Mechanisms: Architecture and the Neurosis of the Homely

I will now discuss some of the core psychological mechanisms which, for me, provided the motivation for the rebuilding of the trenches in the 1960s. The first focuses on the central internal conflict experienced by survivors of the war, combatants and non-combatants alike. In general terms, this conflict concerned the acceptance of such gross loss, but in particular terms it boiled down to how to bring the home of the trenches home to Britain, how to build homes fit for heroes whose home had been the Front; in other words, a neurosis of the homely.

In its scarcely imaginable, unreal way, the Western Front had been only too real. So, when the soldiers returned to the London of the Twenties, the reality of the great capital felt hollow; it was a place without memory. It had become Eliot’s Wasteland.

“Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.”

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”

(TS Eliot, ‘The Wasteland’, 1922, ll.60-3, 71-2)

All that was real for them was the trench city, that nightmare city of pure memory. The world had been turned upside down. And only when hideous memory was made real again could it be accepted as a lamentable aberration in time, a moment that could be left behind.

Architects were unwittingly charged with making real the memorial reality of the Front by being asked to build homes fit for heroes. This grew into the moment of the Modern Movement when its leading role in the Thirties was characterised by a passion that was almost missionary. Its principles and rationalisations were much more malleable than it let on, but it was driven by a commonly felt need to facilitate the emergence of memory that was urging expression.

If seen like this, the Modern Movement architects were as much psychoanalysts as builders. Their underlying motivating resources came not only from their own imaginations, but from the images held by others. Behind the tabula rasa of their drawing boards and their white walls were designs that demanded realisation. The tabula rasa, the white walls, did not rest against solid ground but against memories, often others’ memories, which demanded projection through the blinding screen of the drawing board and which the architect could guide to realisation. Like good analysts they picked up on their clients’ needs, their neuroses, their memories; then they allowed the buildings to tell their story.

Seen in this light, ‘Sixties architecture’ is an astonishing success. The almost compulsive drive to untie the Gordian knot of having to build homes as trenches, with public approval, achieved its goal.

Perhaps TS Eliot’s The Wasteland can be seen as prophecy: not only was London an unreal city to soldiers after the war, but it became an unreal city for its inhabitants in the early 1960s. They were living in the real city of the trenches, brought home. With fitting irony, it came to be inhabited by the homeless.

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War dead in a German trench
Lillington Gardens, designed 1962, photo taken in 2004

To elaborate on this, memory-driven melancholia seems to have condensed around the idea of home, in particular homes for returned soldiers and, a partly overlapping focus for planners, ‘anonymous clients’. It may be accurate to describe this concentration of concern for home as an obsession or neurosis that developed through the 1920s.

This is rooted in the idea that emotions are set in train by inputs from the senses. A sense of “home” is induced, for example, when the eye rests on what most gives a young mind a strong sense of security, its mother’s eyes, but also on what is present around her – the rooms, the gardens she inhabits – and which the eye sees through peripheral vision. ‘Home’ is a place in mind where strong feelings and repeated patterns of behaviour, reflected in neurological patterns, are associated with the images of a single location necessarily outside of mind. Links are made between felt emotions, repeated behaviour patterns and the inputs of the senses – the sights, sounds and smells of the place where they most often happen. ‘Home’ is a place in mind where a mental sense of belonging coexists among images of a place outside of mind.

For more than three years, the Western Front was the location of a war of almost no movement. Outside of siege situations, it was unique at the time in the history of warfare. It was also a place of intense emotions – fear, loss, camaraderie, love, hate. And it was a place where military discipline was in operation – behaviour was regulated and, as far as was possible, made predictable. In this way, the three elements necessary to induce a feeling of ‘home’ were present: a single location, intense emotions and repeated patterns of behaviour. It may even be fair to say that, given the extreme horror of so many events and the intensity of so many emotions, this sense of home as the front superseded any previous apprehending of home.

When the soldiers returned, two themes were being bandied about of direct relevance. Within architecture circles, a concern for building homes for ‘anonymous clients’ was growing, in response to a developing demand for working class housing provided by the state. Around the same time, the soldiers themselves were promised ‘homes fit for heroes’ as a result of their sacrifices for the nation. It was argued that returned soldiers deserved better than the poor quality housing stock which they had left to go to war.

Through the decade, architects became wedded to the idea of the ‘anonymous client’. If nothing else it held out the promise of large-scale, centrally funded commissions. At the same time, the political promise of ‘homes fit for heroes’ came to be seen as much as an empty, pacifying slogan as anything leading to wholesale change.

However, if melancholia is seen to have set in at the end of the decade, these two factors have an important role to play in how that melancholia developed. For, at the moment of downshifting, it could be understood that they too were appropriated and twisted slightly, by and towards the will of memory. With memory in control, the ‘anonymous client’ could be conflated with the ‘anonymous soldier’, the one who, along with hundreds of thousands of comrades lay buried in the mud of France, and whom Hitler believed demanded atonement. And the ‘homes fit for heroes’ may have seemed an empty wish, not only because politicians had reneged on their promises, but because ‘home’ for soldiers of the front had become rooted in their memory of the front itself. How could homes fit for heroes be built if their idea of home was a trench in the Western Front?

Now, the grip of memory and melancholia seem to tighten, at the same time as Hitler tightened his grip on the will of the German people by the strength of his own will. Given the issues left unresolved a decade after the war, given the preoccupation with providing homes for ‘anonymous’ people and returned, often disoriented, soldiers, given the onset of the Depression and a climate in which Hitler could bend a nation to his will, would it now be correct to characterise what happened in Britain in the early 1930s as the onset not only of melancholia, but of a particular neurosis centred on the idea of home which, driven by images in memory of the front, would move towards dissipating itself only by projecting those images onto the real world? Would it be fair to say that melancholia seconded architecture, unknowingly, to its will?

Perhaps the success of the Modern Movement in architecture was as much due to its appropriateness for the time, in answering a profound psychological imperative, as for its inherent architectural qualities. There were other voices and movements in architecture throughout the 1920s but the Modern Movement fitted most elegantly into position with its talk of white walls, cold rationalism and discrete, ordered zoning. The language of the Modern Movement in the late 1920s and early 1930s was precisely the language of the first phase of melancholia, that of forgetting, of blanking out.

Architecture is inherently suitable as a vehicle for memory-based neurosis. The practice is based on drawing images held in mind, but is also dependent on approval by clients. Perhaps their approval is dictated to a certain extent by recognition. Perhaps approval of plans involves repeated scenes of recognition? In this way, the architect, rather than being seen as a prime mover, becomes the conduit by which the memories of clients are projected. The projections of architecture become a project to build a new history, one constructed through memory, by memory, of memory. In this instance, the project of architecture becomes a mission to rebuild the trenches as homes fit for heroes, those who now in a sense are homeless. Only then can there be a true homecoming.