Psychologist Eric Greene, in his first of a series for Sanity and Urbanity, discusses the links between depth psychology and architecture.
“Buildings [today] make you feel like death…[they are] constructed with the absolute intent to destroy emotion…[and] they alienate you” - Alexander in Landy, 1990
With this observation coming from architect Christopher Alexander, I would like to throw my hard-hat of depth psychology into the construction site of urban design and mental health. First, allow me to explain what I do and how this builds upon the discussion, and to sketch the similarities between depth psychology and architecture.
A depth psychologist is, simply put, any psychologist who includes the unconscious in their understanding of the mind. The job of a depth psychologist is to analyze dreams, speech, fantasies and images of the mind and the world which function as a kind of subtext to the surface symptom. The founder of this tradition is generally identified as Freud then Jung.
The practice of analysis is popularly conceived of as occurring in an office by a therapist with a patient. But the field extends far beyond this practice. Consider this quote from Freud: (1930) in Civilization and its Discontents (a more literal translation is ‘the disease in culture’):
“…would not the diagnosis be justified that many systems of civilization—or epochs of it—possibly even the whole of humanity—have become neurotic under the pressure of the civilizing trends?” - Freud , Civilization and its Discontents, pp69
This quote suggests that culture and all that it contains could be the context that makes people sick, and therefore, itself could and should be analyzed. Additionally, both Freud (1895) and Jung (1963) often used the metaphor of a house to describe the mind. Jung, in fact, constructed a literal house and often referred to it as an extension of his mind. Since its inception, depth psychology has been linked to architecture. But how?
My thesis is this: The foundation upon which our modern buildings and minds are constructed is the same. This foundation is not a material foundation but rather it is an idea, or image, if you will. The image is characterized by its isolation, alienation, emptiness— all conditions which lead to dis-ease or mental illness. The reification of this image has reached its peak today. In order to change the mental illness of our culture, we need to rethink this foundational idea. Both post-modern critiques of architecture and psychotherapy are pointing the way forward to rethink our cities in terms of its relationality, not its isolation, in order to create a more mentally healthy world.
1. Strip Bare the Patient
Since Freud, many depth psychologists continued to analyzed the world in relation to mental health. Freud’s student, Bruno Bettelheim, in The Mental Health of Urban Design, continued with Freud’s thesis: the world can make us sick. Bettelheim (1979) asks:
“[t]o what extent does physical design affect the psychology of hope?... Mental health is created or destroyed in the home.” - Bruno Bettelheim, The Mental Health of Urban Design, pp 201
Bettelheim argues that the carelessness with which a home is constructed— in this case, the projects created mostly for the African-American poor in America— becomes internalized in the mind of its inhabitants, and they come to know their first world as one which does not care for them. Then, they lack the hope that beyond their immediate horizon is a world which welcomes them. The construction of the space colonizes the inhabitant’s physical and mental landscapes. Generalizing this theme for our purposes, one could say, that the spaces in which we live project onto us just as we project onto them.
It is on this precise notion—that of the world projecting onto us—that the student of Jung, James Hillman, staked an important claim: psychotherapy strips bare the patient’s psychology to its utopian essentials by withdrawing its projections from the world. Hillman (1970) claims that this process exacerbates the disease of isolation or alienation. The problems are not just all in our minds. We have had 100 years of psychotherapy and the world has gotten worse, precisely because we internalize all of the world’s problems as if “the end of the world were an inner problem”(Hillman, 1993; Hillman, 1998, 129). As a result, we have become anesthetized by the subjectivism of psychotherapy (Hillman, 1970). To break free of this emptiness and isolation, in order to restore mental health to the world, Hillman (1970), like Bettelheim, argues that we need to recognize that psychology is everywhere and in everything, that each thing sparks with its “eachness” or particularities. In other words, mental illness is not just in a person’s head. It is also in our cities, our buildings, in the whole of civilization, and these things projects onto us.
2. Strip Bare the Building
The progression of architectural design in modernity seemed to follow a similar historical path. Architect Irata Isozaki, in the introduction to Kojin Karatani’s (1995) Architecture as Metaphor, narrates that architecture has passed through three crises. The first occurred when the ‘bible’ of architecture, Vitruvius’ The Ten Books on Architecture, became relativized. The vacancy left from this displacement was filled by a new orientation of “Architecture as Art” (Isozaki in Karatani, 1995, x). The second crisis occurred when that art became institutionalized and oppressive. The new orientation of modern architecture was, then, “Architecture as Construction” (Isozaki in Karatani, 1995, xi). The idea was to strip its subject bare of the projections or decorative elements (i.e., art) and construct buildings from basic elements towards a utopia. This left buildings “skeletal” (Isozaki in Katajani, 1995, xi). The movement reached its fruition in the middle of the twentieth century.
We are, according to Isozaki, still in the third crises. Architecture, like so many things in post-modernity, suffers from a loss of the metanarrative, and the orientation is one of a “loss of subject” (Isozaki in Katajani, 1995, xii). This strange characterization means that buildings are seen as projects which are separated from, and indeed colonize, the communities in which they are built; and, they contain no elements of humanity. This is why architect Christopher Alexander (in Landy, 1990) states these “buildings [today] make you feel like death…[they are] constructed with the absolute intent to destroy emotion…[and] they alienate you”. In short, the world we live in projects alienation and mental illness onto us.
3. The Foundation
These two monuments of study— architecture and psychotherapy—are founded upon a mutual image. This image is characterized by bareness, isolation and alienation. It has affected the spirit of our culture and makes us feel mentally unhealthy.
If the goal is to create sane urban life, we ought to begin with an image of buildings which engenders hope and humanity. They would be constructed with an eye towards beauty, focus on the particularities, consider the relationship to its parts and to the community at large. If we can hope to create a healthier future—a future which promises movement beyond the horizon of our felt sense of isolation and alienation— we can begin by caring for our cities and buildings— the places which we can and should call home.
Bruno Bettelheim, “Mental Health and Urban Design,” in Surviving and other essays. (NY, 1979), pp. 201.
Breuer, J. & Freud, S. (1895). Studies in hysteria. New York, NY: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its discontents. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co.
Hillman, J. (1970). Re-visioning psychology. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Hillman, J. (1993). We’ve had one hundred years of psychology and the world is getting worse. New York, NY: Harper.
Hillman, J. (1998). The thought of the heart and the soul of the world. Los Angeles, CA: Spring.
Jung, C.G. (1963). Memories, dreams, reflections. New York, NY: Vintage.
Karatani, K. (1995). Architecture as metaphor: language, number, money. Boston, Massachusettes: M.I.T.
Landy. Places for the Soul: the Architecture of Christopher Alexander. (1990). Christopher Alexander.
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