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 Lévy, 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.
The Fight Against Nostalgia
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.