Architecture and the Unconscious


London Book Launch >>> 5-8:00pm >>> Friday 09 December 2016 >>> University College London

We (Jane Rendell and I) are launching Architecture and the Unconscious (Routledge 2016), an edited collection of essays by architects and theorists of architecture, which explores the concept of the unconscious in architectural thought and imagination. Edited by John Hendrix and Lorens Holm. On sale at the London event at special discount by the AA Bookstore. This project began as a paper session that John and I co-chaired at the annual international conference of the Society of Architectural Historians in Austin, April 2014, more than two years ago.

The launch will include a discussion between the contributors to the book and an invited panel of psychoanalysts and architects, including:

David Bell, Past President British Psychoanalytic Society; and Consultant Psychiatris, The Tavistock Clinic.

Lesley Caldwell, Psychoanalyst BPA, and Honorary Professor, UCL Psychoanalysis Unit.

Patrick Lynch, Lynch Architects London, and University of Liverpool.

The contributors to Architecture and the Unconscious are from cities around the UK, USA, and Europe including Moscow, Rome, and Athens: Andrew Ballantyne, Kati Blom, Hugh Campbell, Emma Cheatle, Gordana Fontana-Giusti, John Hendrix, Lorens Holm, Stephen Kite, Christina Malathouni, Tim Martin, Francesco Proto, Jane Rendell, Nikos Sideris, Alla Vronskaya.


Architectural values

My work is about developing the values of architecture, architectural values. These values are based in the human understanding. The domain of my research is architectural theory. I use writing and disputation as research methods to develop values for architecture and the city based in human understanding. My work draws heavily on the humanities – indeed, I regard architecture as a humanity, not a science or social science – because that is the discourse in which our values are most directly articulated.

I use the term architecture in the broadest way, to include the city – what Rossi called the architecture of the city, architecture framed by a city constructed of architecture – to include all the environments we construct in order to live well in them. I look at our understanding of ourselves, and of others, the sorts of judgements we make about ourselves and the world, the categories by which we organise the world. My work is an extended critique or extended reflection that usually takes the form of an extended critique.

My work refers to the architectural theories and histories that precede it, but also to the disciplines of psychoanalysis [Lacan, Freud] and philosophy [Kant, Hegel], as the two most extended discourses on the human subject. I look at questions of space, culture, subjectivity, well-being, attachment, quality, quantity.

I do research in architectural theory by making more of it. It is speculative, fictional, and it avoids the evidence base like the plague.

These values are based in human understanding, the philosopher Immanuel Kant would have called it simply the understanding, the understanding of ourselves and others, ourselves and the world, ourselves in relation to others and to the world. These values are other to the prevailing narratives of entrepreneurship and utility that are championed by government aligned with business, except to the extent that human values may be driven by acquisition of money and problem solving. My work is important because these New Labour narratives (champions of neo-liberalism, thank you Blair) may be the drivers for most architecture, but they have relatively little to do with architecture as a practice that has extended across thousands of years. This extended practice edits out the flash-in-the-pan narratives that are destructive to architecture and to the people that inhabit it. Architecture may now find itself the tool and lackey of development and investment, but architecture is not a product and is not produced as such, nor is it easily turned into a commodity.

I solve the world’s problems, by finding new models for understanding them.

Architecture is (not) interested in well-being

Architecture is interested in architecture. It is not interested in well-being, or other social sciences categories that are imposed upon architecture by government planning policy units and the university research policies that support them. Architecture is interested in architecture. If you get the architecture right, well-being will follow. A quick look at the way development is breaking up the public realm in most cities – reducing it increasingly to an incoherent and unedifying condition – will convince most people that getting the architecture right is no easy feat. This post is a plea for architectural research.

Architecture does not come to people. People come to architecture.

We can ask what makes good architecture? Despite the hegemony in contemporary governance for bean-counting audits, there is no tick-box of qualities. Think sideways to what makes good literature. Think how different Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice is to Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable. There is no list of qualities that they share. What makes good architecture (literature) is its single-mindedness of purpose, the ruthless clarity with which it pursues an idea. Le Corbusier said this in 1923. If the idea is compelling, people will come to it, people will crawl to it the way they will crawl to St. Peters. People will accommodate themselves to it willingly, and with pleasure and satisfaction.

If you look at this seminar room that we are in now, for instance, this room I am standing in and speaking to you in, me here, you all there, it is not horrible. It has a nice acoustic ceiling. It is evenly lit. It has a door. Space for tables and chairs. None of us are in pain, or at least not because of the architecture. But there is nothing compelling about it. It is simply the most efficient armature for hanging audio visual equipment which does not compromise comfort. But it does not see us. It is not organised for us. It is, however, organised. It is organised in a way that generates the most return for its investors. It is organised for the profit of its investors who are hidden from the occupants – you and I – who sit here now.  We, in so far as we constitute the University of Dundee, are on puppet strings to whoever developed this building for their profit.

If you look around at all the disorganised spaces in our buildings and cities, it is clear that architecture has failed. But how has it failed? It has failed in its battle against the forces of finance, financially driven development. It has failed to represent, by architectural means or architectural expression, what we might call human values, or more precisely – following Kant – the human understanding. These spaces may be disorganised for people, they may not make sense to their occupants, but they are not dis-organised. They are highly organised. As architect Rem Koolhaas has insisted, the city is organised for making money. To bastardise Le Corbusier, these spaces are highly tuned machines for making money in.


space and subjectivity > perspective

brunelleschi's dream of space2crop lite inverted

Brunelleschi’s demonstration of perspective puts a viewer of Florence behind a view of Florence. Space possesses a realness to which we are always drawn, but which will always escape the means and media by which we seek to capture it.

The first half of Brunelleschi Lacan Le Corbusier: architecture space and the construction of subjectivity, argues that Brunelleschi’s invention of perspective formalized the template for the modern desiring subject. In architectural discourse, the modern or perspectival subject…

  • is first and foremost in space and in a space (a particular space bound by a horizon); and
  • is in that space at a position amongst an array of possible, past, and future positions; and
  • is in that space as a viewer (a subject of spatial experience which underlies virtually all other experience, spatial or otherwise);
  • on account of which last two, s/he has a point of view;
  • distances his/herself from his/her objects (when they are desired objects they are experienced as being distant);
  • positions his/herself in power and in ideology in ways that maps onto his/her position in space (this last point may be critical for political discourse).

Most critically, in architectural discourse, this modern or perspectival subject…

  • has a psychical interior (i.e. the subject is an interior space) that shadows a shared exterior (i.e. an objective exterior);
  • the subject finds him/herself split in the sense that s/he is never the unity of thought action and labour that being in a position in space suggests (another way to put this would be the constituent non-coincidence of the spatial and speaking subjects).

This is the schema for a project that has the potential for unfathomable richness and intricateness. It may be led by architecture and architectural thinking, but it is the domain of all the labour that puts artifacts in the world.

The dynamic relation between interior and exterior is formalised by the processes of introjection and projection. Contained herein is the spatial meaning of the architectural project.

rooms + cities 3

st louis in two acts small (scene of crime)

city field inscription – the tenuous spatial poetics of the subject in the city, whose image and position are always fading away. montage derived from reading Beckett and St. Louis, MO.

Following Lacan, I want to argue that we are fundamentally spatial beings. I want to argue that architecture is the practice that positions the subject in space because that subject is spatial. If the subject is a speaking being, then we need to ask how the subject is also a spatial one? This is not simply the default mode of having a body. One of the ways to approach this question would be to look at the degree to which architecture is a symbolic discourse that insists that the speaking subject of analysis and the spatial subject of architecture are aligned with each other in a relation that will always be problematic. This relation is a symbolic fact, not simply an anatomical one. There are consequences for the coincidence and/or non-coincidence of the speaking subject with the spatial subject. I would like to address space as concept, because it is critical to my interest in space and subjectivity, in how space and subjects are conceptually and experientially bound to each other. Let’s start with an example from modernism. In Space Time and Architecture, Giedion says that if you want to understand architecture, you have to understand space. He says space conception, not space. Space is something we conceive prior to experiencing it, space is a concept we experience. According to Giedion, there are three space conceptions in Western architecture. For Giedion, space as a symbolic construct that makes certain things accessible to thought and perception, and rules out others. Space for Giedion is not a default given, a simple fact of experience. We conceptualise space by making architecture, the way we think about it and instrumentalise it. Giedion’s taxonomy:

The Archaic or Greek space conception is about architectural objects in dynamic relations with each other. This exterior space corresponds to externalized subjects like Odysseus who regularly converses with Athena and with an architecture whose interiors are without significance and are uncelebrated, like the Parthenon. In the Classic space conception, architecture is hollowed out to make the interior space of Roman and the renaissance architecture. This conception was clarified by the invention of perspective. Finally there is the Modern space conception, a dynamic relation between inside and outside across the charged and tremulous threshold of modern architecture, which corresponds to the modern subject who imagines him/herself to have a psychoanalytic inside that shadows a real outside. Deleuze and Guattari propose to go beyond Giedion’s taxonomy with fold space, which is a continuous fluid space unencumbered by neurotic bourgeois constructions like thresholds and other modernist binaries. Their figure of the schizo as the action hero of 20th Century capitalism is a return to Odysseus.

The architectural discourse that emerges from phenomenology seems to regard space and its discourses as a reductive gesture that leads to a flattening of experience, or the flattening of ‘world.’ To the contrary, space is the protagonist that opens experience and representation up to an unfathomable richness. Le Corbusier called space indicibile. It is unsayable and ineffable. Space possesses a realness to which we are always drawn, but which will always escape the means and media by which we seek to capture it. We are drawn to space out of love the way we are drawn to wisdom, love of what is real, real love. My work is dedicated to deepening the mystery of space, which is the opposite of making it transparent to reason. Space is the surface out of which subjectivity emerges and to which it returns; in the way that non-sense is the surface from whence sense emerges and to which it returns. Modernism has left us with a rich heritage of space that has nothing to do with efficiency, function, or profitability. Joyce and Beckett, two of our richest modern authors, would be unintelligible without thinking space and subjectivity together. Mies and Miralles, two of our richest modern architects would be unintelligible without thinking space and subjectivity together. The project of psychoanalysis and philosophy, at least for architecture, is to continue to develop that richness by working through the consequences of the many threads that bind space and subjectivity to each other. I argue in Brunelleschi Lacan Le Corbusier, that Brunelleschi’s invention of perspective formalized the spatial template for the modern desiring subject; and Le Corbusier’s career, the template for the modern form of cyclical or loopy temporality. Both of which challenge what Eisenman refers to as genus loci and zeitgeist, presence of place and presence of time, the two metaphysical doctrines underlying most architectural thinking. To my mind, space is inseparable from subjectivity. This is difficult to say directly because space and subjectivity are experienced in a state of distraction (thanks Benjamin). It can only be alluded to, in moments of protest that interrupt the discourse of others.

rooms + cities 2


Our aim is to study – by architectural means – the forms and conditions for the eruption of rooms within the fabric of the city. By fabric we mean texture, infrastructure, morphology, topography, and zoning, even. Rooms may take many forms and scales, they may be big or little, public or private, commercial or residential, habitable or uninhabitable, accessible or inaccessible,…. Let us wager that the subject of the city sees itself in the room. The subject uses the room to locate itself, whether the room is accessible or not. In their many and varied forms, rooms represent the subject of the city to itself and to others. In the language of Lacan, the subject is in an imaginary and/or symbolic relation to the room. Imagine for a moment that the city has two surfaces, both of which are problematic. There is an outer surface and an inner surface. The outer surface is the interface between the city and its region or hinterland, usually rural. The inner surface is the interface between the spatial subject and the city or city fabric. Both are problematic, not least because the outer edge no longer exists (it has been urbanised), and the inner edge never did (it is symbolic or imaginary, it is always already disappearing).

If the spatial subject did not exist, this architectural project, which creates a space for inhabitation by projection, would not be intelligible as a project, or, if intelligible, not poignant.

SOM, Lever House, NYC (completed 1952). Designated as a NYC Landmark, 1982. Built by British soap manufacturers Lever Brothers as their American headquarters. Lever Bros. founded in Warrington (1885), merged (1930) with the Dutch margarine company Margarine Unie to form Unilever. Merger based on the natural affinity of soap and margarine.

Psychosis and sub urban is a tion

las vegas at 3k las vegas at 30k
Las Vegas from an altitude of 3k © Google Earth + Las Vegas from an altitude of 30k © Google Earth

The psychotic logic of the suburb:

  • its manic repetition.
  • an assembly-line environment constantly machined to perfection.
  • a spatial logic whose certainty is matched by its utter banality and it utter lack of discrimination.
  • a category-defying logic that oozes smoothly across the surface of the earth, pouring into every nook and cranny, without any recognition of difference, orientation, topography.

And if it is not ideal, it is at least irresistible; it draws us in the way the gambler is drawn to money.

Within each suburban house, is a family. The Oedipal triangle of the bourgeois family is the model and structure upon which neurosis is built. Each father mother child neurosis template inhabits an identical house box on an identical lawn on an identical street that repeats almost without change. Contemporary urbanisation presents a model for the relation of psychosis and neurosis –  which is quite different from the model developed in the early 20th C by psychoanalysis. In the texts of Freud and Lacan, they are equivalent, alternatives, binary; Freud’s research focused on neurosis, Lacan’s focused on psychosis. The subsequent commentary of philosophers Deleuze+Guattari argue that the psychotic has superceded the neurotic as the creative agent and action hero of 20th Century capitalism. Contemporary urbanisation suggests a third relationship, a new model, that is not theoretical dialogue, or theoretical supercession. It suggests a spatial and social hierarchy, that neurosis is nested within psychosis. Individual neuroses are nested within the framework of a collective psychosis.

objet petit a is the elephant in the room

The subject is a screen, Lacan- operational montage w_ text
Lacan’s diagram of the visual field, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psyscho-Analysis (New York: Norton, 1973/1981) p106

Objet petit a is a key concept in Lacan’s interpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis. The object little other (a for the French autre) which is a real object as opposed to the big Other which is not an object but a field of potential (about which, see earlier posts). In a nutshell, objet a is the point about which your neuroses or your symptoms revolve. It is like the proverbial elephant in the room which everyone silently avoids. Everyone, in silent collusion, pretends it is not there. It is a conceptual object, an object in the way that a point in geometry is an object. Lacan relates it to what he calls a geometral point. Objet a has a spatial logic. It is one of the components in Lacan’s text that makes psychoanalysis so spatial and hence amendable to architectural thought. But it also confounds spatial logic because it is always in you and outwith you. In psychoanalytic theory, there is a mirror equivalence between the subject’s inner and outer welt (world). This is represented in Lacan’s diagram of the visual field (where objet a is translated as the gaze or look). The world is always doubled. There are always two, your house, and the house you represent in your mind. They almost coincide, and there is a question about which one is more real.

Note: The doubling can be read two ways: a world and its reflection (either side of the image), or a world and an inverted world (two triangles intersecting at the screen).

Lets begin again. Objet a is a conceptual point that organises a subject’s signifiers. Imagine them revolving around a centre. It is not itself a signifier, but a point that organises them. Hence it is an empty spot in a subject’s discourse. Lacan treats it two ways in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. He introduces it in his discussion of the visual field [p67ff] where he explains it as the visual analogue of the vanishing point and a blind spot in the field of vision. In perspective, the vanishing point organises the picture even as it is the point at which all visual images vanish. It is not itself a visual image. It is also a counterpart to the viewer, the vanishing point is always opposite the eye point of the subject. Similarly, objet a (the gaze) organises the subject’s images or visual signifiers, its emptiness a counterpart to the essential emptiness of the subject. Lacan returns to objet a later in the same text [p149ff] in the theory of the drive, where it is shown [p178] as a point around which the subject’s signifiers revolve rather like the upstream side of water flowing past a pole. They circle objet a without touching it, without becoming it. As if we are simply a signifier machine, signifiers churning incessantly, and it matters little what they signify. Imagine the proverbial talking head at a party.

Psychoanalysis distinguishes the house you perceive from the house you represent to yourself; and has very little interest in the former, and everything to do with the latter. Hence Lacan’s interest in perspective as opposed to optics. The house you perceive is the outer world you share with others, barring relatively minor errors in perception about which we can usually agree to disagree. The house you represent to yourself and to others is an amazing world of signifiers, without which, of course, we could never agree or disagree about our perceptions.

Class Unconsciousness and the project of architecture

P. Accolti, elongated eye, 1625
Pietro Accolti, Prospettiva Pratica (Florence, 1625), anamorphic projection

Architecture is the praxis that takes our collectively held ideologies, attitudes, and understandings, and puts them concretely into the world. In so far as architects are asked to transform our environment by putting new bits in and removing old bits, architects do something other professions do not do. When a client commissions an architect to build, e.g., a hospital, the architect is asked to take our collectively held views on hospitals and health care generally – all our collectively held ideas, knowledge, attitudes, prejudices even – and put them into material form. In order to do this, the architect must reflect upon these social formations. S/he must internalize them and project them into the environment. This is the architectural meaning of the word project, and the definition of the architecture project [Tafuri].

These social formations are collectively held, but they are transformed into the particular, material and spatial form of a building by a process that is channeled through the reflection of a single architect. Society places a burden of trust on architects. How accurate a reflection, how comprehensive a materialisation, depends upon the capacity of the architect to reflect, and the capacity of the design process to allow for reflection. Architects reflect by drawing. This is what happens when a client briefs an architect, the architect briefs his/her design team, the design team returns to the client with a design proposal.

Every time someone throws a Sainsbury cart through a storefront (an act that is not without a certain social integrity or legitimacy), or a volume home builder puts 500 homes on a site in the beltway, a social formation is concretised in the world. The difference between the architecture project on the one hand and a riot or sub-development on the other, all of which are radical projections of a social formation into a physical one, is that the latter are forms of acting out. The riot in particular is a form of class action that has not been sublimated through a process of reflection. Both issue from an unmediated drive that is creative-destructive [Schumpeter’s gale, Klee’s angelus novus]. These transformations of the environment occur without reflection on our collectively held views, or at least without reflection in a form that is recorded in a design process. They are not architecture projects in the architectural sense of project: a trope that goes from the conceptual and collective to the material and particular. It is reflection which gives the architecture project its fictive quality, a quality that the riot or sub-development will never have.

We are reasserting here a version of Mies’ thesis that architecture is the expression of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Except instead of spirit [Hegel], we are speaking about a form of class consciousness [Hegel, via Marx].

The architecture project is a form of materialisation of class consciousness [Marx], except that it is more often than not class unconsciousness, because many of the ideas, presuppositions, prejudices, clichés, ideologies that we hold collectively, we are unaware of. It takes a form of cultural analysis, which proceeds as a form of reflection upon our artefacts, to make them manifest, explicit, conscious. The collective unconscious is the library from which Rossi’s collective memory draws forth its forms. The project makes conscious, i.e., puts into material space and form, the social formations that had hitherto remained hidden. To go from concept to material, hidden to visible, latent to manifest, unconscious to conscious, inside to out, are different glosses on the idea of the project, which involves a transformation.

Reflection involves introjection [Lacan] as well as projection. The architect has to internalise the social formation that s/he finds her/himself amidst – inhale this ambient social cloud, as it were – before it can be projected as material form.

Note: Throwing a cart through a storefront is a form of projection, but no reflection on social life has been undertaken and consequently, there has been no transformation from conceptual to material. It simply involves the translation of material from one location to the other, like vomit.

architectural evidence that the spatial subject exists

Monument Paul Vaillant Couturier - Villlejuif, yellow

The relation of mouth and hand, speech and gesture (the poignancy of both), a concrete cantilever beam accusing a concrete plane surface to describe a triangular site (the poignancy of both), the people beneath, a scalar relation: the immediate and intuitive intelligibility of this project is additional evidence that the spatial subject exists.

Le Corbusier, project for a monument to Paul Vaillant-Couturier, Villlejuif, Paris (1937). Paul Vaillant-Couturier, Villlejuif was editor-in-chief of the Communist newspaper L’Humanite.