Christmas, Happiness and Architecture

For many, Christmas is a period of joy and happiness! It is a time when family and friends gather at the Christmas tree to offer and receive gifts, demonstrating gratitude and grace towards each other. This is obviously not the original religious intent of Christmas, but it is an important aspect of the tradition in its current form.

What I would like to focus on today is happiness, more precisely on how our inner happiness can be influenced by the exterior built environment. The French writer Stendhal wrote, “there are as many styles of beauty as there are visions of happiness”. He later also wrote that “beauty was the promise of happiness”. These quotes are relevant because they link the concept of beauty with happiness, placing them as two sides to the same coin.

Whilst it is impossible for one to list all the forms of happiness (and beauty), it might be possible to decipher the core mechanics of the emotion, as it is more likely than not, significantly simpler to understand.

It is in our nature to project human emotions and qualities to the objects that surround us. When we find ourselves imagining faces of loved ones in the clouds, we are simply placing a human personality in a nonliving object. This is also true with architecture, although more subtly, this subconscious exercise also takes place with the architectural form or its underlying symbolism. The building or designed space becomes equally capable of affecting us in the same manner that the projected emotion would have if it had been caused by the person in real life.

The English writer John Ruskin claimed that what we sought in architecture was for “buildings to speak to us – to speak to us of whatever we find important and needed to be reminded of.” If this is true, then what are the messages that make us feel happy?

We can approach this topic from a different perspective by looking at the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. The two psychoanalysts tell us that, on a conscious level, the qualities that we like or appreciate most in others are those that we subconsciously feel have the ability to complete us. They complete us because deep inside our subconscious, we feel we lack them.

In the book The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Button writes that “we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form the qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient.” This point is very similar with Jung and Freud in the sense that we seek in architecture/others a medium or a catalyst to evoke something within ourselves.

To conclude, what we find beautiful in others and the built environment are the qualities that make us feel complete and when we surround ourselves with beauty, we feel happy. Is this the aim of architecture, to evoke or encourage in us certain moods or qualities? Are these the messages that Ruskin wanted architecture to speak to us about? Did he suggest that beautiful architecture is the one that speaks to us of visions of happiness? Possibly. In the end, when we build, we do not only build a structure, we erect from the ground an architecture that can be better version of ourselves.

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