Architecture as Horrorshow 04.08.11

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Out beyond the city, where suburbia meets the countryside, fragments of rural landscape, business parks and townscapes are woven together by tarmac threads. These places are not city, not quite suburb but neither are they countryside. They are places where we can't quite imagine a conclusion to their tangled strands of landscape, ancient and modern.

These are landscapes that have precipitated at the intersection of the high-speed, non-slip networks of contemporary culture with history, rather than formed out of a cohesive vision, plan or design. It's what happens when you overlay 21st-century culture on to centuries of settlement patterns – historical vernaculars are atomised into unrecognisably contemporary constellations.

If one typology characterises the weak-form architecture of these extra-urban, sub-rural, post-suburban British landscapes, it's the supermarkets that stud their interchanges. It's no coincidence that they are also the sites where the contradictory narratives of place are strongest – where the forces of motorway global intersect with B-road local. These are the places where the fault lines of advanced capitalism crack through the fabric of local tradition like a cartoon earthquake.

In these supermarkets we see big box retail hoiking on yokel garb. In an architectural language that we might call "Tesco retro" or "rural Lidl", half-timbered zig-zags and Victoriana brickwork lesions break out over the surface of the generic mass of the supermarket. These neo-heritage features are applied to the most abstract and generic spatial forms that late capitalism can conceive, as though they will somehow endow a sense of meaning and a connection with place and community.

This weird neo-old/hyper-new tension is most visible in these supermarkets' roofs. It's here that a vague idea of English vernacular wrestles with the long, low, horizon of big box retail. The box is the formal conclusion of late capitalist consumerism. Its form is dictated by the logics of retail logistics and the raw economics of supply and demand. But this abstract form, once set into the world as a physical entity, jars with the nostalgic self-image of place. The genericness of the box is in its very nature indifferent to the textures and peculiarities that we traditionally associate with place. These opposite ideas of place are a tension that remains unresolved – and it's exactly this tension that is visible in the supermarket roof. Much more than keeping the rain out or the heat in, it becomes a site playing out narratives of local vs global, of community vs multinational, of the grain of social history against the smoothness of hyper-capitalist space.

The weak resolution of this conflict is no doubt a compromise struck between the supermarkets' architects and local planning officers – each under their own political and economic pressures (securing more sites, increasing local employment and so on). The result is an ill-defined melange of roof hips and pitches. In its attempts to absorb the English traditions of picturesque and townscape planning, it ends up looking as though the box has swallowed a villageworth of churches, barns and town halls. Its polite (and probably well-meaning) compromise between the multiple conflicting interests that coincide at its own point of origin conspires to create something entirely unintentional. What comes out of this careful process is something resembling a giant pantiled stealth bomber. All those efforts toward contextualism only serve to construct something even more alien.

As architect Jacob Wiklander points out in his Superville project, there is a tragic irony inherent in the neo-vernacular supermarket. Its imagery attempts to speak of villageness, of high streets, communities and small town civicness. Yet these are the very things that – operationally – supermarkets destroy. While projecting an architectural approximation of small town publicness – vague ghosts of village hall, church, town hall clocktowers and so on – it is part of the mechanisms which dismantle all of those infrastructures of traditional collectivity. Big box retail economically eviscerates high streets, fractures communities and transforms the landscape into a delivery device for high-volume consumerism. And its engine, the supermarket's open-plan interior – identical to thousands of square miles of supermarket in the dispersed diaspora of global commerce – is the thing that, apparently, must be disguised.

The vernacularised supermarket is pitched between what it is and what it isn't. We first force it into its gigantic mass of convenience then force it to dream a dream of everything we accuse it of destroying. We clothe it in an image-suit of a pre-supermarket age – a ghost-cloak of the world before the mechanisms of large-scale retail broke up traditional social structures.

Wiklander identifies similar phenomena as a historically recurring condition. Bournville – the town built by the Cadbury family in the late 1800s to house its chocolate company's workforce and factories – remains a touchstone in the history of urban planning. Its progressive social values, reflecting the founder's Quakerism, embedded social concern in the new town's fabric. Bournville was an early response to the problems of the industrialised city, intended – as George Cadbury stated – to "alleviate the evils of modern, more cramped living conditions". Its planning was characterised by an arts and crafts architectural language – a synthetic assemblage of villagey vernaculars.

In Bournville, once again, we trace both progress and its tragic ironies. Cadbury as a company was an agent of industrialisation. Its success was related both to empire, to changes in taxation of cocoa and to the economic process that concentrated labour and capital into urban centres. As such, it was a part of the process of industrialisation that broke up traditional rural patterns of social and economic settlement. Yet in Bournville it dreams of the very thing which it has brought to the edge of extinction. Alongside its well-meaning intentions, Bournville becomes an ironic tragedy of urban planning – an industrialised townscape haunted by dreams of the pre-industrial condition that it destroyed.

Neo-vernacular supermarkets and Bournville share this tragic narrative, the attempt to reanimate that which it has destroyed. Identifying this as an architectural condition allows us to read these scenarios differently. They suggest that architecture and landscapes are not only physical activities but also products of a cultural subconscious. These are examples of situations where buildings are not just buildings but might also be read as psychological conditions acted out through architectural form. Their message? We always kill the ones we love.

What kind of psychological state do these nostalgic ghosts reveal? How might we characterise the relationship between the destroyer and the destroyed? This is architecture as Greek tragedy where guilt, regret and shame for a terrible act is punished by a never-ending penance of hopeless acts of architectural resuscitation.

Traditional methods of architectural critique might not help us much here. These are issues which are not to do with good or bad tectonics, appropriate use of materials, neat resolution of how one thing meets another or response to site and so on (though, of course, this is not to say that these are not important issues). Instead we might turn to criminal psychology to understand the issues of death, desire and guilt. In fact, the closest parallel to the scenario where architecture dresses itself up in the form of that which it has destroyed might be the serial killer Ed Gein. Gein – real-life model for, among others, Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho's Norman Bates – was infamous for murder and grave robbing. But he became notorious for what he did with the bodies.

Gein was obsessed with his mother. Augusta Gein preached to him about the innate immorality of the world, the evil of drinking and that all women were prostitutes and instruments of the devil. She would read to him from the Bible every day: graphic Old Testament verses of death, murder and divine retribution. Despite his efforts to please her, she would continually abuse him. Nevertheless, Gein's devotion to his mother was complete.

When she died, Gein boarded up the rooms she used and never entered them again. Then he set about his most macabre construction. Making over 40 nocturnal visits to three local graveyards in a daze-like state, he exhumed recently buried bodies of middle-aged women he thought resembled his mother. He tanned their skins and began to sew them together to form what can only be described as a woman-suit.

In this macabre ritualism we might read – as Alfred Hitchcock did – a form of psychotic resurrection. Wearing this woman-suit, Gein could – in a profoundly disturbed way – temporarily restore his own psychic order through acting out the reanimation of his mother. The woman-suit made his mother-obsessed unconscious quite literally flesh. As an object, it was sited both in the real world as a physical thing but also in the depths of his subconscious – a means of manifesting his schizoid condition.

Other parts of the bodies Gein stole or killed he used in ritualistic decoration: a pair of lips on a drawstring for a windowshade, skulls on his bedposts and made into bowls, chairs upholstered in human skin and so on. If you Google image search "Ed Gein" – which I would advise only for the resolutely un-squeamish – you'll find a kind of horrific Etsy-ism, disturbing folk-design of terrifying ingenuity.

Through these hideous inventions, Gein could act out his repressed anxieties of loss, guilt, love, desperation, fear and sublimated sexuality that characterised his relationship to his dead mother. In his total psychic collapse, his psychological interior became merged with the exterior world of objects. His constructions turned the physical world into a space where he could act out the most disturbed fantasies of his psychosis.

Though Gein is obviously an extreme example, his psycho-craft objects suggest that there might be a psychological content to all of the things we produce. Perhaps all the things we design – objects, buildings and environments – are not only real physical things but also extensions of our psychic interiors. The psychological registers of design are twofold. First, a particular psychology is embedded in production – the way in which architecture and design operate as activities. Second, psychological issues determine how the products of this process exist within culture – that's to say, how we consume architecture and design.

Consider the fact that architecture and design usually operate with the intention of making the world a better place – sometimes with grand visions of utopia, at other times with a more modest idea of "good-ness". Consider also that the design process uses rational logics to organise materials, techniques, labour, manufacturing and so on to determine the outcome of its objects. In Freudian terms, the process of design is all ego and no id. That's to say, it is a conscious, intellectual-cognitive activity that attempts to justify itself against the demands of the external world and the superego's ideals, conscience and so on. The id – which Freud described as "the dark, inaccessible part" of the unconscious – in most design processes is repressed, indeed must be repressed for the process to function.

Take, for example, the systemised atomisation of the contemporary design process. Behind the popular myth of the individual genius architect or designer lurks a far more fractured and multiple personality. In the case of a building, you will find a large design team where roles and responsibilities are clearly distinct. Project managers, quantity surveyors, engineers, M&E engineers, acoustic consultants, facilities management, access consultants, contractors, fire consultants, and often many more, are employed to pursue different interests within the same project. Each is contractually and professionally separate. The theory of this extreme specialisation is efficiency, risk mitigation and clear legal paths of responsibility should anything go wrong. In practice, this mechanism of building-making disassociates one activity from another. A psychoanalytical critique of this arrangement might suggest that it embeds a fractured psychic apparatus within the very heart of architectural production. And as an architect sitting in the midst of this team it often feels as though the organisational structure of the design process is an explicit means of repression – that its real purpose is to annex anything which might have snuck out of the subconscious.

Conversely, the things that architecture and design produce operate within a framework of desire – the realm of the subconscious. That's to say they produce – at least, if they are successful – fetishes. Stuff that wants to be wanted, that needs to be desired. The psychology of design and desire occurs at its interface with the market. This has become a science all of its own where trend watchers, brand consultants and marketing departments – as well as the architects and designers themselves – attempt to position design within the psychological landscapes of its consumers. Design seeks to transport objects from the physical world into that dark, inaccessible part of the subconscious, where its attributes of shape, colour, texture, space and so on begin to take on meanings and significance of an entirely different order.

If we see these as the general psychologies of contemporary architecture and design, the specificity of an Ed Gein-like psychosis – the details and circumstances of a particular psychotic condition – informs each project. In architecture no one gets arrested for the death of the rural or taken in for questioning for the disappearance of a village. But all urban planning and architecture contain at their core a destructive heart even in their most well-meaning of forms. Just in the act of being built, they obliterate what was there before. Their existence is only possible because something else no longer exists.

As Bournville and neo-vernacular supermarkets clearly demonstrate, we are haunted by the things that our creations destroy. Our attempts to restore these losses are a form of repression. This repression haunts the sub-rural, extra-urban landscapes of Britain. Cloaked in Gein-like suits made from pieces of its victims – sewn together fragments of vernacular buildings – our own repressed architectural anxieties of loss, guilt, love, desperation and fear are perversely and temporarily resolved.

These are examples of architectures formed out of repressed psychic states: architecture here is a form of psychosis in which subconscious cultural anxiety is acted out through images flickering over the surfaces of our frightening new world. Architecture's complicity in this cultural phenomenon occurs because it acts as a form of repression – a filter of what is culturally respectable. Architectural taste – good or bad, high or low – adds a veneer of social acceptability that only serves to further repress cultural anxieties. Bournville and neo-vernacular supermarkets express an extreme form of psychosis because they exist at a moment where these anxieties are at their greatest. But it is a common condition suffered by contemporary architecture. The egos, superegos and ids of economics, planning, politics, taste and cultural convention put architecture's psychic state into irresolvable states of tension.

How then might architecture escape this psychotic horror show? Perhaps we might understand architecture not as an act of resolution but as a medium for exploring the psychological cultural conditions of landscapes and scenarios that trouble us so deeply. Like Hitchcock's Psycho, architecture might aim to articulate rather than solve the conflicts of ego, superego and id that characterise our built environment. By expressing our subconscious fears and desires through architectural form we might find a way out of the psychotic condition of contemporary architecture.

 

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Sam Jacob

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We clothe it in an image-suit of a pre-supermarket age - a ghost-cloak of the world before the mechanisms of large-scale retail broke up traditional social structures

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