How space and architecture influence #happiness
March 19, 2012
— architecture, arts
I travelled to my destination via an architecture of misery. The mood in the subway is solemn and brusque. People sit alone, breathe underground air, under fluorescent light, not talking to one another, staring at the floor, their feet, their books. Producing anxiety is the greatest talent of its space.
I’m in a Dante-esque modern journey, I told myself as consolation. From purgatory to joy? Well, here’s hoping.
I was in search of an architecture of happiness – a space that would lift my spirits. I would take shelter in St. James Cathedral on King Street in downtown Toronto, a great, soaring pinnacle of Gothic Revivalism.
I emerged from the subway in the financial district into sunshine, with a focused crowd of suits intent upon making their lunch hour productive. They don’t look at other humans, either, which I figure has more to do with how a Master of the Universe is built rather than the width of the street or the façade of the buildings overlooking it. (Architecture can only take the blame for so much.)
I entered the cavernous interior of the church. I was alone. A man entered a few minutes after me and nodded slightly in acknowledgement as he passed me and took a seat in a pew closer to the front. We were enveloped in a sepia darkness. The only sound was the squeak of a clergyman’s crepe-soled shoes as he walked across the altar’s polished stone floor. A faded, frayed Union Jack, hanging from a pole against the far wall, moved as imperceptibly as a baby breathing.
The din of the outer world of striving for destinations, real and aspirational (that corner office!), had been replaced by silence. Not quite awe and not really joy, but calm and a call to the palace of the mind. In itself, that retreat to the interior produced a sense of contentedness even if it lacked the drama of sudden happiness I was seeking.
Earlier in the week, I had spoken to Alain de Botton, philosopher of quotidian life and author of several books, including The Architecture of Happiness, during his stop in Toronto to speak at the Art Gallery of Ontario. “Space and architecture are really a division of mental health,” he told me. We met at the Hazelton Hotel, where he was staying. “The choice of my publishers,” the best-selling author explained with a meek shrug when asked if he was always conscious of the space in which he placed himself. The lounge of the five-star encourages pleasant exchanges, fingers of light through the windows, illuminating the smooth texture of a wall, the pleasing curve of a chair, an explosion of exotic flowers in a vase, as if highlighting which beautiful features the eye should notice.
Beauty in architecture has great power, but only to a certain point, Mr. de Botton had explained. The glory of Venice would not assuage the emotional pain in an extreme moment of grief, just as the dreariness of an alleyway wouldn’t dampen the euphoria of a first kiss at 16. But for most of our lives, “we’re balanced between hope and despair … and it’s in that state when the built environment can have an influence on our mood.” It’s an environment we can control, he pointed out, unlike that other one called the weather.
The influence a space can have on our happiness explains the popularity of shelter magazines and designer porn. In the right house and in the perfect kitchen, we imagine better marriages, better behaved children, a better social life. Meghan Daum’s 2010 book, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, captured the obsession with real estate as the stage setting for ultimate fulfillment.
I once interviewed Michel Tremblay, the Canadian novelist and playwright, in the winter home he owned in Key West, Fla. He was very particular about the space in which he wrote. If it didn’t feel right, if he didn’t feel content, words failed him. “It has something to do with wanting to feel as though I’m inside an egg,” he said. The room where he wrote was dark and lined with books. It was small. And there was only one small window.
If architecture is a tool for mental health, then why isn’t there more of the happiness-producing kind? Well, that is a modern dilemma. In the private realm, wealth often simply “allows bad taste its full expression,” Mr. de Botton lamented. In the public sphere, “good architecture has a hard time advocating its role,” he said, adding that Toronto “is a great city inhabiting a substandard urban core.” (One of his favourite places to hang out is in the airy, light-filled space of London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5, opened in 2008.) Architecture is “considered a luxury. And everyone’s idea of what’s beautiful is different,” he said. To make matters worse – and to explain many of the developments of modern cities – most architects are not trained to negotiate and “are helpless before the power of politicians and financiers.” The age of the great patron is long gone.
After I left St. James Cathedral, I went in search of a better architecture of happiness. We all have a desire and need for public space that gives pleasure, Mr. de Botton had told me. That is what a museum or an art gallery could be, if we understood that those public spaces should be for more than just a place to house artifacts.
I found it on the ground floor of BCE Place at Wellington and Yonge. Sunlight filled the vaulted pedestrian thoroughfare, which is six storeys high and constructed from white, parabolic beams that evoke a forest canopy. Lots of people milled around, some eating at restaurants open to the galleria, looking at art installations or sitting on the edge of a small fountain. That’s where I sat down. I talked to a young man on my right. He worked in a building nearby and made a point of coming here at midday because it was so pleasant, he told me. I spoke to a young businesswoman on my left. She was reading The Hunger Games on her Kindle. I remained for a while in this secular cathedral of community happiness, and then I descended once again into purgatory.