Sunday, December 18, 2011

Studio Hut(s): Manic Defense Mechanisms

Manic Defense Mechanisms
        agatephobic architecture

agatephobia: n. a fear of insanity.

In his essay “The Architecture of a Well Tempered Environment”, Reyner Banham coins architecture as a “defense mechanism”; a means of environmental conditioning, describing the physical relationship between architecture and environment, and placing considerable focus on the mechanical nature of the term.  In short, Banham is suggesting that mechanical environmental control and manipulation, with physical comfort as its primary goal, replaced shelter as the essence of architecture.  But, Banham's semantic use of “defense mechanism” seems to miss the essence of the term itself.  Sigmund Freud, who originally coined the term, defines “defense mechanism” more as it relates to “coping” with reality and maintaining or projecting an image of self; a definition inherently focusing on a more subjective grappling with the environment and the image-based perception of this struggle. To put it simply, a defense mechanism then, is a subconsciously crafted and projected image of oneself in defiance of psychological weakness or vulnerability; a definition worlds apart from that of Banham’s.

This "psychological weakness or vulnerability", then, would usually be considered a mania or a phobia. And, I would argue that many architects are considered manic. Figures like Howard Roark, of Anne Raind's The Fountainhead, goes crazy, ultimately destroying his own work with dynamite. Or, Frank Lloyd Wright who's quasai-Napoleon Complex made him history's most arrogant architect.  Additionally, many architects are certainly considered phobic.  Both in a social sense, fearing cultural stagnation, status quo, political strife, and in a more personal sense, fearing failure, ridicule, structural collapse, or even heights.  I know from personal experience that Argentinean architect Rafeal Iglesia has an irrational fear of heights, often refusing to ascend to the tops of his own buildings. 

Architects, including myself, are always a little crazy.

So, can architecture be a “defense” mechanism, now in the metaphysical sense; defending, tempering and ultimately giving meaning to our emotional responses to our environment? If architecture is seen through this lens, it begins to encompass much more meaning, beyond mere protection and control of nature.  Historically, post-modern architects would probably tend to advocate this stance, in a reduced sense, reaffirming the association of architecture with meaning. But the Post-modern palette was limited to purely architectural associations of meaning; plays with historical notions of form and the iconography.  Constituent (or "user") emotion and psychology were relatively void as a material means of producing their architecture. Rather loose associations with tradition and history were claimed to hold meaning. 

Thus, I declare “Manic Defense Mechanism; agatephobic architecture", embracing the overarching power of the human psyche in “coping” with the environment.  What if control of the environment was no longer the focus, but rather, the control of the projection of self within these environments? 

How are we coping?  How is architecture helping us cope? 

These questions begin to relieve architecture of its objective role as protector or frozen container of some historical meaning.  If this role could be transferred to the individual, to memory, architecture may be liberated to allow subjectivity back in as a more rich motivator of form and function.  In this sense, function itself must be redefined to mean something more; it no longer must "function" pragmatically, but also psychologically.  Architecture thus becomes a coping strategy or defense mechanism, rather than a control device. 

In some sense, this concept can already be found in architecture, namely in decoration and ornament.  Image of self (or group) is often projected through associations of meaning found in ornamentation, both emotional and didactic meaning.  Antoine Laugier despised ornament, calling it “default” or “error”.  Thus, Laugier reduces architecture to its most pure forms or axioms, which he claims are the column, entablature, and pediment. These elements combined are what constitute Laugier's "primitive hut".  Laugier was obviously manic.  His hut was a representation of what he saw as ideal, or as he describes; essentielles, beautes, verite, simplicite, naturalisme (translation: essential, beautiful, truth, simplicity and natural).  But by a formal reduction to these three elements, Laugier assumes there is an objective nature to the terms he uses to describe them.  I would have to disagree.  I would say Laugier was ultimately afraid; afraid of expression, afraid of identity and afraid of himself.  His hut was a defense mechanism for his fears of the world.

Laugier's defense mechanism was singular and ultimate, but as Freud describes, our psyche is neither singular nor ultimate. With the concept of the Id, the Ego and the Superego, Freud builds a complex and layered psyche, requiring complex and layered nurturing.  Freud's division of the psyche are personified, like multiple personalities, which are in a constant struggle for identity.  These characters constantly contradict each other, and in response, form defense mechanisms of their own, manifest ultimately in our personalities.   Thus, if a hut represents a defense mechanism, it may only defend some or parts of our psyche, contradicting the needs of the others. In this sense, multiple huts are needed, perhaps more even than Freud's tripartite division. 

Each of my "huts" then is both a reaction to Laugier's axioms as well as a defense mechanism for my own manias.  Consequently, my huts are deeply personal.  They become containers of meaning to me.  They both defend and challenge my phobias.  They protect one, while exposing the other.  And as in all architecture (maybe a discussion for another essay entirely), my huts are wrought with contradiction; formally, programmatically and conceptually.  They are to be interpreted not understood...


  Id Hut: Cosmic Chapel

Ego Hut: A Hut to Walk in Circles 

Superego Hut: A Hut for a Rock Climber


More drawings to follow. -jon


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