CULTURE, VALUES AND THE AESTHETICS OF HOME

This article is a continuation from a previous blog post which you can read here and was inspired by Allain de Botton’s book the ‘The Architecture of Happiness’ – I would highly recommend this read to anyone with a deeper interest in a philosophical look at the aesthetics of place.

 

Our buildings and homes shape and mould the life that unfolds within them. They have the power to move us and to influence our behaviour in subtle and not so subtle ways. However unconscious this influence may be, the spaces and objects we surround ourselves with serve as a reminder of what we (and the cultures we belong to) value most. 

In his book ‘The Architecture of Happiness’ Alain De Botton points to the close link between our values and what we find beautiful. Inspired by the 19th-century writer, Stendhal who proclaimed that “beauty is the promise of happiness”, De Botton points out that if the search for happiness is the underlying quest of human life, we are bound to see this preoccupation reflected in our aesthetic preferences and what we deem to be beautiful. He writes “to call a work of architecture or design beautiful is to recognise it as a rendition of values critical to our flourishing, a transubstantiation of our individual ideals in a material medium…the buildings we admire are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol values we think worthwhile – which refer, that is, whether through their materials, shapes or colours, to such legendarily positive qualities as friendliness, kindness, subtlety, strength and intelligence. Our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of a good life are intertwined.”

Indeed, the idea that our notions of beauty and our values are inextricably intertwined, is a good starting point for building an understanding of why we find certain places and objects to be more appealing than others. Simply listing the reasons that we find one object or home to be more beautiful than another will begin to highlight the difference in the characteristic and qualities that we do and do not hold in high esteem.

Our buildings and homes have the most profound impact on us when they manage to capture and reflect back to us our ideals and aspirations, serving to remind us of the life we wish to unfold within them. Although this is not always at the forefront of our conscious awareness, in some small away, we hope that the beauty of our surroundings will help to move us closer to our vision of the ideal versions of ourselves and our lives.

And yet, De Botton also doesn’t hesitate to remind us of “the arduousness of self-knowledge”. He points out that “our designs go wrong because our feelings of contentment are woven from fine and unexpected filaments…The failure of architects to create congenial environments mirrors our inability to find happiness in other areas of our lives. Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design. It is an example expressed through materials of the same tendency which in other domains will lead us to marry the wrong people, choose inappropriate jobs and book unsuccessful holidays: the tendency not to understand who we are and what will satisfy us.”

Well-designed spaces have the power to create moods that gently nudge us toward certain behaviours and discourage us from others. We find spaces to be beautiful when the moods they create align with our own ideas of what will lead us to a life well-lived. De Botton highlights precisely this point when he writes that “a feeling of beauty is a sign that we have come upon a material articulation of certain of our ideas of the good life…While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, [our homes] simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of visions of happiness.”

This idea, for me, best captures the main way that the design of our homes can add value to our daily lives; by serving as a physical reminder of what we value and the kind of life we wish to lead, they can make that pursuit of these ideals slightly less arduous and much more delightful. “We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them” De Botton writes, “We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves… We perceive as most beautiful those spaces that succeed in reminding us of the important truths that our “distracted and irresolute selves have trouble holding on to.”

The idea that our homes help to show and reinforce our values places the question of what values we wish to reinforce at the very centre of our designs. Viewed through this lens, the question of design becomes far more about how we want our homes to speak to us than how we want them to look. In turn this notion that our home’s design has a higher purpose than aesthetics alone serves to elevate the importance of the role that spaces play within our lives.

Design can be powerful or trivial, frivolous or a way to nudge us closer toward the behaviours that reinforce visions of who we wish to become. Like most of our beliefs and values, our understanding of beauty is deeply shaped by the cultures we are immersed in. But if we are lucky enough to have the freedom to shape our own surroundings (and this is an important point as this privilege is not available to many), our homes can become spaces where we distil the myriad of cultural values we are exposed to in our pluralistic societies into something personal that aligns with our sense of self. When we mindfully engage with the process of homemaking, our homes can become a monument to our ideals.

In our next blog post we will continue to discuss how our cultural values shape our surroundings and our sense of beauty.

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Pear and vanilla shrub (non-alcoholic) recipe modified from here substituting honey for sugar and adjusting quantitates to taste.

 

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