Uncanny Theory and Architecture

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Uncanny theory

The theory of uncanniness is a scheme which have been thickened into more complex conceptual meaning throughout time(U). Though it was already mentioned before by Ernst Jentsch, the uncanny theory was further developed by neurologist Sigmund Freud in his German written essay entitled "Das Unheimliche"(the Uncanny) (!LINK) which was published in 1919(*).The prime purpose of the essay was to scrutinize the term uncanny with a view to finding its meaning and effects on the psychoanalytic theory (*). However, it was only after the 1970s that the essay gain importance among scholars as they found out that there were a lot more written in-between the lines of the essay(*david) and that it could help to establish an fundamental connection between theory and practice in an era where phenomenology, structuralism and poststructuralism were gaining much significance(U).

Divided into two main parts, the first tier of the essay explored the connotations of the word ‘Heimlich’ in different languages (Tordis) whereby when literally translated into English, it makes reference to the word ‘home’. However, it was later found out by Sigmund Freud that the word heimlich, in ancient german literature, was often used to describe the word ‘unheimlich’ which when directly translated to English means unhomely(*). Moreover, the term ‘unheimlich’ was representative of something eerie or even weird* which then redefines the term ‘homely’ as a strange or frightening sentiment (Tordis). As a matter of fact, Freud described this notion of anxiety feelings as a negative aesthetic*. Aesthetic being often used to describe something which is beautiful or sublime*, Freud explained that in the uncanny theory, aesthetic was mainly the fact of involving sensations among individuals, especially frightening sentiments*.

As for the second part of the essay, Freud tried to explore a variety of fiction and real world experiments in order to exemplify the term uncanny. Exploring the notion of the ‘unconscious’ and how the mind is divided into spaces, Freud described that the “unconsciousness is something in the basement, something which is pushed in the bottom’ (Berstrand, 2014). Furthermore, the unconscious is a place where a variety of unpleasant or weird events are kept with a view to forgetting them. Eventually, after a period of time, the mind do forget these events, resulting in the fact that one is no longer aware of what he or she really knows(Tordis). As a matter of fact, the uncanny sensation which Freud tried to explain is a result of the strange familiar feeling of something unfamiliar (*). However, not all the strangely familiar sensations are considered to be uncanny. For example, the uncanny sensations of the fiction world differs from the real life ones. In order to explain this, Freud put forward that when in the fantastic world, one does adapt his mind to the current situations, thus unfamiliar events in this kind of world is often regarded as familiar ones*(OOO).

Other than psychoanalytic, the uncanny theory had substantial impact on many other theories including the architecture of deconstruction. As mentioned by Anthony Vidler in his book entitled “The Architectural Uncanny”, many deconstructivist architects including Daniel Libeskind, Bernard Tschumi, Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelblau amongst others have been both inspired and made use of the uncanny theory with a view to confronting the traditional concepts of architecture like the Vitruvian ideals where the human body itself was ‘extremely’ valued*(abt vitrivius). Furthermore, the projects of this architects were reactions to society which they were living; a social realm where people wanted change (Tordis). By using some of the ideas of the uncanny theory, the designers could incite the strange or even anxiety sensations among users*(Michael hays)+.

Uncanny theory and architecture

Intro-situation-define question(image o voids, museum, plan)

Sitting next to the Berlin Museum, the Jewish Museum Berlin (JMB) is one of the most prestigious institution in Germany. Designed by maestro architect Daniel Libeskind in late 1980’s, the JMB is the result of a complex winning design competition organized by the German officials (german voids,v.m). Divided into two main parts, the brief for the competition requested that the design was to show a broad history of the Jews in Berlin by entangling factors like the long and rich culture of the German Jews as well as its sudden eradication and without trying to mend it*. Furthermore, the design was to be an extension of the Berlin Museum. However, the “strong” shaped Jewish Museum clearly sits beside the latter showing that, from the street perspective, there is no real connection between the two buildings. Based on the Freudian uncanny theory where the homely is related to the unhomely and thus resulting in the homely as being scary*, the same logic was adapted in this case where designers put forward that the murdered (Jews) and the murderer (Nazis) cannot be under the same roof*. In addition to that, in order to express the very long Jewish culture in the German social fabrics, the two buildings, yet separated, were connected underground where the main entrance to the JMB is located.

Moreover, hosting several thousands of tourist annually*, the Jewish museum has received much praise among scholars for its ability to translate into visitors the sensations what the architect wanted to. One of the main design features of the building as described by the architect in realizing this ‘conveying feature’ are the voids running along the zigzagged plan of the building*. Being something which one cannot really describe is one of the ideal of Freud uncanny theory and the voids are closely related to this aspect. In the following part of the essay, the ability of the voids to make people bring back, recognize or even perceive the uncanny sensations once felt by the Jews during the Holocaust of World War II will be explored.


Designing the museum as a series of lines, the spaces generated by the drawings were actually those ‘in-between the lines’ as described by the architect himself*(search); an early approach which is related to the Freudian uncanny ideal whereby the theory itself is very flexible and can be read in-between the lines, thus, have different meanings. Indeed, it is the spaces between the walls which renders the spatial qualities of the building as they define the boundaries*, thus resulting in the various typologies as well as morphologies of spaces throughout the building. Furthermore, pinpointing that the voids are the main features of the project, Daniel Libeskind designed them in reaction to the modernist ideal where form follows function, adding that form is more than only being functional*. In fact, the voids are quasi empty spaces of the buildings and do not really have a function attributed to them. However, those empty spaces describe a much complex phenomenon as what can be visually perceived. As empty spaces, they rely on one’s ability to recognize and perceive the references it is making to the eradication of the Jews in Berlin during the World War II. As for the discontinuity of those spaces, it symbolizes the breaking of the relationship and the long history between the Jews and the German during the Holocaust. As a matter of fact, based on the uncanny theory, the emptiness of these spaces are in fact very ‘full of illustrations’, thus making what is invisible to be actually visible in a sense; notion which is very related to the definition of the ‘heimlich’ and the ‘unheimlich’ where the opposite of a term come to actually have the same meaning of this particular term.

In Freudian terminology, uncanny can be considered as the resurfacing of the repressed material. For example, an event which was supposed to remain hidden in the basement as previously mentioned, has come to light again. Those events, as described by Freud can be childhood ones thus when experienced in the adulthood, it incites the feeling of double, that is the sensation of something familiar*. Being of gigantic scale, the voids of the Jewish museum cut through all the internal spaces lying on its axis. Those intersection spaces are often the exhibition areas where there is always a clear cut in the exhibition room in order not to hide the voids. As the architect described, the internal spaces are for visitors to narrate in them*. As a matter of fact, as one is experiencing the spaces, the latter will repeatedly come across the juxtaposition of the voids and the gallery exhibiting the German-Jews culture; representing another factor by which the architect wanted to bring the uncanny sensation.

Furthermore, as Freud described in his essay, the ability for a person to perceive uncanny sensations when he is in a fictional world is minim*. However, the uncanny feelings among individuals can be felt when the narrator himself knows that he is being narrated. While experiencing of the spaces of the Jewish museum, ones does get enroll in the fantastic world where he or she experiences the spatial qualities of the institution. However, even though the latter might be conscious of the real world, the building tries to disorientate him by not only having the repeating voids but also by incorporating the same very straight and sharped surfaces along the building so that one’s ability to distinguish between them is minim. As a matter of fact, the person does not really know where he really is, thus bringing the feeling of confusion in him which was felt by the Jews during the mass-killing.