "I feel I have a real mission," he says. "At the same time, it's actually the most banal thing in the world: building and letting holiday homes."

De Botton knows that what he is doing isn't banal. He has simply asked contemporary architects for designs for a series of modern dwellings.

"In this country, you mainly encounter modern architecture in airports and museums," he says. "But clear, light architecture can help people lead a good life."

De Botton is constantly searching for the conditions for successful existence. It's a very atypical, proactive approach for a thinker.

Yes, he also suffers from the same existential plight as any other true philosopher, and he's no stranger to sleepless nights, headaches and monosyllabic bad moods. But now and then de Botton decides enough is enough. When that happens, he stops thinking and faces the world, ready to change it if need be.

Philosophers can be a strange sight in real life. They can seem out of place, odd, smug even. But the pale man with the receding hairline has always found an audience.

A School of Life

Once, in the summer of 2009, he temporarily moved into London's massive Heathrow Airport, where he sat at a desk amid travelers, exchanged fleeting words with busy voyagers, discussed the concepts of time and space and being home and away from home with waiting passengers. He then wrote down what he discovered, and soon another volume of his insights hit the bookshelves.

De Botton also set up his so-called School of Life in the very heart of society in a store near a barber shop, the British Museum and an Asian take-out restaurant. There, he taught adults how to protect their love or make meaningful table-talk: "Try to avoid the banalities which can become second nature in personal interactions."

It may be somewhat pretentious to offer adults so much education, but Alain de Botton knows he is providing a public service. He just wants to help modern individuals who may have the means to confidently jet around the globe, but who are on the wrong track when it comes to their own lives. De Botton chose a quotation from Anton Chekhov as the motto of his School of Life: "Any idiot can face a crisis -- it is this day-to-day living that wears you out."

You're unlikely to find a man like de Botton -- who wants to change everyday life with actions rather than words -- in Germany, where philosophy is synonymous with gravity and gloom, irreconcilable moral conflicts, an ultra-complex dialectical history and lonely reflection. Nor will you find someone like him in France, even though philosophers there typically have their say on current affairs, advise politicians and regularly appear on talk shows. France has men like Bernard-Henri LÚvy, who instructs presidents and has a large following.

In his latest project, de Botton wants to create a series of designer holiday homes that Britons can stay in for as little as 20 pounds ($33 or €23) per person per night. That's cost price, so he won't be making any profit on it, but de Botton's idea is about more important things than money. He's convinced that giving people a vacation in avant-garde surroundings will teach them about the wonders of modern design. After all, he says, people are more relaxed and open to new ideas when they're on holiday.

De Botton is well aware he's set himself an ambitious task. That's why he uses appropriately grandiose words when talking about his venture. "We are fighting a culture war," he says. "The UK is obsessed with the past. From an architectural standpoint, Prince Charles rules the land." He grimaces as he utters these words, although he rarely permits himself such grotesque facial expressions. The heir to the British throne has famously dismissed modern buildings as "monstrous carbuncles," and refuses to give much credence even to world-famous British architects like Norman Foster.

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