Debating the Pleasure Principle + 12 Beloved Buildings


We ripped in to Sam Lubell’s merry architecture article “The Pleasure Principle” in last week’s edition of T: The New York Times Style magazine, and it got us thinking about how the a-word informs and affects daily life. Alain de Botton has written extensively on the quality of environment, arguing that architecture is far from frivolous or esoteric because it influences our fullest potential for emotion, good or bad. It’s fairly simple: happy space makes a happy person.

Lubell explores how neuroscience can study creativity and the cerebral effects of pleasing visual stimuli. He interviews Yale philosophy professor Karsten Harries, author of The Ethical Function of Architecture, who “insists that the human response to the built environment is too complex to measure accurately,” stating that “biology isn’t reducible to physics.” LA-based architect Michael Lehrer, on the other hand, is thrilled by the study of architecture’s effect on the brain, asserting that the value of “light and space and reverie and connection to the landscape” produce quantifiable doses of jubilant chemicals in the brain.

While we agree that certain formal elements of architecture are measurable — symmetry, beauty, the picturesque, and the sublime all come to mind — “happy architecture” is purely subjective and defies concrete definition. To wit: one of the buildings that most delights us personally (besides the Phillips Collection, Robie House, and London’s V&A, oh how we could go on…) is a vaguely Victorian residential building on the downtown college campus in Charleston, SC. The house — now an administration office — is filled with light, which highlights gorgeous details like a carved stairway balustrade, latticed doorway arches, insanely tall crown molding, and weird yet endearing cherubic light fixtures. What makes it so likable, besides the pervasive feeling of warmth and comfort, is that the house was built around the turn-of-century from catalog parts. A mail order catalog. It tickles us to no end to think that such pleasing domestic accessories were so readily available to the general public, and gives us hope for a widespread and refined pre-fab aesthetic today.

We pestered some of our favorite design and writerly minds to find out what buildings bring them joy and why. We’d love to hear about your happy places, too, so put ’em in the comments.

Josh Nissenboim, principal at Fuzzco graphic design studio “My favorite building is this ugly building in St. Louis. I think it’s actually the tallest building in Missouri. The only reason I like it is because it was really functional and now sentimental. I worked at a restaurant there in high school and after work was able to go to the top floor with all the lights off and watch baseball games by myself (it overlooked Busch Stadium in St. Louis). It made me want to live in the top floor of a building surrounded by windows with no walls. It helps the feeling of awe if you are scared of heights.”

Carrie E.A. Scott, director of Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery “My favorite building is by far Grand Central Station. You know the one? On 42nd. Not only is it perfectly nestled between all the skyscrapers around it, but inside its grand hall bustles a microcosm of Manhattan at large: suits rub elbows with the blue collars, tourists bump against locals. That and, there’s a little known secret about the ceiling. When the city restored the mural in 1998 they left behind a little black square in one corner as a constant reminder to New Yorkers. It looms above our heads reminding us never to let the building reach such a state. I like that. Grand Central makes me happy — even if it is heaving with a million people, and that’s saying something.”

The Ansonia, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and University of Michigan’s Law Quad Library

Ian Volner, architectural writer and co-editor of the late, great Edificial “The Ansonia, by Graves and Duboy circa 1899-1904, on 72nd St and Broadway, is the most beautiful apartment building in New York City. It’s featured in Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day. It shows up in The Panic in Needle Park. When I first saw it when I was a kid I thought that it was fake, and I spent ten minutes staring at it trying to convince myself that it was real. I kept thinking about how amazing it would be to be inside of it, and the kind of life that one would have. And that was kind of the first feeling I had about architecture — wondering what kind of life the building makes you have.”

Kara Meyer, development associate for non-profit Art in General “I always enjoy taking a book to the large room in the Met (where they filmed When Harry Met Sally). Something about its openness and view of the park is very peaceful and makes a great place to read. That is the first thing that came to my head when I read the question — especially since there so many buildings that have struck me in my travels — is just that it’s nice to know a space and visit it anytime you want.”

Brian Fichtner, art writer and manager of Cooper-Hewitt‘s design shop “When I started to think of a building that makes me happy, I considered the many landmarks and contemporary additions to New York City before settling upon the University of Michigan’s William W. Cook Research Library (or, as I always referred to it, the Law Quad Library). It is as serious as a library of learning can be, lined as it is with soaring stained glass windows framed by massive stones. But my happiness comes from the recollection of studying within the grand reading room, a most spacious, light-filled space filled with regimented rows of tables framed by ornate wooden library stacks. It is the kind of space that encourages lofty thought, where the purpose of study is hallowed. It reminds me of being young.”

Notre Dame du Haut by Le Corbusier

Eva Hagberg, author of Dark Nostalgia and former co-editor of Edificial “I visited Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp when I was twelve, with my stepfather who introduced me to architecture via big books of Richard Meier houses and Farnsworth & Glass. I’d seen pictures of it, but there was something about standing in front of that impossibly heavy dark concrete swoop of a roof and then inside, looking up into the light wells, that made me realize that there was something magic happening. Wanting to understand how that interplay of angles, planes, light, color, and material made me feel what I now think was something close to hope (or even faith) is why I do what I do today.”

Alexander Basek, food and travel writer “I love the Louis Sullivan-designed building on Bleecker Street, east of Broadway. It has this amazing, filigreed facade. It’s like a little taste of Chicago in New York, and it’s more whimsical than most the buildings from a similar era in NYC.”

Juan Miguel Marin, Eventys senior designer “Gaudi’s La Pedrera in Barcelona is a definitely one of the most beautiful architectural pieces in the world. If I could, I’d walk by it everyday; it would definitely make me happier. Gaudi’s signature style is influenced a lot by the ocean, so seeing such an organic and amazingly detailed building in the middle of the city feels like a perfect escape.”

William Bostwick, architecture and design writer, contributor to the ‘wire “My happy place is the Yale Center for British Art. Upstairs on the second floor in the double-height gallery with stuffed leather couches: I’ve sat in the same spot on the same couch for my entire life and the scratches on it are all mine. It’s quiet and sunlit and the art is beautiful in a boring British way.”

Tim Yu, editor of Cool Hunting “I would say Shea Stadium. I grew up going there and it reminds me of the old New York (architecturally and personally), the World’s Fair, and the Beatles. It’s one of the most diverse areas around — the best Korean food in the city is close by. And whenever I’m there it means I have nothing to do but watch some baseball — you don’t even get good cell phone service.”

[Editor’s note: Pictured at the top is my favorite building — the once Victorian-era mansion/now crack den next door to my house. I’ve never been inside because it’s fenced off, but it’s allegedly full of junk and porn. It was also in a movie! The current owners are planning to tear it down and make some crappy apartment building. I wish someone would save it.]