Saturday, January 21, 2012


A wealthy individual asks an architect to design a house that is not only not visible from the street, but also capable of complete self-containment, with all of the entertainment and exercise spaces the owner might need as well as storerooms for food, security systems for protection, and a safe room for escape from intruders.

In his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the philosopher Robert Nozick asks if we would call people happy if they spent their lives floating in a tank, with electrodes on their skulls attaching them to “experience machines” that constantly simulated pleasurable thoughts and feelings. Most people would react to Nozick’s science fiction fantasy with the response that: no, such people might feel happiness because of the artificial stimulation of pleasure points in the brain, but we would not call a life spent attached to a machine as a happy one. A happy life does not mean a lack of unhappiness. Indeed, we generally conceive of a happy life as one that has overcome unexpected setbacks, achieved meaningful accomplishments, and entailed a sense of purpose – in other words, some level of unhappiness or at least a degree of challenge or hardship.

That idea has sometimes gotten lost in a consumer culture that has encouraged us to equate happiness with wealth, privacy, and having a lot of stuff. As a result, many people have grown accustomed to seeing happiness as a lack of pain, suffering, or even inconvenience, as if such a life – short of being attached to an experience machine our whole lives – were even possible. Nor is it logical. We cannot know the meaning of anything without also knowing its opposite or its lack, and so the experience of happiness depends at least to some degree on the experience of unhappiness, which serves as a measure against which we can gauge our transcendence of it.

Architects and designers often confront this illogical or unbalanced view of happiness when dealing with the wealthiest of clients. In a world where inequality has reached record proportions, with a small percentage of people controlling a huge percentage of the wealth, the capability of the super-rich to afford almost anything has become legend. This, in turn, can lead to requests such as the one made to the architect in this case, where a very wealthy client wants a house that can be completely autonomous and cut-off from the community around it. Such a house has many of the characteristics of Nozick’s “experience machine,” able to simulate almost every pleasure imaginable.

But does that constitute happiness? Design professionals – and, indeed, many people – tend to shrug off such a question. Along with our tolerance of intolerable levels of inequality has come a view of happiness as something subjective and as a result, different for each individual. If this client can afford a house like that and it makes him and his family happy, who can argue? Certainly most designers won’t, since the extent of their fees relates to the size and expense of the projects they work on. The more elaborate the requirements of clients, the most extensive the fees of the designers.

But happiness is not entirely subjective, as we see from Nozick’s “experience machine.”  Most of us can agree on the basic constituents of a happy life – one that includes good relationships with family and friends, a sense of purpose and accomplishment, a sense of health and well being, and so on. Past a certain level, having more stuff – especially if it comes at the expense of these other values – does not make us more happy; it makes us less.

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