written by:
October 26, 2010

Not so long ago I read the English pop philospher and writer Alain de Botton's book The Architecture of Happiness. It was a middling book, one that took great pains to make the case that the design of the buildings we inhabit have a strong effect on us, and that we ought to pay more attention to the wonder that architecture can provoke. It's a fine point, and one worth repeating, but it also felt a bit elementary. Neither a work of serious criticism nor serious philosophy, it was a light romp through design's capacity to make us feel. His latest book has all the grounding that The Architecture of Happiness went without: de Botton was asked to play writer in residence for a week at the British Airways terminal at Heathrow Airport. A Week at the Airport is the result, a small book with telling photographs by Richard Baker, and over the next two posts here on dwell.com I'll be giving you my review.

Here's a photo of Alain de Botton taken by Vincent Starr.
Here's a photo of Alain de Botton taken by Vincent Starr.
2 / 4
This spread from the book shows two points of interest to travelers: the stunning supports Richard Rogers designed to keep Terminal 5 up, and a list of gates for passengers. Photos by Richard Baker.
This spread from the book shows two points of interest to travelers: the stunning supports Richard Rogers designed to keep Terminal 5 up, and a list of gates for passengers. Photos by Richard Baker.
3 / 4
The photos Richard Baker took for the book are wonderfully pedestrian. They range from this cheerful shot of an airport worker, to a surprisingly sexy, from-the-knees-down take on what look to be a trio of flight attendants.
The photos Richard Baker took for the book are wonderfully pedestrian. They range from this cheerful shot of an airport worker, to a surprisingly sexy, from-the-knees-down take on what look to be a trio of flight attendants.
4 / 4
Botton Cover

I read half of the slim volume this morning, and right away it's clear that this project suits de Botton's literary gifts. He's a fine describer, one who gets the feeling the details right, even if he does skimp on actual quotes. But the mode in which he really gets humming is not so much journalist as muser. Though his reporting bespeaks a keen eye, his prose rises and falls mostly on his capacity to intuit, interpret, and suppose.

Take this riff on two lovers tearily parting ways outside the security zone of Terminal 5. Our guide is certainly right to call our attention to the unhappy couple as one of many similar scenes played out every day at the airport, but he goes further (maybe too far) when he lets his imagination run a bit more freely than the Sunday Telegraph might permit.

Here's a photo of Alain de Botton taken by Vincent Starr.
Here's a photo of Alain de Botton taken by Vincent Starr.

"Passers-by evinced sypathy. It helped that the woman was extraordinarily beautiful. I missed her already. Her beauty would have been an important part of her identity from at least the age of twelve and, in its honour [sic], she would occaisonally pause and briefly consider the effect of her condition on her audence before returning to her lover's chest, damp with her tears."

In another passage he goes a bit off the rails, going into great detail about how the promise of a trip to Greece for a well-to-do British family will inevitably be marred by the standing resentments of their everyday lives. Just how de Botton has managed to penetrate the innerworkings of David and Louise's marriage is unclear. As he provides no actual quotes, nor suggests that he's got any more than a passing understanding of their lives, the reader is left to wonder precisely how he's discerned that David "would be forced to apprehend all of these [the Attic skies, some spanikopita, his children] through the distorting filter of his own being, with its debilitating levels of fear, anxiety and wayward desire." A great vacation to be sure.

He's better when sticking to Heathrow's physical space, of which he "required nothing more extraordinary of the airport than that it continue to operate much as it did every other day of the year...". Or better yet, the haiku-like descriptions of the items on his hotel's room service menu.

This spread from the book shows two points of interest to travelers: the stunning supports Richard Rogers designed to keep Terminal 5 up, and a list of gates for passengers. Photos by Richard Baker.
This spread from the book shows two points of interest to travelers: the stunning supports Richard Rogers designed to keep Terminal 5 up, and a list of gates for passengers. Photos by Richard Baker.

My favorite bit comes when he gets to Richard Roger's eye-goggling architecture itself. He lucidly declares that the building's soaring supports "were endowed with a subcategory of beauty we might refer to as elegance, present whenever architecture has the mnodest not to draw attention to the difficulties it has surmounted. On top of their tapered necks, the columns balanced the 400-metre [sic] roof as if they were holding up a canopy made of linen, offering a metaphor for how we too might like to stand in relation to our burdens." Nice stuff.

The book, so far anyway, functions best as an account of a placeless place. What Raymond Carver might have called, where we go when we're going somewhere. For many of us, airports are never fully inhabitated spaces abounding with all our anxieties of going and coming, but with little to distinguish themselves for any other. For those of us without access to first class lounges or other such amenities, the airport is more a class of place, a genre, than an actual locale. Barring the wonderfully light and charming international terminal at SFO in San Francisco, I don't know that I have any real feellings (save vague dread) or even memories about the airport I use all the time.

The photos Richard Baker took for the book are wonderfully pedestrian. They range from this cheerful shot of an airport worker, to a surprisingly sexy, from-the-knees-down take on what look to be a trio of flight attendants.
The photos Richard Baker took for the book are wonderfully pedestrian. They range from this cheerful shot of an airport worker, to a surprisingly sexy, from-the-knees-down take on what look to be a trio of flight attendants.

But by staying put--de Botton even had a desk out in the middle of the terminal which "those who took the trouble to look at my name badge soon came to regard...as a confessional"--the author is afforded the slowness to actually appreciate the place. Quite a good excercise for a design writer, and at least in this incarnation, virgin territory. Or rather, British Airways territory.

I'll finish up the book in the next day or two. Check back later this week for my final report.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

45 dva 2270 persp1 cmyk 0
The prospect of retirement doesn’t just signal the end of a career; it offers the chance to recalibrate and re-prioritize in life.
July 25, 2016
18
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016