Interview with the curators of "Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism" exhibition at the CCA

The Architecture of Happiness was a trite book published in the mid-2000s and mercifully forgotten. Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism, a new exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal, isn’t nearly as snappily titled, but as an enterprise, it is far more probing and curious. Curated by Francesco Garutti, the show explores how, after the 2008 financial crash, the “happiness industry”—comprising government initiatives, economic indices, and city rankings—hijacked virtually every facet of contemporary life.

Metropolis’s Samuel Medina spoke to Garutti about happiness as a social project, the “cold intimacy” of Instagram, and architecture’s new spaces of meaning.

Meloni’s Buio, 2019
Meloni’s Buio, 2019 © Courtesy Canadian Centre for Architecture - For Our Happy Life, a non-archival show at the Canadian Centre for Architecture on exhibit May 8 through October 13, the institution commissioned works from artists and architects like the Italian photographer Emanuela Meloni. 

SM: Happiness has become a metric—“a set of values,” as you say—with transnational currency. It now enjoys the imprimatur of political science and sociological research. When did that happen?

FG: The exhibition has a precise chronological moment—the ten years between 2008 and 2018. It is true that this weird entity of “happiness,” as we are defining it, was happening in the early ’90s. That is the moment it began to be marketed in a new way, as a set of positive emotions to be used as an asset. Will Davies’s book The Happiness Industry describes the story very well. In 2008 you have the economic crisis. You have figures like Richard Layard, considered one of the main figures in the U.K. behind the World Happiness Reports. Then there was the Stiglitz Commission’s report, which suggested a political strategy to go beyond GDP. At the same time you have the release of the first iPhone, which makes data collection very easy but also allows us to track our own lives. These are just a few points, but the exhibition reads this moment very critically.


SM: Within architecture, there has been another shift—less about happiness—from something as bland as “sustainability” to something more edifying, like “wellness.”

FG: There has been a development from LEED to the WELL Building Standard [established in 2014]. Mental-health factors have been added to “environmental” building practices. Just as before, there was a need to have green surfaces everywhere; now happiness is used as a surface. In the exhibition we make this point through two big photos of guest rooms in John Portman’s Atlanta Marriott Marquis. His hotels are really worlds unto themselves. But also the rooms are generic. In the photos they are very similar, until you look at the specifications.