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Psycho Architecture


We've been talking a lot about how a space can directly impact a person's mood and well being.

Richard Neutra said it best: “How can our houses affect our mental health?... How can they not? I mean, where do we go crazy?”


The connection between #psychology and architecture is a fascinating subject that I was able to dive into during my time as an undergrad in Temple University's architecture program in Philadelphia PA. The following research connects Freud's #psychoanalysis and Neutra's "Biorealism" to the need for #therapeutic #architecture in today's society.



1. Freud’s Psychoanalysis


Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud popularized psychoanalysis in the early 20th century. Freud stated that individuals could be cured of their neurosis by making conscious their unconscious thoughts and motivations. Popular in the treatment of anxiety and depression this process would release repressed emotions and experiences in a cathartic, healing experience. He claimed that symptoms of neurosis are caused by latent disturbances typically including unresolved issues during development or repressed trauma from childhood. [1]

Freud also developed the idea of the defense mechanism, which is still a main component in the modern day psychology discourse. A defense mechanism, defined by Freud, is a psychological strategy that operates on an unconscious level used to protect a person from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings.[2] The six main defense mechanisms are Repression, Denial, Projection, Displacement, Regression, and Sublimation. Repression acts as an unconscious mental block that keeps disturbing or threatening thoughts from becoming conscious.[3] Denial involves blocking external events from awareness. Projection involves individuals attributing their own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and motives to another person. This is most common with thoughts that result in feelings of guilt. Displacement is when the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for the goals felt in their original form to be dangerous or unacceptable.[4] Regression is a movement back in psychological time when one is faced with stress where they may become more childish or primitive when troubled or frightened.[5] Sublimation is similar to displacement, but takes place when we manage to displace our emotions into a constructive rather than destructive activity.[6]


2. Psychoanalysis in Architecture

Architecture and psychoanalysis have frequently been linked together. Many psychological theorists believe “in the existence of a basic spatial sense within the human mind and considered architecture the material expression of this instinct… psychoanalysis made space the repository of a proliferating number of phobias and pathologies” (19). [7] By the 1950’s “architectural discourse was characterized by selected strains of physiological psychology and form psychiatry, behaviorism, environmental psychology” (20). [8]


3. Richard Neutra’s Architectural Doctrine


Richard Neutra, a fellow Austrian, had a close relationship with the Freud family. After spending significant amounts of time at the Freud household it is no wonder that the famous psychologist impacted Neutra’s architectural ideologies. Neutra took Freud’s explanations of human development of the unconscious and transformed it to include the emergence of psychic life as part of a larger system. Particularly through his residential designs of the 1950’s he established continuity between material and psychic energy that explored the impact of architecture on psychoanalytic ideas. He brought Freud’s psychoanalysis from the realm of the theoretical into the realm of the physical and created a “psycho-physiological wholesomeness”. Referencing the relationship between the unconscious interior mental space and the physical exterior world Neutra states that there is “an individual relationship to the physical not human environment which clearly affects the sensorial and central nervous equipment. There are fluid connections between these two domains and any antagonism between the two major study groups would be ill advised and badly motivated. In the contrary intimate collaboration would show many instrumentalities to improve and ease the hardships which threaten to lead into pathology”[9] (32). Netura explains this connection as “a continuous fusion of the outer and inner landscape... Our innermost being is expose to the outer currents and influences. Our skin is only very partially a barrier… The architect’s job was to use the pleasure of this environmental and physiological resonance to produce curative therapy”[10] (87).

Neutra developed a therapeutic doctrine that focused on the relationship between his client (the human organism) and the domestic space (the environment) and how the environment energetically acted on the nervous system and through it the psyche. [11] He wanted his clients to think of him as a doctor while establishing an emotional intimacy between himself and his client in order to create an architectural space of therapeutic quality. He fashioned himself in the image of a therapist serving the unconscious environmental needs of his clients by creating architectural spaces of delight and pleasure.[12] In his view, a good house is the fulfillment of the search in space for happiness. He viewed the house as a mirror not of society or family but of self. He claimed to produce an architecture that would offer climate control, better health, and happiness itself.[13] Neutra’s focus on materiality is understood through his specific version of empathy. For Neutra empathy describes “how sensations and feelings emerge on the surface of a form. Empathy was a type of representational inversion and sublimation whereby what was on the inside of the subject appeared on the outside of a phenomenal object”[14] (37).

In addition to empathy, Neutra was particularly interested in Freud’s explanation of the defense mechanism. For Neutra a defense mechanism was “that which protects the psychophysiological constitution of the human being from adverse conditioning by what he calls the not human environment. Design becomes a form of therapy when the psyche must be defended from the unconscious effects of architecture”[15] (32).

Neutra’s architectural approach exists in the realm of the unconscious. He focuses on psychic energies that are translated through materiality and visual effects into the unconscious, which result in a “throbbing” intensity.[16]


Neutra would begin his design process mimicking Freud’s psychoanalytical methodology with his clients by instructing them to complete a self-analysis. He required his clients to keep diaries and subjected them to a lengthy interview process. These tactics were Neutra’s way of gaining insight into their daily lives, their conscious and unconscious desire, their habits, their personal and interpersonal struggles and triumphs, as well as their deepest thoughts and feelings.[17] Neutra believed that “architecture should operate like psychotherapy by assisting clients to satisfy unconscious psychical desires” and that the architect “operates on the basis of an emotional dynamic with a client developed through analysis of childhood experience”[18] (50). From this process he felt fully equipped to create a physiologically curative design”.[19]

After this initial process, which he called the diagnostic procedure, Neutra began his design process with the overall goal of “the subject to merge into the environment and lose identity. He claims that only the architect can offer protection against this unconscious wish through proper design and above all though the balanced and psychologically acute deployment of space [and that it is] the architectural environment which imprints itself most forcibly on our mental habits”[20] (56).


4. Richard Neutra’s Design Tactics

One of the most notable features “of Neutra’s work during the 1950’s was an intense concentration on dismantling conventional barriers between inside and out”[21] (58). He achieved this effect through the implementation of various tactics such as transparent glass, “spider legs” and mitered corners.

In all of Neutra’s post war houses there is an emphasis on the glass exterior.

In the Rourke house (1949) “the outside world intrudes through large glass panels. These are not simply picture windows that frame views or glass walls that structure the house as in traditional… instead the glass window/wall is actually a door that moves and permits movement. The wide overhang of the roof creates a zone of shadow attenuating and extending the boundary of the interior. The overhangs that all but eliminate reflection further reinforce the indeterminate simultaneity of enclosure and exposure. The glass becomes not transparent but invisible to leave the house unbounded”[22] (59).




Neutra used his Spider Legs “to collapse the normally primary architectural distinction between exteriority and interiority”. The spider leg is a single beam or fascia that “fascia stretches far beyond the edge of the roof at a major corner and turns down the reach the ground”. By displacing the corners of rooms and “in some cases the very structure of the house such normally stabilizing architectural elements are indeterminately inside and outside at the same time”.

Understanding a building “in terms of a return to the mother’s womb implies a dismantling of conventional barriers of being in outside and inside environments. By breaking down this demarcation, Neutra sought to help the client in overcoming his or her birth trauma.” The space between the glazing and the spider legs are a “realization of birth canal... by functioning as an architectural umbilical cord but also underscore the traumatizing moment of separation by framing empty and infinite space… that would affect a psychological transformation in a house’s occupants akin to a rebirth.”[23]




One of the most celebrated features of his architecture is the corner where one glass plane meets the other. At this corner the floor to ceiling glass meets at a mitered edge to produce a glazed environment of intense spatial ambiguity. Here there is a distinct oscillation between opacity and transparency, interiority and exteriority, solidity and fluidity and it generates perceptual confusion.[24] Here the “glass and frame perform to both produce and suppress the edge of the house”[25] (110). In the Moore House (1952) “the corner provided [Mrs. Moore] with a sense of the inter-relation of Nature without and living within that could do nothing less than eliminate the depression which we feel. She felt this interrelationship especially on a misty gloomy day, in other words when the house was at its most moody and when she turned to the window to get out, to enter its distant view over the far landscape and to join what she called the ‘mystery over the mountains[26]’” (110). Neutra saw this corner as the precise moment where instabilities and uncertainties collect and where desires, both psychic and organic are projected.



5. Failure = Success for Neutra

There has been much criticism of Neutra’s work from those within the architectural field and his past clients. One of his clients, Mrs. Logar, wrote to Neutra in 1956 (just four years after building the home in Granada Hills California) saying that she and her husband wished to sell their house. She states, “it looks messy all the time and there is no place to hide things away. We are entirely exposed to view from all sides. This is just about right for some executive and his wife. I think I prefer to live in an old hidden away place for a couple of years to clear my thoughts”[27] Mrs. Logar was exhibiting one of the common criticisms of Neutra’s homes: the feeling of vulnerability and extreme exposure that accompanied living in the glass house.

However this complaint is the home’s very success, not failure. Based on the Freudian understanding of empathy, which is defined as “an unconscious defense against internal impulses… to projection onto an inanimate object… into a defensive transfer of feelings onto another subject”[28] it can be inferred that those who are experiencing these fears of exposure and vulnerability are actually experiencing their unconscious repressions becoming conscious. In the Freudian manner Neutra has brought to light what they have repressed since childhood- their fear of exposure and vulnerability- in order to overcome these fears and be cured of their neurosis.

Mrs. Rourke, contrary to Mrs. Logar’s opinion, “argued that Neutra had given them a new living experience [and she] could think of only one word to describe the way she felt about it: Liberation”[29] (56). While Mrs. Logar failed to overcome her phobia, Mrs. Rourke’s statement suggests that she was able to embrace the vulnerability tied to exposure from all sides at all times and was rewarded with a improved quality of life. The “improperly bounded environments of these houses permitted psychoanalysis to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The houses’ naturalizing materials, blurred structure, and camouflaged glass are both in the open and deliberately evade the gaze, enabling their therapeutic actions to be everywhere while out of view”[30] (67).


6. The Need for Therapeutic Architecture in Today’s Society

With the rise in mental illness there is an increasingly strong need for therapeutic spaces. As Neutra so relevantly stated, “the design choices made by your architect could kill you or thrill you”[31] (95). Mental health disorders are an epidemic spreading across the country. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness approximately 1 in 5 (43.8 million or 18.5%) adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year while 1 in 25 (9.8 million) adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits major life activities.[32] Mood disorders are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults and those living with mental illness on average die 25 years earlier than others.[33] Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the third leading cause of death for ages 10-14 and the 2nd leading cause of death for ages 15-24.[34]

Therapeutic architecture lessens the need for the typical patient-doctor relationship. The space itself becomes the “therapeutic apparatus” for the “architect [or doctor] can’t stay with the client for twenty years… straitening out matrimonial friction and imbalanced caused by environmental design” while the built structure can.[35]

Psychoanalytical thought must be reintroduced into the architectural discourse. While there still exists an excess of skepticism about the validity of Neutra’s claims that his architecture could cure neurosis, it is important to note the documented success from his clients. In addition to Mrs. Rourke’s testimony, Mr. and Mrs. Chuey are also acknowledged successes. It is said that throughout the design process of the Chuey house, everyone- the clients, Neutra, and his office staff- was worried about the Chueys’ excessive neurotic energy. Robert Chuey “described himself as a nervous type and he believed that living in the house had cured him of his ailment”[36] (79). This type of architecture is always a success if it at the very least helps those struggling feel as through they are helped. What is the harm if it relieves only the inner anxieties of some? Critics may claim it is “all in their head”, but that is the very basis of emotion- we all exist in our own heads.


Bibliography

Akhtar, Salman., Salman O'Neil, and O'Neil, Mary Kay. On Freud's "The Unconscious". Contemporary Freud. London: Karnac Books, 2013.

Hines, Thomas S., and Richard Joseph Neutra. Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture. New Ed.]. ed. New York: Rizzoli, 2005.

Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004.

Neutra, Richard Joseph, and William. Marlin. Nature near : Late Essays of Richard Neutra. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1989.

Neutra, Richard Joseph. Survival through Design. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Neutra, Richard Joseph, and Neutra, Dione. Richard Neutra, Promise and Fulfillment, 1919-1932 : Selections from the Letters and Diaries of Richard and Dione Neutra. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

Journals/Articles


Cronan, Todd. "“Danger in the Smallest Dose”: Richard Neutra's Design Theory." Design and Culture 3, no. 2 (2011): 165-91.

Koeper, Frederick. 1985. The Richard and Dion Neutra VDL research house I and II. Pomona: California State Polytechnic University. http://books.google.com/books?id=zdtPAAAAMAAJ.

Lavin, Sylvia. "Open the Box: Richard Neutra and the Psychology of the Domestic Environment." Assemblage, no. 40 (1999): 7-25. doi:10.2307/3171369.

Lavin, Sylvia. "Richard Neutra and the Psychology of the American Spectator." Grey Room, no. 1 (2000): 43-63. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1262550.

Morse, Bethany Christian. Richard Neutra, Biorealist. PhD diss., The University of Texas at Austin, 2013.

Neutra, Richard. 1958. "Human setting in an industrial civilization". Zodiac / Association Pour La Diffusion Artistique Et Culturelle, Bruxelles. 68-90.


[1] Akhtar, Salman., Salman O'Neil, and O'Neil, Mary Kay. On Freud's "The Unconscious". Contemporary Freud. London: Karnac Books, 2013. [2] Simply Psychology [3] Simply Psychology [4] Psychology [5] Psychology [6] Psychology [7] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [8] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [9] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [10] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [11] Lavin, Sylvia. "Open the Box: Richard Neutra and the Psychology of the Domestic Environment." Assemblage, no. 40 (1999): 7-25. doi:10.2307/3171369. [12] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. [13] Lavin, Sylvia. "Open the Box: Richard Neutra and the Psychology of the Domestic Environment." Assemblage, no. 40 (1999): 7-25. doi:10.2307/3171369. [14] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [15] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [16] Lavin, Sylvia. "Open the Box: Richard Neutra and the Psychology of the Domestic Environment." Assemblage, no. 40 (1999): 7-25. doi:10.2307/3171369. [17] Morse, Bethany Christian. Richard Neutra, Biorealist. PhD diss., The University of Texas at Austin, 2013. [18] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [19] Morse, Bethany Christian. Richard Neutra, Biorealist. PhD diss., The University of Texas at Austin, 2013. [20] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [21] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [22] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [23] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. [24] Lavin, Sylvia. "Open the Box: Richard Neutra and the Psychology of the Domestic Environment." Assemblage, no. 40 (1999): 7-25. doi:10.2307/3171369. [25] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [26] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [27] Lavin, Sylvia. "Open the Box: Richard Neutra and the Psychology of the Domestic Environment." Assemblage, no. 40 (1999): 7-25. doi:10.2307/3171369. [28] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [29] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [30] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [31] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [32] National Alliance on Mental Illness [33] National Alliance on Mental Illness [34] National Alliance on Mental Illness [35] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 004. [36] Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido : Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004.


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