Exhibition Review: Our Happy Life

In a 1968 campaign speech at the University of Kansas, Robert F. Kennedy observed that Gross National Product “measures everything…  except that which makes life worthwhile.” The feeling that economic metrics fail to capture the totality of lived experience has taken an odd, if predictable, twist in the past decade. The 2008 financial crisis brought the seeming complacency of the 1990s and early 2000s—the so-called “end of history”—to a crashing halt. A new ideology of happiness has taken hold in geopolitical discourse, with the United Nations, national governments, and major journalistic organizations publishing increasingly precise rankings of global well-being.

Such efforts to quantify an essentially subjective part of human existence hover between a humanist desire to recognize the panoply of non-economic factors underlying the quest for human decency, and late capitalism’s drive to reify even the most essential of human emotions.

In Hawaii, houses built in the shadow of an active volcano point to the increasing risks that are being taken to realize the American dream of home ownership. Photo by CCA Montréal

Now on display at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism explores the spatial and sociological ramifications of this phenomenon. Curated by Francesco Garutti, Our Happy Life continues the institution’s recent series of thematic exhibitions challenging the unspoken assumptions of contemporary architecture. Our Happy Life does so by asking: what happens when architecture shifts its focus away from material techniques and the production of physical spaces, and aims towards the satisfaction of emotional desires? Will we really be happy in a world designed to make us happy?

The first and the last galleries in Our Happy Life form a pair, exposing the dramatic insinuation of happiness discourse into the post-crash world. While the opening gallery presents videos of world leaders subscribing to this ideology of well-being, the final one concludes with three case studies from Copenhagen, Tampa, and Tokyo spotlighting happiness as a form of urban branding. Frequently lauded in global rankings for its liveability, Copenhagen is justly praised for its impressive cycling infrastructure. But behind this success lurks a dangerous sense of smug satisfaction (one so often found in Canada!), which occludes inquiry into other problems troubling the Danish capital. In particular, one can point to the uneven distribution of bicycle thoroughfares and the high cost of the ubiquitous cargo-bike used by 25 percent of Copenhagen’s citizens. Meanwhile, a consulting industry flourishes, selling “copenhagenization” to other world cities.

Two highlights of the exhibition were commissioned especially for it by Garutti. The first is a 22-minute documentary film by Erin Weisgerber. Filmed at Gallup Headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, it juxtaposes spring views of the neighbouring Missouri River with interviews with Gallup executives and scenes inside the company’s call centre. Now, Please Think About Yesterday compellingly explores the production of the data underpinning the global happiness race. The comfortable but banal conditions within this generic office space illustrate the film’s palpable subtext: can happiness be divorced from conditions of labour and work?

A short film and series of photos show Gallup’s offices, where the happiness rankings of cities are produced. Photo CCA Montréal

A second commission is a series of eight bas-relief collages made by the Belgian office Bovenbouw in collaboration with Maria Malgorzata Olschowska. These are displayed under yellow neon lights in a room with heavy shag carpet (groovy flooring being a particular trademark of recent CCA exhibitions). These visually striking images were produced in response to a series of spatial imperatives found in international happiness reports, such as “exercise regularly,” “take public transit,” and “eat local.” Bovenbouw replied with brightly coloured perspectives depicting domestic and urban scenes, which follow these suggested guidelines for happiness.

Collages by Bovenbouw in collaboration with Maria Malgorzata Olschowska depict a series of idealized places, based on descriptions of what makes people happy. Photo by CCA Montréal

The collages follow in a recent Belgian trend (including groups such as Office KGDVS and Monadnock) presenting Hockney-esque architectural drawings as an antidote to photorealistic renderings. Yet, as bas-reliefs, they refresh this medium, highlighting the crafted, layered nature of these images’ compositions, thereby transforming the slick flatness of typical drawings of this type into subtle material artefacts. The result is compelling, especially in an image revealing a hidden ravine glimpsed from behind a floor-to-ceiling window. While the inclusion of small boats and fishing rods suggest the possibility of a pleasant urban idyll, the uncanny associations latent in the collages’ visual antecedents—especially the forced perspectives reminiscent of de Chirico and Dali—are transferred to the images. Can such spaces exist in our present economic, political and ecological situation? And if so, at what cost? Or are they only possible as alluring images?

One of the commissioned collages presents the implausible pairing of a hidden lake with city skyscrapers. Multimedia Collage © Bouvenbouw Architectuur, in collaboration with Maria Malgorzata Olschowska

Our Happy Life is highly convincing in its argument for the dominant place of a happiness agenda within contemporary global discourse, and its insinuation into the built environment. This ideology is explored in greater depth through 25 case studies, presented in a long enfilade of three connected galleries. These cases are intended to reveal the ambiguous and complex dynamics underlying our contemporary emotional landscapes. While most of the examples are individually compelling, the overall result is somewhat of a disparate jumble, pulled together by the incongruous imperatives of the contemporary real estate market. The patient viewer is, however, rewarded with a dark tour of the underbelly of late capitalism, stretching from sleep inducement products to taxidermy.

The strongest cases are the most troubling. A documentary film by Brett Story examines Amazon’s “CamperForce” of itinerant seasonal workers who live in camper vans and work at Amazon warehouses during peak pre-holiday seasons. Many of these nomadic “workampers” are older Americans, who lost their homes or suffered other forms of financial distress following the 2008 crash. Here, the image of the RV as symbol of mobile American happiness collides with the prevailing North American ideology of home ownership—all wrapped in a troubling situation brought about by the exploitative labour conditions inherent to our current world of seamless e-commerce.

Another example—more inane than distressing—is the Scandanavian fad for “Plogging” (a portmanteau of jogging and plocka upp, Swedish for “picking up”) which sees runners collecting garbage as they exercise. While indeed a benevolent form of public citizenship, Plogging has also become a performative ritual of virtue signalling—diffused through Ploggers’ social media accounts—whose actual function is far removed from the scale of contemporary environmental emergencies.

The institutional insistence upon a happiness agenda post-2008 was clearly driven by governments’ inability (or unwillingness) to guarantee the material sureties of the pre-crash world. This has sometimes led to a dramatic transformation of risk tolerances. A concrete example is the construction of New Kalapana Gardens, a suburb atop a calcified lava field created following the 1990 eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano. This move to build dozens of effectively uninsurable structures in the path of a deadly volcano testifies both to their occupants’ high tolerance for risk, and to the rise of land values to unaffordable levels elsewhere in the paradisiacal archipelago. More so, this example provides a glimpse of the future awaiting many of us in an ecologically transformed world, where home ownership may carry far greater risks due to rising seas and increases in turbulent weather.

A park under the Egongyan Bridge, which carries six lanes of traffic across the Yangtze River, is an example of the type of spaces meant to contribute to the well-being of citizens. Photo by Yan Wang Preston. Forest, 2010-2017. © Yan Wang Preston

Designed by OK-RM from London and Bernard Dubois from Brussels, Our Happy Life is an attractive exhibition, frequently fluffy, and full of Instagrammable moments. Key exhibition text is printed onto plexiglass sheets, which are framed in front of felted backgrounds—the effect is beautiful and clear. But is the exhibition’s visual appeal and frequent softness another example of what architecture will become under the ideological reign of happiness? Does the design produce an ironic space of moral critique, or is it just another vacuous thing meant to make us happy? Our Happy Life’s ambiguity towards the issue turns each component of the exhibition into a sort of Rorschach Test for the viewer: perhaps the CCA, too, should survey our responses. Did the exhibition make you happy?

Garutti has wisely avoided setting out an agenda for architects in this age of emotional capitalism. But perhaps the only solution to the question of how to close happiness “gaps” (both real and perceived) is to refuse to play the game. If the right to happiness is so hard to pin down, what other rights should we be fighting for instead? The exhibition’s framing and content is essentially economic. Contemporary politics has revealed a transformed landscape in which dreams of what Aaron Bastani calls “fully automated luxury communism” compete with dystopian narratives of AI-induced mass unemployment—all under the rising spectre of reactionary populism. Our Happy Life lays bare many of the Potemkin cities erected in the wake of 2008.

Architectural historian Peter Sealy is an Assistant Professor at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.

Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism is on display at the Canadian Centre for Architecture until October 13, 2019.