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Psychoanalysis and Architecture

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This book explores how psychoanalysis and architecture can enhance and increase the chances of mental 'containment', while also fostering exchange between inside and outside.The way in which psychoanalysts take care of mental suffering, and the way in which architects and city planners assess the environment, are grounded in a shared concern with the notion of 'dwelling'. It is a matter of fact that dwelling exists in a complex context comprised of both biological need and symbolic function. Psychoanalysis and architecture can work together in both thinking about and designing not only our homes but also the analyst's consulting rooms and, more generally, our therapy places. However, this is possible only if they renounce the current limited and restrictive model of this interaction, and propose one more that is more in harmony with the questions and situations that clients themselves pose. Creating sustainable and integrative relationships with the buildings in which we inhabit everyday - whether they are our houses, public buildings (such as schools and prisons), or therapeutic spaces (hospitals, clinics, and consulting rooms) - can be a measure both of the degree of the advancement of a society and of the quality of its institutions.

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15 Chapters

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There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research. Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable change which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of the knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed.

(Roland Barthes, 1977, p. 16)

Why is a psychoanalyst interested in architecture? And why would he write a book of reflections on the subject? I can answer these questions in two ways: By referring, first, to the many intersecting pulls of my biography (see Chapter One) and, second, to my continuous need to connect the inside with the outside, psychical reality with physical reality, and vice versa. Such a need has characterised all of my professional life.

The osmosis between the inside and the outside—I mean, the continuous and changeable redefinition of the relations between these areas through their changes and transformations—is a very awkward issue both at the interpersonal and the intra-psychic level. We live inside architectural structures, for instance our homes, but at the same time they live inside our minds: in dreams, for example, we can build architectural structures, modify them, or destroy them.


Chapter One - The Origins of a Meeting


Ithaca has given you the wondrous journey:
Without her you'd never have set out.
She has nothing left to give you any more.


If you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
As wise as you've become, with such experience, by now You will have come to know what Ithacas really mean.

(Konstantinos Kavafis, Ithaca, 1911, p. 37)

To belong to our home place and to set in new contexts

In Kavafis’ poem the island of Ithaca is a metaphor. It is the destination at the end of an experiential journey during which the traveller becomes aware of the human condition and asserts the autonomy of his conscience and the freedom to define himself. The arrival is of no importance: the meaning of the journey is found in the adventures experienced in a dangerous world. The only monsters the traveller encounters are those existing in his archaic imagination. They annihilate, devour, and paralyse. Because man has to face the unknown outside of himself, he is forced to confront the unknown inside of himself. The only truth he can make reference to during the journey is his place of origin. This is a place that prompts the questions encouraging man to start his journey and this place of origin accompanies and transforms him throughout. In the end, one's place of origin is where answers and peace are found.1


Chapter Two - Fruitful Contaminations


Then, what do you love, extraordinary stranger?
I love the clouds…the clouds that pass…up there…up there…the wonderful clouds!

(Charles Baudelaire, The Stranger, 1869, p. 1)

Contacts, proximities, and intersections

Through a continuous process of crossbreeding, the contributions from different disciplines (for example, philosophy, natural and social sciences, architecture, literature, arts, and psychoanalysis) can lead to fertile connections and fruitful contaminations. These intersections can force us to deal with cultural differences and thus to feel and understand emotions. This is possible because our mind is not something rigidly subdivided in distinct parts or modules. The openness to the novelty, to the outside, and to the unknown, is an achievement, not something ideologically postulated a priori. This openness deals with the promotion of desire and interest. It can modify worn-out or emotionless languages. I want to stress that these languages appear to be insufficient for describing and representing the value of a novelty and not includable in already established knowledge contexts. In other words, these languages lack the symbolic and representational importance necessary to pass from automaticity to authenticity and from habit to risk. Further, they do not allow a new way of storytelling through the recovery and construction of elements of shared thought.


Chapter Three - The Metaphorical Architecture of Mind


Psychical objects are incomparably more complicated than the excavator's material ones and…we have insufficient knowledge of what we may expect to find, since their finer structure contains so much that is still mysterious.

(Sigmund Freud, 1937d, p. 260)

The architect transforms emotion into form whereas the analyst transforms emotion into language. Most of the metaphorical encyclopaedia used in psychoanalysis draws analogies between the psychical and the physical—the city, the house, rooms, windows, furnishings, as well as landscapes and theatrical spaces:

All this dreamy-fantastic imagery, that redoubles the outside into the inside world, is absolutely fundamental for a description of psychic life. It is based on a topography and an interior and exterior architecture at the service of the psychological representation of imagination. (Petrella, 1993b, p. 654)

The psychoanalysts Domenico Chianese and Andreina Fontana (2010, p. 33) point out that, according to Freud, there is a karstic river running under and beyond the established dominance of the logos, “a karstic river that appears not only in images of Gradiva, Moses, or Leonardo, but also in the antique collector's passion, in archaeological fantasies, in idealised images of Rome, in reflections about civilisation.”


Chapter Four - The Space


A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is…

(Marcel Proust, 1923, pp. 343–344)

The phenomenology of space

Through his anthropoanalytic approach (Daseinanalyse), the psychiatrist and neurologist Ludwig Binswanger (1946) distinguishes between the geometrical space (measurable by natural sciences and mathematics) and the anthropological space (immeasurable and unthinkable but “emotionally attuned”). The anthropological space conceives the human being as not in a space, but as disclosing a space that must be seen as “distance and proximity” to the world objects and as presence and projectuality in the world itself. Specifically, he describes a pragmatic space or an oriented space (action space) on the one hand and a soul space on the other. Through these concepts he describes the closed, restricted, static, and encircled character of the schizophrenic experience of space and the abolition of the borders between personal and external space. A further peculiarity of this character is the loss of somatic borders and liquefaction of self. Thus, this self is confused in a spatial indeterminacy. The person perceives his or her body as fragmented, vulnerable, and inhabited by other people.


Chapter Five - Architecture between Past, Present, and Future


Architecture aims at Eternity.

(Sir Christopher Wren, 1750, p. 351)

The genius of origins

In his On Airs, Waters, and Places, Hippocrates suggests to physicians that they acquire some knowledge of town planning and architecture, and carefully examine the environment, specifically the quality of air and water, weather, meteorology, the features of soil, the geographical position, and even the political situation (Hippocrates believed democracy healthy and tyranny harmful). According to him, virtuous physicians should consider the seasons, the wind, and also the specific characteristics of every country and the peculiar features of its waters. For proof of Hippocrates’ words, consider the sense of care felt at a place of wellness and rest such as the thermal baths of Saturnia or the magic purification permeating everyone who stops by the hot springs at Bagno Vignoni in Val d’Orcia in Tuscany.

On the other hand, first Plato and then Vitruvius coherently argue that the town planner and the architect should have some knowledge of medicine for building good and beautiful homes and cities (Emery, 2010).


Chapter Six - Continuity and Discontinuity in Psychoanalysis


The past no longer casts light upon the future; our minds advance in darkness.

(Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835–1840, p. 819)

A social mutation or a wide and confused change in values?

As with architecture, psychoanalysis faces some problems of relation between continuity and discontinuity. Psychoanalysis is born as a great modern narrative and aims to universally define the internal world of contemporary man. It can propose itself as a modern narrative by inquiring about the individual stories and transcriptions of social reality. Postmodern culture introduces in psychoanalysis concepts and practices similar to those of the modern movement in architecture (as we have seen in the previous chapter, the modern movement aims to construe buildings representing the denial of the roots and the interruption of all links to the past). Claudio Magris fiercely criticises this culture (2005, p. 2): “Today the Modern, with all its faith in the progress and in the possibility of directing the course of history, seems like dusty junk. We are living and moving in a postmodern, global, and sophisticated Middle Ages able to quickly transform the world through technology, but unable to give it a meaning.”


Chapter Seven - The Haste in the World around Us


When first one catches sight of the sea, crosses the ocean, and experiences as realities cities and lands which for so long had been distant, unattainable things of desire—one feels oneself like a hero who has performed a deed of improbable greatness.

(Sigmund Freud, 1936, p. 247)

On travelling

Claudio Magris writes:

We cannot travel without crossing frontiers. They can be political, linguistic, social, cultural, or psychological. Sometimes they are invisible, like those separating the different areas of a city, those between people, those inside us and our internal underworld that sometimes block us. We must cross the frontiers and also love them because they define a peculiar reality or individuality, give it shape and thus save it from vagueness. But we must not worship them or make them idols demanding blood sacrifices. We must keep in mind that they are flexible, temporary, and contingent. They are also mortal, I mean, they are subject to death, as well as travellers, but they are not causes of death as they have been and are many times. Here the adjective mortal means subject to death, a condition typical of the travellers, not possibility or cause of death, as the frontiers had been in the past and are sometimes in the present. (2005, p. XII)


Chapter Eight - The Uncanny


The repressed is foreign territory to the ego—internal foreign territory—just as reality (if you will forgive the unusual expression) is external foreign territory.

(Sigmund Freud, 1933a, p. 57)

At the beginning of 19191 Freud writes a brief but fundamental essay (The “Uncanny”, 1919b) based on a 1906 Jentsch article and on a 1914 book (The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study) by his pupil Otto Rank. Freud starts his essay by referring to the many difficulties in translating the title, more precisely the term das Unheimliche,2 into other modern languages. The problem is that other languages do not seem to have an exact equivalent of this word. Freud himself writes (1919b, p. 221): “The Italian and Portuguese languages seem to content themselves with words which we should describe as circumlocutions.”

Its [of the term Unheimlich] peculiar linguistic status, its irreducibility to any closure axiom, its lasting dissimilarity in respect to those expressions that seem to fully understand its meaning, are all things profoundly “uncanny”. Recognising that this term has something that resists definition and that holds language in check causes fear and discomfort. It means to take note of an insurmountable limit in using an apparently omnipotent tool like language. (Curi, 2010, pp. 29–30)


Chapter Nine - Psychoanalysis and Architecture: The Need for an Interdisciplinary Debate


The appearance of things changes according to the emotions; and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves.

(Kahlil Gibran, 1920, p. 51)

Christopher Bollas (2000) argues that the world of architecture (broadly defined here as the intentional consideration of the human built environment) and the world of psychoanalysis (broadly defined here as the study of unconscious mental life) intersect because the way in which we plan and dwell in the environment we construe reflects the unconscious forms of thinking that architecture aims to realise. Cities become holding environments that offer inhabitants differing forms of psychic engagement with the object world.

Even if a building springs from the typical idiom of a great architect, it certainly comes from the human imagination, in a dialectic that is largely influenced by many factors, such as its stated function, its relation to neighbourhood, its functional possibilities, its artistic or design statement, its client's desires, the anticipated public responses, and many other factors that constitute the architect's mental structure and thus his architectural design.


Chapter Ten - The House


“Small is my humble roof.”1

(Ludovico Ariosto, 1525)

The house as an organism

The word “house” immediately evokes a well-defined space, covered by a roof, constructed on solid foundations and surrounded by a material or symbolic barrier (Roux, 1976) that physically and emotionally protects us. The wall and the facade not only delimit a space, but also make an active division on the ground, drawing boundaries, distinguishing an inside from an outside. The wall and the facade are tools for differentially organising the space. They establish a hierarchy between outside and inside (Filoni, 2014).

In this sense, architecture can be conceived as a continuous elaboration of the areas that separate and link inner-private worlds from an outer-connected social world and organise the entrances and the exits from one space to another (Sperber, 2014b).

In the house all elements of basic construction and all symbolic values of earthly life can be found. The family finds protection under the roof, warmth near the hearth, happiness thanks to the wall decorations, and a sort of cohesion staying in the terrace. From these four basic functions found in the primitive house we can define the structure of a general theory of architecture (Semper, 1851).


Chapter Eleven - Therapy Places


The room had been square. I saw that two of its iron angles were now acute—two, consequently, obtuse. The fearful difference quickly increased with a low rumbling or moaning sound. In an instant the apartment had shifted its form into that of a lozenge. But the alteration stopped not here—I neither hoped nor desired it to stop. I could have clasped the red walls to my bosom as a garment of eternal peace. “Death,” I said, “any death but that of the pit!

(Edgar Allan Poe, 1842, p. 164)

Therapeutic architecture

In therapy places, the expression of pain and suffering is immediate, that is to say, many mediations that normally take place in socially accepted communications do not occur. Pain and suffering tend to produce identification, participation, and empathy only up to a certain threshold of patience. Beyond this threshold we witness an evacuation into the interlocutor's mind, which is unable to contain all the pain and suffering. As a consequence, certain defence mechanisms take place, such as emotional detachment, physical avoidance, and an extreme technicalisation and sanitisation of the meeting with the suffering person. Anxiety is experienced as overflowing and intolerable. Thus, a first response to it can be the creation of “enclaves” in which health professionals indulge in order to protect and defend themselves and to constrain and curb their empathy.


Chapter Twelve - The Analyst's Consulting Room


I have undertaken and completed a forty-two day journey around my room. The interesting observations I have made, and the continual pleasure I experience en route, filled me with the desire to publish it…be so good as to accompany me on my journey…when I travel through my room I rarely follow a straight line: I go from my table towards a picture hanging in a corner; from there I set out obliquely towards the door; but…if I happen to meet my armchair en route, I don't think twice about it, and settle down in it without further ado. It's an excellent piece of furniture, an armchair; above all, it's highly useful for every man inclined to meditation…Once you've left my armchair, walking towards the north, you come into view of my bed, which is placed at the far end of my room: it's a most agreeable sight. It is situated in the most pleasant spot imaginable: the first rays of the sun come to disport themselves in my bed curtains.

(Xavier de Maistre, 1794, pp. 1, 3, & 7–8)

The room


Chapter Thirteen - Some Notes and Suggestions on a Possible Partnership between Architects and Psychoanalysts


Writing can give us the illusion that…we have the possibility to give something essentially erratic a home.

(Agostino Racalbuto, 2005, p. 288)

Between certainty and responsibility

The word “building” indicates a progressive activity. Houses are not definitively construed but are always in construction (Hillman, 2004). They change over time; sometimes they get better, sometimes worse. In every case, they have significant consequences for their inhabitants’ experiences and behaviours. This does not depend only on the architect and the material used for the construction, but also on the point of view of the generations inhabiting the houses and on their continuously changing interests. In turn, the points of view construct and deconstruct what architects have prepared and thus are influenced by environment, culture, and history. The same can be said about all theoretical models and therapeutic techniques, including those of psychoanalysis, which must be continuously tested and, when necessary, reformulated and modified according to the different historical and social contexts. For example, one of Freud's last papers (Constructions in Analysis, 1937d) abandons the archaeological metaphor and introduces construction features in the analytic relationship.


Concluding Remarks


I view psychoanalysis and literature as holding in common a profound love and respect for language as a vehicle not simply for the expression of thoughts and feelings, but, more importantly, a medium for the creation of thoughts and feelings, (Thomas H. Ogden, 2013, p. 630)

Freud (1907a, p. 92) argues that psychoanalysts must necessarily know literature: “We probably…draw from the same source and work upon the same object, each of us by another method. And the agreement of our results seems to guarantee that we have both worked correctly.” Of course, by extension, this can be applied equally well to architecture and town planning.

Loos likes to quote Leon Battista Alberti (1452) when he writes that an architect is a builder who has studied Latin. According to this great mind of European Modernism, architects need to learn to be aware not only of construction and composition techniques but also of the historical and relational context in which they work.

Celant writes:



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