The subject of architecture

st louis in two acts small (scene of crime)

Psychoanalytic theory, as it is articulated in the text of Freud and Lacan, is the most systematic, extended, and closely observed account of the human subject. It is a spatial subject. To cite a few examples. Freud referred to the discovery of the unconscious as his Copernican revolution because it decentred the subject from its conscious world. Desire after Lacan is about position, the position of an object with respect to a subject. And Lacan argued that Freud’s detail, Wo Es war, soll Ich werden, is about where? not who?

Arguably, the problem with the architectural avant-garde – the critique that emerged in the 1970s in response to modernism – is that it was not able to articulate a sufficiently resilient account of its subject, the subject of architecture and the city. Deconstruction (predominant in America) and phenomenology (UK), both of which philosophies were drafted in by architects to theorise their architecture and urban practices, are inadequate to the task. In 1978, Mario Gandelsonas asks who/what is the subject of architecture, ‘the subject as origin and determinant of the architectural object….’ In structuralism, the subject is a function of structure. The linguistic subject is made possible by the systematic structuring of language by Saussure. Gandelsonas again: ‘At the point when this object [i.e. architecture, urbanism] becomes clearly, and almost autonomously, defined in its systematic internal, formal relations then does the subject take on a clear configuration. In linguistic terms the definition of an organisation as a normative system, which in architecture would be the constitutive rules of the object, implies at the same time its subject.’ Arguably, Eisenman’s syntactical project made it possible to articulate an architectural subject.

It is unclear why Gandelsonas’ question is never clearly taken up, never given more currency in architecture.

It is unclear why Eisenman and Tschumi flirt with, but never engage with Lacan, in the way that they collaborated with Derrida.

One of the strengths of psychoanalysis is that it does not lead so easily to form the way Deconstruction could lead so quickly to plan fragmentation (the enjoyment of a problematic unity) and phenomenology to touchy feely surface treatment (the comforts of interior design). The consequences for architecture of the desiring decentred subject is never worked through.

Long before the IAUS folded in the early 1980s, the post-structuralist critique of the modern object had collapsed into the stylistic post-modernism we recognise in plasterboard Il Redentores.

Perhaps this po-mo is an instance of the repression of the unconscious by the ego.

Mario Gandelsonas, ‘From Structure to Subject: The Formation of an Architectural Language’ in Oppositions 17 (1978) pp6-29. Lorens Holm, photomontage, Beckett in St. Louis, 1990.


2 thoughts on “The subject of architecture

  1. If it is possible, as I argue in Brunelleschi Lacan Le Corbusier, to systematically structure the subject as a subject of perspective, and as a subject of the future anterior, how can architecture and urbanism use this knowledge?

  2. At a conference at Harvard GSD, ‘The Nature of Architecture’, 13 April 2010, Eisenman remarked that his theoretical critical project had always to do with the object and subject of architecture, in other words, with the spirit of time and of place or zeitgeist and genus loci.

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