I can remember (with an accompanying painful cringing sensation) this time four years ago when I was writing my personal statement for UCAS. I must reluctantly confess to spending hours on the internet searching and reading previous examples. Call it thoroughness or total paranoia but I think I read at least fifty. Gleaned from all sorts of strange corners of the internet, my obsessive urge to develop as comprehensive a view as possible of what was expected has since made me something of an accidental expert in the motivations of would-be architects. Admittedly, my efforts made rather a mockery of calling the resulting statement personal, but thanks to them, I am I think quite unusually informed on what makes aspiring architects tick.
First off, Antoni Gaudi must be congratulated for apparently inspiring practically every single one of us. I remember as an eighteen-year-old noting down with some urgency the need to mention Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in my own statement. After reading through the tenth or twelfth piece that had opened with a description of the formative effect this building had had on the young mind of the applicant in question, I came to the hilariously callow conclusion that to not mention this building in some form would be to open myself to major accusations of architectural ignorance. My older self wonders what the hell our towns and cities are going to look like in ten or fifteen years when all these Gaudi-adoring neophytes are actually in charge. Yikes.
But that aside, apart from Gaudi, (and Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier and the obligatory use of the words ‘awe-inspiring’ and ‘iconic’) all of the statements shared an intriguing underlying premise in common. Without exception, though with varying degrees of explicitness, they all believed that architecture had the potential to change us. That a building invariably had an impact on those who encountered it. This idea, though simple, strikes me as rather fundamental. After all if architects didn’t believe that what they did had any effect on anybody then it is doubtful that they would bother practicing the discipline at all.
Instinctively this idea sounds reasonable. The spatial settings of our lives are in no way homogenous and the form and character of each has a subtle but noticeable effect on how people act and feel. It follows that an architect might be able manipulate this. As Bernard Tschumi has said, ‘Love in the Cathedral is different from love in the Street’—and that’s an architectural distinction. But this assumption is also problematic. Can buildings really be said to be that influential? Doesn’t that kind of determinism slightly patronise? Aren’t all of these prospective architecture applicants (including yours truly) just a bit naive in their belief they can really affect people through architecture?
The eccentric mid-century Californian architect Richard Neutra is an interesting subject for testing quite how far one can go with this architectural appproach. His oeuvre addressed very directly the question of how much our architecture can be said to produce us. In a book he wrote called Survival through Design he explicitly states ‘Our environment is our Fate.’ He considered the houses he designed for his clientele as an explicit intervention in their lives – in effect a kind of therapy. His conviction was that through designing the material and
spatial order of their dwelling he could make profound differences to the physical and psychological health to those who lived therein.
His California houses demonstrate concern for the wholesome provision of light, ventilation and green space not dissimilar from the rest of the Modernist project. At the 1929 Lovell Health House there are the usual sunlit open-plan rooms and terraces that were a hall-mark of the movement. Where Neutra departed from conventional modernism was in his attempt to incorporate a psychological function as well a physiological one. An adherent of the maverick psychoanalytical writings of Sandor Ferneczi, whose 1923 Theory of Genitality characterised most individuals as suffering subconsciously or otherwise from the trauma of birth, Neutra’s architectural psychology was decidedly off-centre. Ferenczi viewed many human behaviours and pathologies, including sex, as futile attempts to return to the womb. In his architecture, Neutra tried to ease this with specific constructions- a spiral stair over a pool perhaps or ‘spider leg columns’ which formed a ‘proto-birth canal.’ Neutra’s main benchmark for the materials he used was also frequently their nearness to the ideal intrauterine suspension of the pre-born child.
Too far? Well you’re not alone in thinking so. One of the major scholars of his work, Silvia Lavin, is immensely critical of his architecture as built therapy, panning Neutra’s claims of being able eliminate nervous tension and remedy subconscious trauma through design.
She points to first-hand accounts of those who commissioned them which provide thin evidence at best that these houses provided anything more than a pleasant place to live or spend the weekend. Some clients led happy lives, others did not. Architecture clearly has its role in in how it makes us feel and behave but to imagine it can perform psychoanalysis is clearly to stretch its potential rather to breaking point.
Nonetheless it seems we architects can’t stop trying to use architecture to ever more ambitious ends. The Academy for Neuroscience and Architecture, established ten years ago, aims to popularise the measurement of brain activity in the design of spaces. By analysing the specific brain response to a given spatial situation a fine degree of measurable control is, they argue, placed in the hands of the architect. With the aid of neuroscience they believe we could design buildings that not only make us feel better, but even make us more intelligent and live longer.
The lesson of Richard Neutra makes me skeptical of such grand claims. More fundamentally, there is a grave danger that this sort of approach risks further instrumentalising the discipline. Whilst a building must be partially judged in terms of the desired effects it produces for those who live in it, it is not just a means to any end. The quality of an architectural object is independent of how well it behaves as a tool for the architect to operate on the user. Indeed the fact that the houses of Richard Neutra are still visited and enjoyed today by individuals who are far removed from the original analytical exercises that were used to create them suggests that their quality is separate from (or perhaps in spite of) claims about their usefulness as instruments of specific psychological control.
And for all us young architects, the dream of affecting others that seems so fundamental to our urge to pursue the profession needs to be tempered by an acknowledgement of the inexactness and subtlety of architecture. Buildings are not like buttons. To conceive of architecture totally as a process just impoverishes it. The action of architecture on individuals will always be mysterious and personal. So let’s not miss the point and try and design people instead of buildings.