The World's Architecture: An Uninspiring Identity?

Philosopher Alain de Botton bemoans the way much of the architecture in the world looks the same, wherever one goes. De Botton is the author of The Architecture of Happiness.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Commentator and philosopher Alain de Botton has traveled the world and as a lover of architecture, he has been disappointed by the sameness he sees in buildings and houses.

ALAIN: So much of the 20th century, leading modern architects thought it absurd to try to endow a building with a national identity. They have no desire to create houses or offices which would be recognizably, say, Mexican or Canadian or Scottish. They aspired to what become known as the international style. They wish their buildings to be same in New York as in Nairobi, in Sydney as in Rio, and hence resorted to materials that betrayed precious few, local allegiances - materials like concrete, steel or glass.

These architects looked forward to a rational era when local traits would vanish entirely from their profession. There was, after all, no such thing as a nationally styled modern bridge or electric razor or umbrella. If science and art were universal, why demand a local variety of architecture? The modern business districts of cities like Atlanta and Frankfurt have come to epitomize the modernist dream of a place where one can never really know from the buildings alone what country one's strayed into.

We do recognize that what can be most attractive about the architecture of other countries is precisely what distinguishes it from its neighbors. For example, when I fly into Boston from England, it's immediately toward the stylistic differences that I'm drawn. My eyes look onto the particular lettering of the road signs or the dark, rough stone used in some of the old family homes. The excitement of having arrived in a new place coalesces around such small architectural details, which can be to a building what shoes are to a person - unexpectedly strong indicators of character.

Such feelings stem not from a naïve longing for folkloric exoticism, but from a wish that the genuine differences that exists between different cities and places should find an adequate expression at an architectural level. However, most modern architecture, especially in North America, isn't disposed to indulge a desire for local identity. Bland office blocks dominate city skylines. Their pedestrian forms mutely mocking the hours in a plane that one might have had to endure to reach them. There can seem precious little that's American in American architecture.

So how should America build? It's hard to be specific. But in its general outlines, we should build in a way that can orient us in both time and place. That is, in a way that picks up on themes of our age and environment. Jon Raskin once wrote beautifully, the task of buildings isn't just to shelter us. It's also to speak to us and to remind us of who and where we are.

SIEGEL: Philosopher Alain de Botton is the author of "The Architecture of Happiness."

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