Alain de Botton
The best place I ever worked was Heathrow Terminal 5, where I had a desk right in the middle of the departures hall. I was invited to the airport to be a Writer in Residence (and later wrote a book about the experience, A WEEK AT THE AIRPORT). The terminal turned out to be an ideal spot in which to do some work, for it rendered the idea of writing so unlikely as to make it possible again. Objectively good places to work rarely end up being so; in their faultlessness, quiet and well-equipped studies have a habit of rendering the fear of failure overwhelming. Original thoughts are like shy animals. We sometimes have to look the other way ˆ towards a busy street or terminal ˆ before they run out of their burrows.
The setting was certainly rich in distractions. Every few minutes, a voice (usually belonging to either Margaret or her colleague Juliet, speaking from a small room on the floor below) would make an announcement, for example, attempting to reunite a Mrs Barker, recently arrived from Frankfurt, with a stray piece of her hand luggage or reminding Mr Bashir of the pressing need for him to board his flight to Nairobi.
For most passengers, I was simply a terminal employee and therefore a useful source of information on finding the customs desk or the cash machine. Those who realised my role found it more appropriate to consider the desk as an opportunity for confessions. I was approached by a man embarking on what he wryly termed the holiday of a lifetime to Bali with his wife, who was months away from succumbing to incurable brain cancer. She rested nearby, in a specially constructed wheel chair laden with complicated breathing apparatus. She was 49 and had been entirely healthy until April, when she had gone to work on a Monday morning complaining of a slight headache. Another man explained that he had been visiting his family in London, but that he had another one in Los Angeles who were ignorant of the first. He had five children and two mothers-in-law but his face bore none of the strains of his itinerary.
As for architecture, here are some thoughts:
When we call a chair or a house beautiful, really what we're saying is that we like the way of life it's suggesting to us. It has an attitude we're attracted to: if it was magically turned into a person, we'd like who it was. It would be convenient if we could remain in much the same mood wherever we happened to be, in a cheap motel or a palace (think of how much money we‚d save on redecorating our houses), but unfortunately we‚re highly vulnerable to the coded messages that emanate from our surroundings. This helps to explain our passionate feelings towards matters of architecture and home decoration: these things help to decide who we are.
Of course, architecture can't on its own always make us into contented people. Witness the dissatisfactions that can unfold even in idyllic surroundings. One might say that architecture suggests a mood to us, which we may be too internally troubled to be able to take up. Its effectiveness could be compared to the weather: a fine day can substantially change our state of mind ˆ and people may be willing to make great sacrifices to be nearer a sunny climate. Then again, under the weight of sufficient problems (romantic or professional confusions, for example), no amount of blue sky, and not even the greatest building, will be able to make us smile. Hence the difficulty of trying raise architecture into a political priority: it has none of the unambiguous advantages of clean drinking water or a safe food supply. And yet it remains vital.
Judging from the success of interior design magazines and property shows, you might think that this country was now as comfortable with good contemporary architecture as it is with non-native food or music.
But scratch beneath the metropolitan, London-centric focus, and you quickly discover that Britain remains a country deeply in love with the old and terrified of the new. Country hotels compete among themselves to tell us how ancient they are; holiday cottages vaunt that they were already in existence when Jane Austen was a girl. The draughty sash window shows no signs of retiring. Inheriting furniture and not bothering with plumbing continue to function as mysterious symbols of status.
A few years ago, I wrote a book about architecture critical of our nostalgia and low expectations. It got a healthy amount of attention, on the back of which I was invited to a stream of conferences about the future of architecture. But one night, returning from one such conference in Bristol, I had a dark moment of the soul. I realised that however pleasing it is to write a book about an issue one feels passionately about, the truth is that - a few exceptions aside - books don't change anything. I realised that if I cared so much about architecture, writing was just a coward's way out; the real challenge was to build.
So on the back of a notepad was born a project which officially launches this week: Living Architecture is a not-for-profit organisation that puts up houses around the UK designed by some of the world's top architects and makes these available to the public to rent for holidays throughout the year.
Our dream was to allow people to experience what it is like to live and sleep in a space designed by an outstanding architectural practice. While there are examples of great modern buildings in Britain, they tend to be in places that one passes through (airports, museums, offices), and the few modern houses that exist are almost all in private hands and cannot be visited. This seriously skews discussions of architecture. When people declare that they hate modern buildings they are on the whole speaking not from experience of homes, but from a distaste of post-war tower blocks or bland airconditioned offices.
Living Architecture's houses are deliberately varied. One of them by the Dutch firm MVRDV hangs precariously off the edge of a hill in Suffolk. Another in Thorpeness by the Norwegian architects JVA has four steel roofs, each of which houses a bedroom and a bathroom. A third, by the young Scottish practice NORD is a stark black box in the shadow of Dungeness nuclear power station. A fourth, by the legendary Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, is a secular mini-monastery which aims to bring an ecclesiastical calm and solemnity to the Devon countryside.