Alain de Botton breaks down how to build a beautiful city


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Alain’s books never disappoint. Highly recommend Status Anxiety for Americans, How Proust Can Change Your Life for anyone else. How he can be so articulate, intelligent, insightful, and well read never ceases to delight me.

Did you ever click on the library and read that long bonus rant by Neil Gaiman? Pretty sure it was in SC2000.

I had being in a lot of cities and I subscribe almost everything said in the video (5 stories top feels a bit too short for me).

I studied to be a tourist technician and every time I see a city or town in TV I flex my marketing brain to see how could I sell, touristically, that place.

I will only say that dealing with American cities not in the old thirteen colonies or the west coast is a nightmare of Wall Mart parking lots proportions…

Wow. It’s like a TED talk on what Christopher Alexander wrote in 1979. Alain de Botton is merely reguritating The Timeless Way of Building here. If you want to know how all the humane, fractal components of life, from how to build a bathroom all the way to a full-sized metropolis, Alexander’s work is more or less the perfect guide.


Alain de Botton looks like a human being as designed by HR Giger. His forehead rises high up to a vaulted dome, a tapering lizard’s egg of a cranium. His eyebrows jolt and shudder with his shoulders. His nose has a lubricious gleam; his mouth is a dark stain, red wine or fresh blood, and when he talks his deathly-white teeth seem to slide oilily against each other. His skin is faintly rubbery, and while it mostly seems to fit him there are still a few places where is bunches up or stretches out, like a cutaneous gimp suit. He looks weird, interstellarly weird; half Mystery Man from Lynch’s Lost Highway, half sentient rock formation.

Why does Alain de Botton want us to kill our young?


This hits the mark almost 100%. I’m convinced that the reason that cities fail is because they aren’t built for people. In every horrible place, something has been prioritised other than people.

In many cases it’s the car. How many cityscapes have you come across that are just downright hostile to anyone who isn’t driving- Highways that slice off neighbourhoods and leave them to wither, underpasses and bridges that relegate the human to underclass status, or crossings and intersections that ignore the possibility of walking.

In many places it’s the architect’s vision. Something that looks good as a scale model, or will win fancy prizes is invariably an inhumane space to walk into. The rationalist structures of the 20th century suffered a lot from this, or more accurately, the people who had to live in them did.

Interestingly, the Sim City games (yes, all four of them) get more interesting when you try to plan a city that’s human scaled and liveable. Think about how long actual people would have to walk to their local shop, or a transit stop, how long commutes would be, and whether you would actually want to lie there. At least I found myself building differently when I chose to think that way.


Oh, yay. Yet another ‘proper urbanism’ pundit who elevates his own personal preferences — or possibly whatever he imagines the mainsream majority’s preferences to be — to a level of Aesthetic Truth, and then lectures everyone on “How To Design Cites” as though he were playing Sim City.

I found the animation extremely grating, because about 80% of the time, the things he describes as wonderful strike me as boring or ugly or banal, and a great many of the things he claims are horrible are things I rather enjoy.

That, coupled with the completely ahistorical ignorance of how and why cities actually grow* makes for yet another in a tedious, seemingly endless spew of self-righteous screeds about “How stupid everyone else is if they don’t do things the way I think they should be done.”

Talk about boring and banal.

*Hint: it’s not always about making things beautiful. Frequently, it’s about getting things done, in close quarters, with limited resources, without excessively annoying too many of your fellow citizens. It’s a city, not a Theme Park.

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Point me to the ebook of it… Oh yeah, there aren’t any of Alexander’s work for some reason.

P.S. Hi Elf. Long time, no see!

Move to Houston. You’ll love it.

I hope you have a car though.

The architect’s vision? Its Civil Engineering, and its spawn, American single use Zoning that has made it impossible/illegal to build rich cities of integrated environments. The civil engineering profession not only laid down these planning principles, they continue to benefit from them by serving municipalities as consultants, enforcing and evaluating planning proposals against these standards, evaluating proposals that their own profession prepares for fee for developers.

All of these banal streets and environments are already laid down and approved before any Architect is asked to design a building for them. The way we make our built environment may be f-cked, but please don’t point your finger at the messenger.

Right. As though Houston is the only possible alternative to your preferences.

There’s a wide range of possible urban form. And a wide range of purposes for urban landscape besides being twee and charming to aesthetic critics.

Besides, most of these ‘principles’ are stunningly obvious.

People like things somewhere between completely uncontrolled chaos and completely dull boring regularity? Um, yeah.

He constantly mistakes effects for causes - we like places that are lively? No, the places we like are lively because people like them.

Making public spaces lively, attractive places is a complex bit of social engineering that’s been attempted by any number of rule-set-proffering urban planners, with varying degrees of success and failure — and it’s nowhere near as simple as this video suggests.

I’ve witnessed, and in a couple of cases participated in, efforts to revivify decaying urban spaces - some worked brilliantly, some flopped badly, and some finally found their footing after a decade or two of struggle and continuous alteration.

And ALL of them obeyed all these ‘rules’ for ‘how to make a beautiful city.’

For SimCity players and any first-year Urban Planning Policy student who’s never given any real thought to beauty in urban form, this might be of some use — but it’s pompous, self-satisfied, over-simplified and ponderously obvious pap that any self-respecting connoisseur of urban form is liable to find laughable.

(And, FTR, I find the comparisons to Christopher Alexander perplexing. Alexander’s work is brilliantly insightful, well-written, and just… honestly, I’m at a loss for words, despite the well-thumbed copy on my shelf. It’s a classic; a gem; required reading for anyone interested in the beauty of built form. No comparison. IMnvHO.)

Hey, this School of Life channel is bloody great.

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