Our search for a new house continues, but only fitfully. We've driven by a few houses and my wife has trudged through the snow to attend a couple of open houses. We're finding the usual assortment of inexplicable design decisions (pink trim), delusional pricing (a $2,500 outdoor hot tub doesn't increase the house value by $80,000), and back yards too small to turn around a tricycle. If Alain de Botton is correct in his assertion that houses have moods, then these houses are simultaneously agitated and recumbent, like a person who's been watching television for too long.
Alison Lurie reads de Botton's Architecture of Happiness to find out what makes a house beautiful. For de Botton beauty is an elusive quality in a home. He says a lot of people live in dreary tombs full of stuff to keep out the world--the kinds of over decorated, vaguely nineteenth-century interiors that Walter Benjamin observed in One-Way Street as fit only for corpses. On the other hand, two-year-old children are utterly indifferent to beauty and can reduce a pristine Dwell or Met Home space to ruins in five minutes. As Lurie notes ruefully, "Indeed, anyone who reads architectural magazines or even the Home and Garden section of The New York Times will have seen many photos of interiors which strongly suggest that their owners prefer kidskin sofas to kids."
According to Lurie, de Botton's most interesting claim is that houses are beautiful when they express values missing in society at large. According to de Botton, the stern minimalism you see in urban lofts, in which you seem like clutter while the cat doesn't, may strike us as "punishingly ordered, might be home to someone unusually oppressed by intimations of anarchy."
But what do you do when huddling in a Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair no longer compensates for twenty minutes of jostling on a city bus? Egg Chairs and Maurer lamps and the like are truly beautiful things that I'd love to own, but the current trend toward designing everything to within an inch of its life creates its own kind of oppressive weight. Does American civilization need stylish egg timers? The insistence on beauty in every domestic object now means that having a house that makes you happy isn't enough any more. We now need second homes to escape from the ideal of the middle class home entirely. Bethany Lyttle recently reported in the New York Times on people who buy second homes that are so small they barely qualify as domiciles. The idea is that the smaller the house, the larger the outdoors. The 120-square-foot house is the conduit to beauty rather than the exemplar of it. Which would certainly be a relief. But where do you go to the bathroom?