How a well-designed home can make us happy
"Beauty has a huge role to play in altering our mood," says the philosopher and writer Alain de Botton. "When we call a chair or a house beautiful, really what we're saying is that we like the way of life it's suggesting to us. It has an attitude we're attracted to: if it was magically turned into a person, we'd like who it was."
A few years ago de Botton wrote The Architecture of Happiness - a philosophical and psychological tour of architecture that aimed to change the way we think about our homes and raised such questions as, "Could buildings improve our lives and ultimately make us happy?"
Drawing on his experience of growing up in a Swiss modernist apartment block and then adjusting to a mock-Georgian suburban house in England when he was a child, the book possibly proved the opposite: architecture can make you miserable. "Bad architecture in the end is as much a failure of psychology as of design," he concluded.
So what kind of house does he live in now? "I live in a contemporary building and much appreciate the solidity, the energy savings and the feeling of calm and efficiency. It enables me to be a more serene, kinder and more thoughtful individual."
Realising that building would make more of an impact than books, de Botton decided to take action. The result is Living Architecture, a non-profit organisation whose mission is to promote the value of modernism and bring high design beyond the realm of the rich with a series of contemporary holiday houses. The venture gives people the opportunity to live, eat and sleep in a space designed by a leading architectural practice.
Three Living Architecture houses are already up and running, and there are plans to add a new house each year. Visitors are given an information pack about the house design, explaining its influences and what the architects hoped to achieve.
"We have had guests from all over - many from the Middle East who come to England in the summer and are fed up of staying in third-rate flowery hotels and want something that is going to be stylish, comfortable, and will open their eyes to a new vision of the countryside. In our houses, they can enjoy a standard of a great hotel, but also the intimacy of their own house."
The Balancing Barn, designed by the Dutch architectural firm MVRDV, is a gleaming aluminium structure cantilevered on top of a hill in Suffolk. Nearly 30 metres long, it has four bedrooms, two of which have "in room" baths, something the architects were keen to include from the outset. An open living area at tree height has huge picture windows that immerse the inhabitant in the surrounding landscape. Simply defined interior spaces by Studio Makkink & Bey feature furnishings with a suitably Dutch theme and pictorial hints to the local countryside.
To challenge the notion of sea and countryside and to show that you can holiday in a very different area and still see it as beautiful, Living Architecture commissioned the Scottish architects NORD to design the Shingle House, situated on a huge shingled beach in the shadow of a nuclear power station. Taking the footprint of its predecessor, it has a tarred timber facade that evokes a welcoming cocoon-like appearance, while inside, soft furnishings give a homely feel. Winter guests will appreciate the wood-burning stove and sunken bath, where a floor-length window gives ground-level views of the dramatic landscape. Such attention to detail is evident everywhere, from the Peter Reed-designed bed linen to the slick Miele kitchen.
The Norwegian firm Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects created the Dune House in Suffolk, whose four bedrooms have been designed almost as individual houses. This gives a sense of total privacy and cosiness for each occupant, who can come down to a large, open living-dining space. This illustrates Living Architecture's key approach to addressing the feeling of enclosure, contrasting with a more communal space.
All the houses share certain features, such as relatively playful layouts and unexpected roof shapes. Living Architecture is effectively turning housing on its head, proving that things can be done differently, using new ways to organise spaces and a relaxing, life-enhancing concept as key. By offering these affordable modern architecture samplers, Living Architecture hopes to inject some inspiration and ambition into domestic design.
"Developers are not alive to the possibilities of the present moment, either technologically or in terms of their spirit," de Botton says. "Nevertheless, we are very keen that the example of our houses filters down and becomes an inspiration to property developers. We invited a whole group of them to inspect our houses a few weeks ago and they were delighted and promised to rethink their ways."
The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was well aware of architecture's power on the mind. His use of fireplaces, large windows and open areas was a subtle nod to our ancestors' dwelling: the cave with a firepit overlooking the plains. His vision became an aesthetic that encouraged a more spiritual life, with beautiful spaces transforming its inhabitants, encouraging them to live life differently.
A key reason to update our notions of the residential vernacular is that people's lives have changed dramatically compared with our parents and grandparents. Separate dining rooms, kitchens and "rooms for best" are outmoded, and open-plan living areas are where we spend most of our downtime. Space and light are considered the ultimate luxuries as we crave large open and airy spaces to soothe our cluttered minds.
"It would be convenient if we could remain in much the same mood wherever we happened to be - in a cheap motel or a palace (think of how much money we'd save on redecorating our houses), but unfortunately we're highly vulnerable to the coded messages that emanate from our surroundings," reasons de Botton. "This helps to explain our passionate feelings towards matters of architecture and home decoration: these things help to decide who we are.
"Of course, architecture on its own can't always make us into contented people - witness the dissatisfactions that can unfold even in idyllic surroundings. One might say that architecture suggests a mood to us, which we may be too internally troubled to be able to take up. Its effectiveness could be compared to the weather: a fine day can substantially change our state of mind - and people may be willing to make great sacrifices to be nearer a sunny climate… Then again, under the weight of sufficient problems (romantic or professional, for example), no amount of blue sky, and not even the greatest building, will be able to make us smile. Hence the difficulty of trying to raise architecture into a political priority: it has none of the unambiguous advantages of clean drinking water or a safe food supply. And yet it remains vital."
One model that helped spark Living Architecture was the hugely influential Californian Case Study Houses programme, commissioned by Arts & Architecture magazine from the 1940s to the mid-1960s. These experimental dwellings were created by leading modernists including Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Koenig, Richard Neutra and Eero Saarinen, who were asked to design inexpensive, efficient model homes for the housing boom after the Second World War.
Intended to illustrate the west coast lifestyle - namely sunshine, pools, openness and a fluid relationship between inside and out (thanks to a dry, desert landscape not dissimilar to the UAE) - its aim was also to show how an architecture that emerged as a socialist European movement could be adapted to American capitalism.
Closer to home, a natural island development off the coast of Abu Dhabi aims to provide the ultimate haven for discerning individuals requiring the very best in their homes. Launched by the ambitious Emirati developer Nadia Zaal, whose family firm is responsible for the prestigious Al Barari community in Dubai, Nurai combines environmental credentials with a contemporary aesthetic. It is expected to be one of the most sought-after living experiences in the region and a model for future developments at all social levels.
A carpet of greenery will unfold across the island, with sweeping structures underneath to envelop residents in their own world of private luxury, while other villas are situated right on the water. Al Barari (which means "wilderness") borders a wildlife reserve, ensuring unspoilt views. About 80 per cent of the project will be open, landscaped gardens, making it the lowest-density development in the region.
"We want to mark a new era of living in Dubai that embodies a peaceful state of mind," Zaal says.
"I think Dubai is learning every day about what makes a good city," says de Botton. "Initially, there was a desire just to go for glitter and size. Now, I see more and more schemes that try to be inspired by their context, low rise and energy efficient. This has to be positive, as Dubai cannot imitate the giant American gas-guzzling cities. This was for another age."
The Dubai-based designer Liza De Luna of Liza De Luna Interiors, is known for her calming spaces at Emirates Towers and DIFC that "reflect a dedication to improving the human experience through the built environment".
"I definitely subscribe to the philosophy that architectural environments alter or stimulate the way we feel. When I think of a built environment in the UAE that puts a smile on my face or uplifts me, it's the Yas Hotel. All the key components in the science of neuroarchitecture, which create a happy environment such as natural lighting, soothing colours and nature, are present."
The interior designer and television presenter Naomi Cleaver, whose latest book, The Joy of Home, reveals how to create the most perfect and practical home, says: "Good design is fundamental to our sense of well-being: this is what drives me as a designer - and it is a scientifically proven fact.
"Some of the best things people can do to enhance a sense of well-being is to design the interior of their space to connect in a meaningful way to the exterior, and to nature in particular," says Cleaver. "This can be translated as enlarging windows to amplify natural light or shaping windows in ways that capture particular views. Bringing nature indoors, too, really lifts a mood, either with plants or even landscape paintings or photography.
"Control and legibility are also key factors in a 'happy home', which can translate simply as good storage and a well-designed layout. If you live in a space that works really well for you and you feel is beautiful, you cannot fail to be cheered."
"The salvation of housing lies in raising standards of taste," concludes de Botton. "If one considers how rapidly and overwhelmingly this has been achieved in cooking, there is much to be optimistic about. Consumers have learnt to ask probing questions about salt or fat levels which it wouldn't have occurred to a previous generation to raise. With the right guidance, a similar sensitivity could rapidly be fashioned to the worst features of domestic buildings. My hope is that a holiday in a Living Architecture house will, in a modest but determined way, help to change the debate about what sort of houses we want to live in."
For more on the Living Architecture project, visit www.living-architecture.co.uk
Updated: March 2, 2011 04:00 AM