Architecture Of The Surreal Cultural Studies Essay

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The purpose of this discussion, as the title suggests, is to explore how the uncharted depths of the unconscious mind can become a wellspring of architectural ideas that blend the most primal and instinctive response to space with those rooted in a sense of repression, anxiety and fear (or the uncanny), particularly in domestic environments.

The word home implies not only a dwelling space but is also an architectural expression of the individual residing within. The house is nothing but the exoskeleton. The true substance of the home emerges only when the unconscious imposition of layers upon layers of identity and spatial memory by the dweller, are understood through psychology, psychoanalysis and sociology. The image of the oneiric home or house of the mind is archetypal in the sense that it is a reflection of the universal constants of the human psyche. Here the home is a refuge which allows an individual to retreat from the external pressures of modern day life by taking sanctuary in the familiar.

Contemporary architecture makes a conscious attempt to subvert the oneiric image by rejecting psychic memory attached to primal images. The obsession of the avant-garde with newness, the non-traditional and the unforeseen has lead to the creation of an aesthetics of architecture that is disquieting rather than reassuring.


"The house [has] provided an especially favoured site for 'uncanny' disturbances: its apparent domesticity, its residue of family history and nostalgia, its role as the last and most intimate shelter of private comfort sharpened by the terror of invasion by alien spirits" - Vidler (1992)

The ideas of 'family history', 'domesticity', 'nostalgia' and the 'intimate' and 'private' nature of the home gives rise to the notion of an enclosed system that instigates and enforces specific behavioural responses from its inhabitants, imposing control/restrictions that may be contradictory to a desired existence and compromise people's control over identity. The moment at which social well being begins to clash with the fabricated environment is when the fragile balance between architecture and the inhabitant disintegrates.

Architectural theory and concepts of space have always had psychological underpinnings and psychopathological repercussions. Understanding that space does not represent itself merely via its structural construct helps architects design spaces that remain considerate to the human subject and not just merely have a shock and awe value.


As designers and as dwellers we often apply different sets of values to the built environment. In our role as architects we aspire for a meticulously articulated and temporally one dimensional environment, whereas as dwellers ourselves, we prefer a more layered, ambiguous and aesthetically less coherent environment.


The focus on domestic environments in this study stems from my own continual physical relocation throughout my childhood. These moves, from house to house placed me in atmospheres ranging from solitary expanses to claustrophobic boxes. From these past experiences I have now become interested with the qualities of space that render them liveable or unliveable and create lasting impressions on the psyche.

The idea of this study is to examine the architectural implications of the unconscious mind and acknowledge the immense potential for contemporary architecture to make use of the uncanny, on the one hand, to criticise traditional architectural narratives, and on the other hand, to express the core of our postmodern condition.

Through this dissertation, I seek to compare instinctive behaviour and identity expressed through architecture with unfamiliarity as a theoretical tool in avant-garde architecture.


The study is primarily analytical, based on documented works and recorded opinions. The data-base is basically textual. The first step would be to understand the basic concepts pertaining to the study i.e. archetypes, oneirism, surrealism, uncanny, estrangement and the basic psychopathologies of space. This would require a detailed study of various architectural and psychoanalytic concepts pertaining to perception and spatial experience. It would also be mandatory to trace the existence of spatial psychopathologies through various architectural movements from the classical civilizations to the postmodern identity today. Ultimately, comparative case studies are required to support conclusions drawn from readings, personal observations and so forth.

Research Question:

Is modern avant-garde architecture in inciting the uncanny also unknowingly rejecting the intangible essence of home?


Archetypal Architecture

Jungian Archetypes

Primitive Architecture

Modern Archetypal Architecture

Architecture of Identity

The Oneiric Home

Alvar Aalto's Villa Mairea


Surrealist Architecture

Architectural Escapism

Understanding Uncanny

Freud's das Unheimliche

Architecture of Estrangement

Psychopathologies of Urban Space

Uncanny in Avant-garde Architecture

Bernard Tschumi

The Pleasure of Superimposition

Releasing the Repressed

Peter Eisenman

The Architect as Archaeologist

The Architect as Geologist

Coop Himmelblau

Architecture's Animals

The Missing Limb

Daniel Libeskind

Traumatic History

The Building as Experience

Comparitive Case Studies

House by Revathi Kamath in Gurgaon

Kamath's Residence


1. Archetypal Architecture

1.1. Jungian Archetypes

The term "archetype" has its origins in ancient Greek. The root words are archein, which means "original or old"; andtypos, which means "pattern, model or type". The combined meaning is an "original pattern" of which all other similar persons, objects, or concepts are derived, copied, modeled, or emulated. 

The psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung, used the concept of archetype in his theory of the human psyche. He believed that universal, mythic characters-archetypes-reside within the collective unconscious of people the world over. Archetypes represent fundamental human motifs of our experience as we evolved; consequentially, they evoke deep emotions. 

Five main archetypes are sometimes enumerated:

The Self is the regulating center of the psyche and facilitator of individuation - It represents all that is unique within a human being. Although a person is a collection of all the archetypes and what they learn from the collective unconscious, the self is what makes that person an I.

The Shadow represents the traits which lie deep within ourselves. The traits that are hidden from day to day life and are in some cases the opposite of the self is a simple way to state these traits.

The Anima is sometimes seen -- e.g. by Campbell -- as the feminine side within a man, but Jung did not fully intend this to be viewed in this way. The Anima is beyond generalization of society's views and stereotypes. Anima represents what femininity truly represents it in all its mysteries. It is what allows a man to be in touch with a woman.

The Animus is similar to the anima except for the fact that the animus allows a female to understand and communicate with a man. 

The Persona is to Jung a mere "functional complex ... by no means identical to the individuality", the way we present to the world - a mask which protects the Ego from negative images, and which by post-Jungians is sometimes considered an "archetype ... as a dynamic/structural component of the psyche".

Throughout the history of the "Uncanny", the house has remained embedded

within the source of the explanation of what "commonly merges with what

arouses fear in general" (Freud, 2003, p123). "The house [has] provided an

especially favoured site for 'uncanny' disturbances: its apparent domesticity, its

residue of family history and nostalgia, its role as the last and most intimate

shelter of private comfort sharpened by the terror of invasion by alien spirits"

(Vidler, 1992, p17). The ideas of 'family history', 'domesticity', 'nostalgia' and

the 'intimate' and 'private' nature of the home gives rise to the notion of an

enclosed system. For example, when visitors enter into Schneider's composition

they encounter the notion of orientation and disorientation and the balance that

exists between these two extremes. The concept that the "Uncanny would

always be an area in which a person was unsure of his way around: the better

orientated he was in the world around him, the less likely he would be to find the

objects and occurrences in it uncanny" (Freud, 2003, p125). Both "Dead Haus U

R" and "Die Familie Schneider" (which will be discussed in more depth later) can,

in some ways, seem familiar to one's own residence in terms of function i.e.

bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom; but the visitor encounters the simultaneity of

"Many of us architects seem to have developed a kind of split personality: as designers and as dwellers we apply different sets of values to the environment. In our role as architects we aspire for a meticulously articulated and temporally one dimensional environment, whereas as dwellers ourselves, we prefer a more layered, ambiguous and aesthetically less coherent environment; the instinctual dweller emerges through the role values of the professional." -Juhani Pallasmaa (1992)

The Uncanny and the Architecture of Deconstruction

Psychoanalytical studies have created a unique paradigm to insert the human subject into the architectural realm as a figure that both, produces architecture and is being produced by architecture, with the invention of the "uncanny" (Freud's term used to describe the tension that exists between the boundaries of the familiar and unfamiliar).

Abstract (E): This article shows how an understanding of the uncanny may be crucial to an understanding of contemporary deconstructionist architecture. Projects and buildings by Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, Coop Himmelblau and Daniel Libeskind are analysed in order to reveal how contemporary architecture makes use of the uncanny, on the one hand, to criticise traditional architectural narratives, and on the other hand, to express the core of our postmodern condition.


"[W]e don't want architecture to exclude everything that is disquieting. We want architecture to have more ...� Architecture should be cavernous, fiery, smooth, hard, angular, brutal, round, delicate, colorful, obscene, voluptuous, dreamy, alluring, repelling, wet, dry and throbbing." (Himmelblau 1988: 95)

This programmatic paragraph written by Wolf D. Prix and Helmut Swiczinky, founders of the Austrian architectural cooperative Himmelblau, articulates a preference for an aesthetics of architecture that is disquieting rather than� reassuring. At the time of writing in 1988, Coop Himmelblau was not the sole prophet of a destabilising, wanton form of architecture. In the early 1980s already, a number of architects had begun to question the Vitruvian prepositions that underlie traditional well-made "anthropocentric" architecture. These include, next to Coop Himmelblau, Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind. These architects were catalogued under the header of deconstruction, a term that not merely emphasises their familiarity with Jacques Derrida's thinking, or under the header ofdeconstructivism, but also stresses this new generation's oppositional relationship to early twentieth-century Russian Constructivism.��

As Anthony Vidler argues in The Architectural Uncanny (1992), some of these architects have been inspired by the uncanny in their efforts to incite discomfort and unease. In this article I will analyse projects of four contemporary architects (Tschumi, Eisenman, Himmelblau and Libeskind) from the viewpoint of the uncanny. This, of course, does not imply that the appearance of the uncanny in architectural discourse is an exclusively contemporary phenomenon. On the contrary: in the cultural history of architectural representation, three moments can be discerned in which the uncanny manifests itself. The first signs of an awareness of the uncanny in the context of architecture appeared in the late eighteenth century. Short stories by Edgar Allen Poe and E.T.A. Hoffmann often thematised the contrast between a safe and homely place and the intrusion of a weird and alien presence. A second period in which architecture was linked to the uncanny was the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the city turned into a metropolis. This evolution had serious psychological consequences described by, among others, Baudelaire and Zola. The individual felt estranged in the metropolitan mass, estranged in all possible connotations of the word. The uncanny manifested itself in phenomena like agoraphobia and claustrophobia, as Vidler explains in his most recent book Warped Space (2000). In the arts, historical avant-garde movements tried to transfer the modern feeling of the uncanny to their public using techniques of defamiliarisation.

After the appearance of the uncanny in romanticism and in the modern period, a third, postmodern version of the architectural uncanny came into being in the 1960s. This resurgence was probably due to influential Lacanian and Derridean rereadings of Freud. The postmodern form of the uncanny can be found in literature, where William Gibson's Neuromancer is one of the classic examples, but also and especially in film, where popular directors like Wim Wenders and David Lynch are often referred to. From the 1970s onwards, architectural projects were developed that were closely related to forms of the postmodern uncanny in other disciplines. In many cases, these projects were designed by architects who were gathered under the header of deconstruction in the 1980s. Not only Coop Himmelblau, but also Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman and a bunch of others expressed both in their programmatic texts and in their building projects the need for an architecture of "discomfort and the unbalancing of expectations" (Tschumi 1977: 214). Some members of this new generation, especially Tschumi and Eisenman, explicitly drew on Derrida's philosophy and worked together with him in specific projects, as Tschumi did for his design of Parc de la Villette in Paris. Others, like Frank Gehry and Coop Himmelblau, minimised or denied the link with the French thinker of deconstruction. Broadbent (1991: 80) therefore distinguishes between Derridean and non-Derridean deconstruction. Still, the two groups are united by their urge to express in their work a kind of "objective correlative" (as T.S. Eliot would call it) of the contemporary uncanny.

1. Bernard Tschumi

One of the most renowned architectural projects of the 1990s must be Bernard Tschumi's design for the Parc de la Villette in Paris. In 1982, the French government offered a prize to fill up an empty spot in the Parisian landscape. The year after, Bernard Tschumi's design was selected from the contributions. Agreeing to an invitation by the architect himself, Derrida in 1985 commented on the project in his article "Points de Folie - Maintenant Architecture", thus guaranteeing Tschumi's success.

Fig. 1: Tschumi - Folie

Fig. 1: Tschumi - Folie

Tschumi destroyed the nineteenth-century notion of a park as a place where one forgets the city. Instead, he produced an "urban park" (Tschumi on for the twenty-first century. This park meant a radical break with tradition as the architect moved drastically away from modernist functionalism. Yet, Tschumi's "folies" and "cases vides", red cubicles standing at a regular distance from each other throughout the park (see fig. 1), often formally remind us of Melnikov's or Tatlin's Russian Constructivism. On the level of contents, however, Tschumi's designs couldn't be further away from modernist utopian

thought that saw geometry as a means to adapt the world we live in to new technological evolutions. Russian Constructivists believed that geometry could function as an idealistic therapy, that it would guarantee happiness, harmony and health among the people. The formal references to constructivism in the Parc de la Villette should therefore be understood as a subversion of that philosophy by its very repetition. The idea of repetition as a means of differentiation echoes Derrida's concept of iterability.�

The pleasure of superimposition

In a 1987 article, Tschumi formulated his revealing idea of pleasure in architecture: "[m]y pleasure has never surfaced in looking at buildings, at the 'great works' of the history or present of architecture, but rather in dismantling them" (Tschumi 1987: 116). The Parc de la Villette design thus leaves behind all functionalist and therapeutic nostalgia and is governed only by the "pleasure principle" (Vidler 1992: 103) of the architect himself. In this particular project, that principle manifests itself in the superimposition of three different ordering systems (see fig. 3). A first layer consists of a system of points. A grid is drawn over the

Fig. 3:     Tschumi - Lignes  

Fig. 3:���� Tschumi - Lignes 

Points surfaces

whole site. Every 120 metres, the horizontal and vertical lines cross. Tschumi calls those crossings "points". On each point, a "folie" or folly is built, a three-storey red cube measuring 10 x 10 x 10 metres that can be used for any activity. These buildings have no pre-programmed function and may be used as an exposition hall, as a café or as any other public space. Therefore, the cubes are also referred to as "cases vides", empty huts. But although every single folie is conceived of as a cube of 10 by 10 by 10, no single cubicle is exactly the same as any other in the park. Some folies have cylindrical or triangular forms attached to them; others lack walls or are turned on their sides. In that way, Tschumi wants to investigate the often-ambiguous relationship between norm and deviation. Here again the idea is taken up that repetition may function as a means to establish contrast and difference. This first layer of points should allocate space to what Tschumi calls "point-like activities" (, specific activities that take place within the concentrated space of a folie.�

Fig. 2:     Tschumi - Coordinate  

Fig. 2:���� Tschumi - Coordinate

The second layer, the layer of lines, is superimposed on the grid and establishes a space for� "linear activities". "Linear activities" describes the pedestrian traffic that crosses the park in several possible ways. The centre of this linear layer is formed by two axes, the North-South coordinate and the East-West coordinate, which link up the four entrances to the park (a coordinate can be seen on fig. 2). Apart from straight axes, the layer consists of erratic, undulating lines meandering through the landscape. At this point, Vidler says, Tschumi remains indebted to traditional park design. For the straight axis was a common feature of Classicist park design (think of the Versailles gardens) and the undulating line that leads flaneurs past most charming sights was characteristic of Romantic parks and gardens. But again the reference to tradition is merely formal. One should not forget that Tschumi found pleasure in dismantling tradition. Tschumi's axes and pathways do not possess the same controlling, authoritarian function they did possess in traditional parks. They no longer limit a certain domain, they no longer link up a series of meaningful sights, they are no more and no less than what they are: alternative tracks through the park. Whoever is looking for monuments or historical significance on his walk, for narrative coherence, in short, will have to leave the park unsatisfied. The "unbalancing of expectations" has become reality. The passer-by is forced to abandon his search for meaning and to surrender to the game of arbitrariness and chance in which the architect puts him.��

The third ordering system that is put on top of the previous two is the layer ofsurfaces. These surfaces provide room for all activities that need large horizontal strips of land, like sports, games, and markets.

Releasing the repressed

The superimposition of these three layers allows for some form of interaction between three autonomous systems. Principles of chance and juxtaposition generate interference and clashes between the systems. The result of this "superimposition", as Tschumi calls it, is, according to Mark Wigley, a "series of ambiguous intersections between systems […] in which the status of ideal forms and traditional composition is challenged. Ideas of purity, perfection, and order, become sources of impurity, imperfection, and disorder" (Wigley in Broadbent 1991: 17). It is at this point that we can return to Schelling's statements on the uncanny as that which "ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light" (Freud 1955: 225). The inherent purity of the geometrical system evokes a feeling of rational control and stability. If things turn out differently, then, and the juxtaposition of several "pure" systems gives way to impurity, the geometric system's rational control over that which "ought to have remained secret", weakens. The repressed leaves its enclosed habitat and thus provokes in us an uncanny feeling. In the case of Tschumi's Parc de la Villette, the uncanny does not function as a physical motif that threatens the bodily integrity of passers-by, but rather as a theoretical concept that helps to undermine and - indeed - deconstruct traditional humanist and functionalist architectural discourses.

2. Peter Eisenman

Something similar can be found in the work of Peter Eisenman, one of the most theoretically oriented deconstructionist architects. At least as important as his architectural projects are the programmatic texts accompanying them. Lots of his writings bear the traces of canonised poststructuralist thought like Derrida's or Deleuze and Guattari's. The works of Derrida did not only influence Eisenman; he actually worked together with the French philosopher (thanks to the mediation of Tschumi). This resulted in a collaboration on the Choral Work-project that was embedded in Tschumi's Parc de la Villette. Eisenman made a design for the site and with Derrida he wrote the accompanying article "L'Oeuvre Chorale" (Derrida & Eisenman 1987).

In the early days of his career Peter Eisenman searched for a purely syntactic architecture in which he tried to do away with all semantics. His design for a set of houses from that period shows the will to structure form and space in such a way that "a set of formal relationships" (Eisenman 1975: 16) is produced. Somewhat later he introduced the term "post-functionalism" in architectural discourse, a term that would inspire the entire deconstructionist movement and Bernard Tschumi in particular.

From the 1980s onwards, the post-structuralist notions of trace and palimpsest come to play a bigger role in Eisenman's projects. The site at which a building is to be constructed is never a tabula rasa, but has a history that haunts the spot, like a spectre. This is what, in accordance with Derrida's concept of the spectral (Derrida 1994), could be called the "spectrality" of the site. It manifests itself in the traces, the relics of a certain past that stays alive on any site. According to Eisenman, the architect should acknowledge these traces and integrate them into the architectural whole. Utopian modernism, that wanted to leave the past behind and to construct buildings like signs on a blank page, indulged in a na�ve humanist idealism Eisenman wants to do away with once and for all.

The architect as archaeologist���

But how can one pay attention to the actual traces present in a place? A clarifying example can be found in Eisenman's entry for a competition on a housing project near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, a competition that was won by Rem Koolhaas whose project has afterwards been executed. Eisenman's unrealised project included more than the original assignment,� a housing block next to the Berlin Wall. Eisenman wanted to raise an entire city block against the Wall that would incorporate the existing buildings in the new project. Around that block, an underground park was designed that was to be called the "City of Excavations". By constructing a park below ground level the architect hoped to discover archaeological relics of the old city. Still, no relics that explicitly referred to the city's history were found, but that did not seem to bother Eisenman. The essential point was not that "real" archaeological objects could be shown, but rather that the project emphasised and drew the people's attention to the site as a pool boiling with history. That is why the City of Excavations was planned to contain a part of a wall that would serve as a merely hypothetical reconstruction of a nineteenth-century rampart.

It is quite easy to understand the uncanny character of the City of Excavations. In psychoanalysis, the underground often functions as a metaphor or a substitute for the subconscious. In the same way the psychoanalytical method is often compared to the archaeological as a kind of "digging for meaning". Eisenman descends to the repressed in order to reveal or to produce what had to remain hidden in humanist and functionalist architecture: the site's past history.

At the same time the descent into earth, a motif that returns in Eisenman's project for Cannareggio in Venice, is endowed with a very uncanny kind of quality. It resembles the way to the crypt, which was a topos of nineteenth-century uncanny experiences. The descent to the City of Excavations reminds of the descent into a tomb, a pre-eminently uncanny place. We don't have to read Freud to know that "many people experience the feeling [of the uncanny] in the highest degree in relation to death" (Freud 1955: 241).

The architect as geologist

Architecture, however, need not go underground in order to evoke feelings of defamiliarisation, destabilisation and disorientation. The mere sight of many deconstructionist buildings suffices to bewilder the spectator. The brutal, threatening, splintered forms of deconstruction stand out against the geometrical forms of modernism and classicism and the pompous elegance of baroque and rococo. In his efforts to tear architecture loose from the benumbing trance of tradition, Eisenman wants to create buildings and places "with the possibility of looking back at the subject" (Eisenman 1992: 21). The architect may realise this possibility by means of a technical instrument Eisenman calls "folding". In his design for the Emory Center of the Arts (see fig. 4), that is still under construction now, Eisenman used

Fig. 4:     Eisenman - Emony Center

Fig. 4: ��� Eisenman - Emony Center

folded forms for the first time. Peculiar about these forms, says Eisenman, is that, apart from an effective dimension, they also possess an affective spatial dimension. The formal folds of the Emory Center remind of what Marcel Duchamp called a "geological landscape" (Duchamp in Vidler 1992: 140) and are easily associated with strata in the earth's crust. The most influential female deconstructionist architect Zaha Hadid also creates geological landscapes in her projects. Especially in her project for The Peak in Hong Kong (see fig. 5),

Fig. 5: Hadid - The Peak   

Fig. 5: Hadid - The Peak

she simulates a tectonics of earth layers using different materials. The result bears resemblance to the earth's crust burst open or an apocalyptic landscape after an earthquake. Eisenman and Hadid's techniques of folding and tectonics evoke a prehistoric landscape that must have been a motherland for Cro-Magnon man. For contemporary mankind however, such a panorama has entirely lost its homely connotations. In these architectural projects the ambiguous relationship between the homely and the uncanny becomes clear, it becomes clear that "Unheimlich is in some way or another a sub-species of heimlich" as Freud (1955: 226 - italics in original text) puts it.

Techniques of tectonics and folding are deconstructions of what Broadbent (1991: 85) calls "plate construction". There is, however, another form of deconstruction that often gives rise to uncanny effects - or rather, affects - namely deconstruction of what Broadbent (ibid.) calls "frame construction". These deconstructions burst the traditional geometric forms of the skeleton and replace them by chaotic, polygonal forms. Good illustrations of what could be called "frame deconstruction" can be found in the designs of the Austrian Coop Himmelblau.

3. Coop Himmelblau

Just like Tschumi, Eisenman and other deconstructionist architects, Coop Himmelblau tries to take the theoretical and practical stance of antihumanism. They do so by re-emphasising the bodily experiential aspect of architecture. Of course, the deconstructionist notion of the body bears very little similarity to its anthropocentric counterpart. Where the body in the latter tradition was conceived of as a source of unity and harmony, Himmelblau c.s. perceives it as an instance of fragmentation, disruption and disintegration. This idea is transmitted to the spectator or to the visitor of the building as well. Standing in front of a building of Himmelblau's, we feel like we are "placed under threat", as Vidler says. The building's architectural body seems to be injured and thus threatens the physical integrity we believe� to possess.��

Architecture's animals

Himmelblau's well-known rooftop remodelling in Vienna (see fig. 6, 7) must be one of the most body-threatening buildings constructed so far.

Fig. 6: Himmelblau - Rooftop design

Fig. 6: Himmelblau - Rooftop design

Fig. 7: Rooftop 

Fig. 7: Rooftop

A chaotic and irregular explosion of lines, it is a very helpful illustration of what may be understood under frame deconstruction. It appears like the building's intestines want to free themselves from the geometrical yoke of the old building. The terms in which Mark Wigley (in Broadbent 1991: 22) describes this construction should not be misunderstood: the normal form of the roof has been mutilated by a "writhing, disruptive animal breaking through its corner". Yet, what Wigley thinks to be "particularly disquieting" (ibid.) is that it seems like this unleashed form has always been latently present in the geometry of the old roof itself. The architect has, as it were, released that latent form. In our discussion of Eisenman's City of Excavations we already pointed out the link between the archaeologist and the psychoanalyst. In Himmelblau's rooftop remodelling the architect himself dresses in psychoanalytic guise. The architect puts the old geometrical structures on the sofa and allows the latent forms, repressed by some geometrical repression mechanism, to rise up to consciousness again. Does this return of the repressed give rise to a certain hue of the uncanny? It probably does.

The missing limb

But there is another way in which Himmelblau's rooftop remodelling can be linked to the uncanny. Any building can be compared to the human body. Actually, architectural humanism since Vitruvius has held such an anthropomorphic view. A building's proportions and compositions were modelled on the "ideal" - "idealised" may be nearer the truth - proportions of the human body. A commonly known illustration of this view is Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of a man whose navel is the centre of a circle and a square construed around his body. Even Le Corbusier's utopian modernism still clings to this view. In 1942 Le Corbusier developed the Modulor-scale, a proportion scale for buildings that was mainly based on human proportions. Hence, the great modern(ist) buildings of the International Style were still indebted to the human body as far as their composition and proportions are concerned.

If the pure geometric forms of, say, the villa Savoye represent the human body in one way or another, then Himmelblau's deconstructed geometry represents a mutilated, handicapped, fragmented body. Himmelblau's model for the Malibu Open House project (see fig. 9) might clarify this point. By means of plate and frame deconstruction the Austrian group of architects designs a house that is reminiscent of an igloo or a wigwam. Of capital importance here is the fact that the building does not possess a façade; the front side of the house is completely open, revealing the interior.

Fig. 9:     Himmelblau - Malibu

Fig. 9:���� Himmelblau - Malibu

Open House

In the theory that regards a building as a human body, the façade is often compared to the face. Confronted with such a faceless body, the spectator-subject begins to fear the loss of his own face by way of projection. As Freud argues, feelings of the uncanny often rely on the return of infantile complexes of which the castration complex is the most crucial. From the analysis of myths and dreams, Freud learned that loss of limbs often functions as a substitute for loss of the sex. The eyes, and with it, the head, are privileged substitutes as they are the parts of the body that observe the (sexual) difference. The sight of a building without a façade, like Himmelblau's Open House or James Stirling's Stuttgart Staatsgalerie (see, produces that form of the uncanny that has to do with the repression of the castration complex.

4. Daniel Libeskind

The body of Daniel Libeskind's extension to the Jewish Museum in Berlin does not really lack limbs. However, it should be noted that the skin surrounding the body looks mutilated. The outer walls of the building are made of enormous zinc plates that are at some points ripped open, as if they were scratched or scarred skins. The building has no clearly defined form, it looks like a straight line that is interrupted and changes direction at some points. Libeskind himself claims that such a form represents a deconstructed Cross of David.

Traumatic history

This extension's architecture expresses one of the most physically oriented types of the uncanny. As a kind of compelling memory, the building tries to transfer feelings of disorientation and displacement to its public. Some corridors get increasingly narrow; others simply come to a dead end. Some staircases, too, fail to fulfil their primary function and lead to a blind wall. In his design, Libeskind strongly emphasises the museum's historically preservative function. But not in the way traditional museum functions, which stores within its walls some cultural inheritance for posterity. Rather, the Berlin Jewish Museum should function as an active memory in everyday Berlin consciousness. Libeskind says he had three main ideas in mind when he was designing this building:

"first, the impossibility of understanding the history of Berlin without understanding the enormous intellectual, economic and cultural contribution made by its Jewish citizens; second, the necessity to integrate the meaning of the Holocaust, both ph[y]sically and spiritually, into the consciousness and memory of the city of Berlin; third, that only through acknowledging and incorporating this erasure and void of Berlin's Jewish life can the history of Berlin and Europe have a human future." (Daniel Libeskind at

The Jewish Museum functions as a reverse repression mechanism, as a mechanism of liberation that should make sure that the Holocaust never disappears from collective Berlinian and western memory. Just like Eisenman's City of Excavations (which, quite significantly, was to be located in the same city), it stresses the historical imperative in architecture. Both spiritually and physically, Libeskind wants to render the persecution and emigration of the Jews present. Quite paradoxically, he does so by materialising absence. Essential to the Jewish Museum is the void, a large and empty space that visitors have to cross by means of bridges in order to get to the other side of the museum. The first room the visitors enter when accessing the museum is part of that void, which partly also extends underground. We have already pointed out the uncanny consequences of underground architecture and its references to tombs and crypts in the context of Eisenman's City of Excavations. From that void at the museum's entrance, three paths depart. The first path leads up to the exposition halls. The second path leads the visitors to the Holocaust void, where the cruelty of the Holocaust is expressed by the materialisation of emptiness. The third path symbolises the Jews' exile and emigration from Germany. It leads out of the building towards the E.T.A. Hoffmann-garden, hardly a coincidental reference to the writer of stories like "The Sandman" and "Councillor Krespel", which pre-eminently thematise the uncanny.

The building as experience

In the Jewish Museum, the uncanny manifests itself in the form of a physical and phenomenological "architectural experience", a form that has been convincingly described in Vidler's most recent book:

"(...) when confronted by the withdrawn exteriors and disturbing interiors of the Jewish Museum (...) we find ourselves in a phenomenological world in which both Heidegger and Sartre would find themselves, if not exactly 'at home' (for that was not their preferred place), certainly in bodily and mental crisis, with any trite classical homologies between the body and the building upset by unstable axes, walls and skins torn, ripped and dangerously slashed, rooms empty of content and with uncertain or no exits or entrances. What Heidegger liked to call 'falling into' the uncanny, and what for Sartre was the dangerous instrumentality of objects in the world as they threatened the body and its extensions, is for Libeskind the stuff of architectural experience." (Vidler 2000: 238)

In its close connection to the Second World War trauma, to its conditions of diaspora and displacement, of homelessness and hopelessness, Libeskind's Jewish Museum is illustrative of the twentieth-century uncanny. Vidler argues that "the uncanny might be understood as a response to the real shock of the modern" (Vidler 1992: 9). A response to a war trauma that first occurred after the First World War, returned like a spectre after the Second World War and since then never again disappeared from contemporary imagination. "The uncanny," Vidler goes on, "has found its way as a place to think of the two 'postwars' after 1919 and 1945" (ibid.). Libeskind's deconstructionist building can therefore be read as an expression of an uncanny Polarerlebnis in which the whole world took part, an experience that, according to the architect, should not be forgotten by present and future generations.

Don't Count Your Titanium Eggs Before They've Hatched

Why architects can't predict the future.

By Witold Rybczynski|Posted Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008, at 7:32 AM ET

CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, by Rem Koolhaas. Click image to expand.

CCTV headquarters in Beijing, China, designed by Rem Koolhaas

Abu Dhabi has recently announced plans to turn itself into a sort of Arabian Left Bank, with cultural venues designed by Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and Jean Nouvel. Beijing, meanwhile, is completing the giant steel bird's nest of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron's Olympic Stadium, and also has Paul Andreu's titanium-egg National Theater, and Rem Koolhaas' unusual state television headquarters, which locals have dubbed "the twisted donut." An obscure sheikhdom on the Gulf and the world's largest Communist dictatorship have unexpectedly become the latest hotbeds of avant-garde architecture.

Avant-garde is a French term that originally meant the advance guard of an army, and in the late 1800s came to refer to pioneering painters, particularly the Impressionists, who considered themselves to be at the forefront of art. Since that time, the concept of an avant-garde has become popular in architecture, where "mainstream" has become a term of opprobrium, and anyone worth their salt is "experimental," "innovative," or "cutting edge." The clear implication is that buildings designed by avant-garde architects are ahead of their time. But are steel bird's nests, titanium eggs, and twisted helixes really a portent of the future?

In some ways, the term architectural avant-garde is an oxymoron, since an architect, unlike a painter, is able to experiment only within relatively narrow bounds. Buildings are expensive, and they are intended to last a long time, so the people who build them tend to be risk-averse. But even an architect who finds a patron-like the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, or the Chinese government-willing to take a chance, still faces the limitations of building regulations and existing construction materials and techniques. True experiments in building are few and far between.

Even if a building succeeds in breaking the mold, that is no guarantee that it is showing the way, for innovative buildings rarely anticipate the future. There have been exceptions. Frank Lloyd Wright's first Usonian house, built in 1936, with its one-story living, open plan, carport, and low-slung roof, did foreshadow the ranch houses of the '50s and '60s, and Mies van der Rohe's novel Lake Shore Drive apartment towers in Chicago, completed in 1951, were the first example of the steel-and-glass-curtain wall that would dominate commercial architecture for the next two decades. But the white Cubist houses of the '20s, which were often described as avant-garde by their makers, did not herald the future (except in the sense of producing Richard Meier's revival, 40 years later). Le Corbusier, one of the leading white-box practitioners, soon got bored and turned to rougher, more sculptural, raw concrete. New Brutalism, a term coined by architectural historian Reyner Banham, seemed to be the coming thing. But buildings such as Boston City Hall, designed in 1962, proved unpopular with the public, and within a decade or two, Brutalism was dead and something else-Postmodernism-had come along.

The truth is that buildings belong firmly to their own time. This is especially true of architecture that self-consciously attempts to predict the future. That's why the settings of old sci-fi movies are often so funny; the future never turns out the way people imagine. Most buildings have a shelf life of 20 to 30 years; that is, it takes 20 to 30 years before they are perceived as "old-fashioned." This doesn't mean that the buildings are ugly, or not useful, or not cherished-simply that they now represent the past. That's not necessarily a bad thing-it would be disorienting to live in an environment that never aged (actually, it would be like living in Las Vegas).

One day, say in 2050, people will look at Herzog and de Meuron's bird's nest, Andreu's egg, and Koolhaas' twisted donut, and think, "Pretty good for its time," or, "What was all the fuss about?" or perhaps, "How quaint." For whatever the architecture of the day, it almost certainly will not include bird's nests or titanium eggs or twisted donuts. The real question about new buildings should never be "Are they cutting edge?" but "Are they good?"


Architecture's Desire

Reading the Late Avant-Garde

By K. Michael Hays


While it is widely recognized that the advanced architecture of the 1970s left a legacy of experimentation and theoretical speculation as intense as any in architecture's history, there has been no general theory of that ethos. Now, in Architecture's Desire, K. Michael Hays writes an account of the "late avant-garde" as an architecture systematically twisting back on itself, pondering its own historical status, and deliberately exploring architecture's representational possibilities right up to their absolute limits. In close readings of the brooding, melancholy silence of Aldo Rossi, the radically reductive "decompositions" and archaeologies of Peter Eisenman, the carnivalesque excesses of John Hejduk, and the "cinegrammatic" delirium of Bernard Tschumi, Hays narrates the story of architecture confronting its own boundaries with objects of ever more reflexivity, difficulty, and intransigence.

The late avant-garde is the last architecture with philosophical aspirations, an architecture that could think philosophical problems through architecture rather than merely illustrate them. It takes architecture as the object of its own reflection, which in turn produces an unrelenting desire. Using the tools of critical theory together with the structure of Lacan's triad imaginary-symbolic-real, Hays constructs a theory of architectural desire that is historically specific and yet sets the terms and the challenges of all subsequent architectural practice, including today's.

Writing Architecture series

About the Author

K. Michael Hays is Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. In 2000 he was appointed the first Adjunct Curator at the Whitney Museum for American Art. He is the author, among other books, of Modern Architecture and the Posthumanist Subject (1995) and the editor of Architecture Theory since 1968 (2000), both published by the MIT Press.


"At the very moment when the death of theory by the victorious sword of the real has been loudly proclaimed, Michael Hays' lyrical return to the 1970s when architecture first fully realized its potential to become a conceptual practice is both welcome and much needed. His close attention to key works by Hejduk, Eisenman, and Rossi uncovers striking connections between this commonly repressed substratum and the instrumental shifts recently taken by architects such as Bernard Tschumi and Rem Koolhaas and persuasively turns the 'reality' of contemporary architecture upside down to reveal our new 'real' to be driven by forces more mysterious and intangible than ever."

Sylvia Lavin, Director of Critical Studies and MA/PhD Programs, UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design

"K. Michael Hays has written an elegant and incisive analysis of the changing ontologies and political strategies of late avant-garde architecture. Architecture's Desire opens up architecture's post-1960s inventions to new ways of thinking to explore the sometimes wild and often impossible desires immanent within architecture, and to follow the unpredictable movements and forces that architecture most recently embodies and makes possible. An exciting view of the unconscious of architecture!"

Elizabeth Grosz, Department of Women's and Gender Studies, Rutgers University, and author ofArchitecture from the Outside