A Phenomenology of Personal and Public Projections

Finally, in terms of psychological considerations I would like to discuss the, some would say rather obvious, point that the entire thesis may be rooted in nothing more than personal projection and subjective interpretation.

To begin with the moment where I had the first inkling of a possible link, as I walked through the alleyways of the Marquess Road estate in Islington, I was reminded of an earlier walk through a recreated trench at the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. The two experiences, of Sixties architecture and the Great War, seemed somehow related.

This re-minding is important and warrants splitting into constituent parts. The recreation in the museum is a singular experience, coming as it does with atmospheric sound-and-lighting effects. Similarly, the narrow, brick-lined alleyways of the Marquess Estate, built to just above eye-level, are not particularly common in the London landscape. So this second walking through such a miniature canyon is likely to register with the experience already held in my mind. Walking through again brings the remembered experience to conscious recollection.

But this physical walking through also seems to set in motion a corresponding perambulation, a synaptic progress, through my mind. The confines of the alleyway bring to consciousness a sense of claustrophobia, and of introversion, states of mind I am familiar with. The feeling in my mind of being in a trench also stimulates recollection of an enthusiasm I had at the age of 16 for the strategic military history of the First World War which I explored in books full of trench maps, and arrowed diagrams denoting the progress of armies, those on the Western Front in particular. So this walking through an alleyway brings with it a surge of emotional and narrative memories.

And yet, I mention these links only to set them aside. Any such walking through a landscape will bring a surge of past experience to the walker. I mention them to acknowledge the complexity of any recollection, the hazy mixture of private and public experiences, but they are not the point. The point is, whether I, as a viewer in 2008 of a mid-20th century building, could be looking at a picture of an early-20th century event-landscape? In effect, am I looking at a realist painting as well as architecture?

Hitler's BunkerPimlico School

Hitler’s Bunker (1917);
Pimlico School, GLC Architects’ Dept (1964)

The mirror images suggest that Sixties architecture may have been an attempt at a re-experience – rather than remembrance – of things past; a phenomenology of ghosts.

I have tried to use the word ‘suggested’ in describing so far the process of what may have happened. This is to underline that I am not implying that this reading of Modernist architecture in Britain is exclusive or true. It is, on the contrary, no more than a provisional framework. As such, it is nothing more than a means to understanding, at this stage. I am putting it forward as a way of explaining an aspect of Modernist architecture which otherwise, in my research, has gone unexplained. This aspect can be summarised as ‘the ugly’, not in the commonly used sense, but in that put forward by Mark Cousins of the Architecture Association in London as ‘that which is out of place’, or ‘that which we would rather was not there’.

Modernist architecture in Britain, for me, evokes an emotional response, not only because it is creative and inspired at the same time as being dysfunctional in social terms, but because it seems to possess another, uncanny, layer, something that is ‘out of place’. This word ‘Uncanny’, linked to the Scots use of ‘ken’, meaning ‘to know’, suggests that there is something unknown, perhaps unknowable, about it.

Maybe, moving on from the thoughts above on walking through, like any artwork that absorbs the attention of the gazer, this style of architecture moves me because it allows me to project my own psyche onto it. Its uncanniness, its unknowableness, provides a repository for my own projections. In fact, I suggest that it is. The catch is, however, that if I can project my own mind into it, it is possible that its creators, and more importantly those who approved of the plans for construction, did so too. A triangular structure of interaction is set up, based on recognition. I am emotionally moved by the architecture I see because I recognise the psyches that projected themselves into the structure in the first place. In this sense, the building acts as both repository and mirror. I can know myself in the building, but I can also know who built it because we have responded similarly, albeit to different events.

Put briefly, a traumatising event experienced by an individual, such as myself, will find recognition of its effect in the fifth, remembering, stage of PTSD by responding to elements of the environment around him which have had the same stage of PTSD projected onto them. Collectively experienced traumatising events, such as those of 1914-18, will have their responses projected communally, perhaps in the design of mass housing, so that they become visible to all. Those of later generations, such as myself again, with no experience of the original events, will nonetheless recognise the emotional response projected into the building. I am suggesting, therefore that the ‘something ugly’ can be understood as the workings of traumatised memory and its long-term projective potential.

The basis for this research derives its validity, and motivation for analysis, on the simple grounds that my particular emotional reaction is unmediated. My feeling comes as a direct result of my seeing the building. What I am putting forward is nothing more, or less, than an understanding of and an analysis of my way of seeing. The first question is, what do I see? Secondly, if this can be clarified, how certain can I be that this conforms to what was projected into the building in the first place? And finally, although I could conceivably recognise matching emotional or psychic states projected into buildings, how could images themselves, elements of a landscape, be projected into architectural work? Can any certainty be attached to such a proposal, given the possibility that it might be nothing more than the work of associative imagining?