About Joy

Posted in Vol 14 No 1 by bsaab on February 3, 2011

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Joy is among my favorite architectural words. Joy, optimism, dreams — these are my themes. I have tried to re-introduce joy after long joyless war years. I believe buildings should bring joyous experience not just to architects but to the lives of people.
— Benjamin Thompson FAIA, AIA Gold Medal acceptance speech, January 22, 1992

Accounts of Benjamin Thompson’s life and work are saturated with extravagant applications of the word “joy” in all of its lexicographic variants. “He knew like no one else how to create a joyful environment”; his retail venture, Design Research (D/R), “joyfully occupied a quarter century” of dedicated effort; he aimed to “seek out the beautiful, the joyful, and the enriching in whatever he might be doing”; he loved children’s toys because “they spoke to his idea of joy, color, and fantasy”; he “tried to create an architecture of hope and joy” — and so on and on. The record of his own language is no different; the transcript of his 1992 AIA Gold Medal acceptance speech, titled “Ben’s Ode to Joy,” uses the word 13 times in 11 sentences. The centrality of the idea is hard to miss.

As ideas go, this one is difficult to dislike; to argue against the value of joy would seem perverse. And yet, in the experience of many, the words “joy” and “architecture” are seldom heard together. The profession has not learned, on the whole, to speak in these terms. Joy, like beauty, seems difficult to pin down, hard to design, impossible to teach. Looking back at their own education, many architects might wonder which of their design critics would have been willing or qualified to pronounce on the subject — the very term “critic” does not provoke optimism on this count. And in any case, what is the place of joy amid the anxieties of the modern world? Does not the very word awaken memories of a Christian hope that our modern culture has come to distrust? Is the appeal to joy not hopelessly subjective, overshadowed by a fear of disillusion, by a distrust of the sticky sweetness of kitsch? The language of joy exposes us to the accusation of naïve optimism; the very possibility of joy might seem to depend on an ignorance of the pain of our own history, described by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer as “the long, heavy and confused dream of mankind.” Are we not rightfully distrustful of the empty promises of an easy, fabricated joy, blind to the realities of a world which — perhaps more than ever before — is without excuse for insensitivity to its own violence?

Yet this was precisely not true for Benjamin Thompson. His commitment to joy was a carefully articulated response to that world of violence. His widow, Jane Thompson, has suggested that his search for the joyful was a reaction to an early life that was in many ways difficult. He graduated from Yale’s School of Art and Architecture in 1941, just in time to be plunged into the destruction of the war; his launch into a career in architecture came only after four hard years of service in the US Navy, and he shared with his partners in The Architects Collaborative a deep-felt commitment to addressing the challenges of postwar reconstruction. A quarter-century later, one of the brightest landmarks of Thompson’s Cambridge practice, the D/R building on Brattle Street, grew out of the stormy environment of 1968, overshadowed by the despair of student activists over two tragic assassinations in the US and an unrelenting war in Vietnam. It was in this troubled context that Thompson attempted to build an architecture of hope and of joy.

In this regard at least, Thompson’s work stands firmly within the Modernist tradition, in the belief that architecture can and must respond to the problems of the contemporary world. Early Modernism, too, grew out of troubled times. Even if “joy” may not be the first word to spring to mind in association with Walter Gropius, it is clear that Thompson’s partner shared the belief that architecture must identify and address the real failures of modernity. And if Modernism can perhaps be accused of an excessively confident assessment of the future, it is harder to maintain that it suffered from an overly optimistic estimation of the present.

Thompson’s commitment to joy was a carefully articulated response to the world of violence.

A century earlier, Schopenhauer had made an even stronger claim for the role of the arts. In the second volume of The World as Will and Representation, he argued that sensitivity to human tragedy is an inseparable companion to the artist’s perception of the world; in fact, “the brighter the intellect … , the more distinctly does it perceive the wretchedness of its condition.” Indeed, it is precisely this that suggests the need for art. To argue along similar lines, a sense of alienation is in a way perhaps necessary to the architectural impulse.

On the other hand, even Schopenhauer — a man not known for naïve optimism — was willing to concede a role to tragedy’s natural counterpart, comedy: “It is true that even comedy must bring before our eyes sufferings and reverses of fortune, as every presentation of human life inevitably must; but it exhibits them to us as fleeting, resolving themselves into joy.” If we are willing to understand comedy in its broadest sense, then the architecture of joy is an appropriate medication for the tragedy of life. Yet it also presents its own dangers. Schopenhauer concludes by asserting that comedy is designed to “keep us in all circumstances in a good mood. In the result, it therefore declares that life on the whole is quite good, and in particular is generally amusing.” If undiluted pessimism is like tragedy without comedy, comedy without tragedy is an illusion.

Thompson’s work has certainly been exposed to this criticism. His architecture has been compared to a cocoon that attempts to shut out the surrounding world of violence; and his philosophy has been reduced to “the idea that you should have a nice life with nice things” — a philosophy in danger of ascribing too central a position, perhaps, to the association of joy with material goods, a philosophy that is uncomfortably close to the promise of satisfaction via consumption.

And this begs the question as to where such joy is to be located. Can joyful architecture, if such a thing exists, be produced only by a joyful architect? This is a counterpart, surely, to the suggestion that beautiful architecture can be produced only by a beautiful architect; some of us would have reason to hope otherwise. Ruskin, for one, might have preferred to locate the need for joy not with the architect but with the builder; yet this seems today a quaint conviction. Does the architect design with an eye to the joy of others? A critic might observe that such joy is perhaps easier to achieve amid the lights and colors of Harvard Square’s Brattle Street, and that the festival marketplace is most welcoming to those with money to spend on the festivities. Or is this a superficial critique?

It is clear, at the very least, that there are limits to the capacities of architecture’s association with joy. And yet, to acknowledge those limits is not to suggest that there is nothing to learn from the exploration. Thompson’s retail experiment, which, with its successors, might be argued to have brought his architectural sensibilities to an exceptionally wide audience, was named “Design Research” — the very name suggests that if nothing else, there are at least important questions to be asked here, questions that do not lend themselves to instant or permanent resolution. Certainly Thompson’s own architecture developed over many years of such research; his later work seems warmer, brighter, freer, maybe more humane than the austerity of his early work. And this points, perhaps, to one of the more endearing aspects of an explicit commitment to joy: Joy is an uncomfortable companion to arrogance, to self-centeredness, to meanness of spirit, to excessive formality or narrow didacticism. If architecture has at times been prone to such faults, and if there is any substance to Thompson’s rhetoric — and the enduring interest in his work would suggest that there is — then the possibility of such joy is surely worth another look.

Above: Painting by Ben Thompson, courtesy Jane Thompson.

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