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Ethics man.


By Alain de Botton. London: Hamish Hamilton. 2006. [pounds sterling]17.99

I believe that de Botton has had a lot of stick from other critics over this book. Not a single colleague has had a positive word to say about it. This is interesting. How could he have got it so wrong?

Alain de Botton is in his late thirties and has a string of successful books on a variety of subjects, loosely associated with issues of subjectivity, feeling and the like. He is a successful TV pundit, and this irritates some people. But as de Botton is famously philosophical, it may be useful to sketch in something of the implications of a philosophical point of view for the subject of architecture.

Philosophy deals with three big questions: 1] What exists? 2] How do we know it? 3] What is the good life? The first two, concerning ontology and epistemology, constitute the framework of metaphysics. As such they have dominated (whether we critics have been conscious of it or not) the substance of architectural discourse for the modern period. This is because questions of 'being' and 'production' have dominated our field during this time. 'History' is precisely about these kinds of questions. De Botton's text is not of this type. It asks the question 'How does architecture play a part in the good life?' (see p73) In other words, de Botton's argument is not a metaphysical argument, it is an ethical argument, ethics being that branch of philosophy that deals with the question of the good life (see p98). De Botton's field has more to do with Alberti's thoughts on the family and architecture, or with nineteenth-century discussions on the ethical or moral value of style, than with any recent writing on architecture that I can think of.

De Botton is doing something that is very old, but not something that has been very prominent in Western discourse for a considerable period of time: ethics. It has been non-existent in architectural discourse. We have been extremely preoccupied with hegemony and the levers of power, production and being. Historically it is there in Vitruvius--who elaborated its mythology--John Dee, Francis Bacon, and thence into the modern world. We have been preoccupied with getting control, while letting go of any discussion of the ends of our endeavour. We have become expert in risk management and sustainability, but remain devoid of discourse on the good life. That is why I found this book such a tonic. That is why my colleagues hate it so much.

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Author:Patterson, Richard
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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