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Last Updated: Monday, 20 November 2006, 10:04 GMT
Why home is where the heart is
As part of a series looking at housing in the UK, philosopher Alain de Botton examines why the idea of home is so important to us.

'Ginger and Fred', two towers of a modernist building placed at Rasinovo Nabrezi in Prague
Where we live can inspire us...

Is it serious to worry about design and architecture?

To think hard about the shape of the bathroom taps, the colour of the bedspread and the dimensions of the window frames?

A long intellectual tradition suggests it isn't.

A whiff of trivia and self-indulgence floats over the topic. It seems like something best handled by the flamboyant presenters of early evening TV shows.

A thought-provoking number of the world's most intelligent people have always disdained any interest in the appearance of buildings, equating contentment with intellectual, invisible matters instead.


And yet our sensitivity to our surroundings can be traced back to a troubling feature of human psychology: to the way we harbour within us many different selves, not all of which feel equally like "us", so much so that in certain moods, we can complain of having come adrift from what we judge to be our true selves.

Blighted inner city area
...or dishearten us

Unfortunately, the self we miss at such moments, the elusively authentic, creative and spontaneous side of our character, is not ours to summon at will.

Our access to it is, to a humbling extent, determined by the places we happen to be in, by the colour of the bricks, the height of the ceilings and the layout of the streets.

In a house strangled by three motorways, or in a wasteland of rundown tower blocks, our optimism and sense of purpose are liable to drain away, like water from a punctured container.

We may start to forget that we ever had ambitions or reasons to feel spirited and hopeful.

We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them.

We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves.

We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need - but are at constant risk of forgetting we need - within.

We turn to wallpaper, benches, paintings and streets to staunch the disappearance of our true selves.

Promise of happiness

In turn, those places with an outlook which matches and legitimates our own, we tend to honour with the term "home".

Our homes do not have to offer us permanent occupancy or store our clothes to merit the name.

We call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient.

To speak of home in relation to a building is simply to recognise its harmony with the things we believe are most important.

As the French writer Stendhal put it: "What we find beautiful is the promise of happiness."

What we call a beautiful house is one that rebalances our misshapen natures and encourages emotions which we are in danger of losing sight of.

For example, an anxious person may be deeply moved by a white, empty, minimalist house.

Or a business executive who spends her life shuttling between airports and steel and glass conference centres may feel an intense attraction to a simple rustic cottage - which can put her in touch with sides of her personality that are denied to her in the ordinary press of her days.

We call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient.

We respect a style which can move us away from what we fear and towards what we crave: a style which carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues.

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