Architectural unconscious

The unconscious is one of those great architectural metaphors. It suggests a layer beneath the visible edifice, a foundation that supports the parts above ground. The unconscious (sometimes referred to as the subconscious) is also the structure, mostly invisible, residing behind the cladding. The unconscious is the incomprehensible complexity concealed by the smooth veneer of consciousness.

Here the metaphor is of a rendering that covers over the irregularities of the rubble wall beneath. It’s the whitewash on the sepulchre; the wallpaper over the cracks; the inhospitable chaos of the natural world now tamed, ordered and made habitable by the rationality that is architecture. Panoramic image of a white-tiled tunnel.The unconscious is also a metaphor about rooms — the progression from the reception area, the shop front, the presentable public parts of an organisation, to the back rooms occupied by hard-working or indifferent functionaries, where the work gets done in private, where there’s sometimes conflict and mess. If exposed, this back-stage activity might betray the coherence of the organisation’s public appearance … it’s public performance as it were. The architectural unconscious in the home is the closet that conceals the metaphorical skeleton, or simply the place under the stair where souvenirs get forgotten.

Shop fronts of old buildings, showing pipes and a tunnel beneath the road surface.The uncovering of the unconscious draws on an archaeological metaphor. Dig away to find out what’s beneath the surface. It also invokes diagnosis. Signs and symptoms are surface manifestations of an underlying disease. Cracks in the wall require further probing to uncover causes such as ground movement, water seepage, a collapsed tunnel.

Then there are political motivations to any architectural intervention barely “conscious” to users, clients and practitioners. The neo-Marxist polemic of architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri refers to “the contingent and historical realities … hidden behind the unifying terms of art, architecture, and city” (179). Tafuri’s argument is about class struggle and the domination of capital simmering under the surface. For Tafuri, considering architecture’s complicity in capitalist production, the only role left for architectural commentary and criticism is to bring to light the “general aims proposed by the dominant forces in any given phase of development” (169). Marxism advocates the posture of the forensic investigator — skeptical, suspicious and perpetually critical.

Structuralist language theory (see related post) also points to deep structures on which the superficial configuration of syntax, idiom, and accent are built. These latter are the ornaments of language (to invoke a further architectural metaphor). Beneath the surface lie the elusive but common semantic rules that support all the variations and differences between the world’s languages — the sub-communicable semantics that indicate our common humanity, wishes and practices.

These are also the elusive “deep structures” of architecture — the primordial, symbolically-rich substrata of hearth, home, sacrifice, and beauty, or those distinctions between male and female, the sacred and the profane, the microcosm and macrocosm, the raw and the cooked, that might underly all architecture, or that get subverted or suppressed by contingency and commercial necessity.

For Sigmund Freud, the unconscious is associated with urges, desires and conflicts. The role of psychoanalysis is to uncover these as a means of healing various psychological disorders, via catharsis. Even without the idea of underlying pathology, it’s easy enough to assume that most of what goes through our minds is hidden, only occasionally bubbling to the surface during a process of conscious reflection or deliberate decision-making.

The potency of the layered metaphor (of the unconscious) as an explanatory tool is difficult to resist. It’s bolstered by the authority within cultural theory of (i) Freud on the unconscious, (ii) theories of language and culture known as Structuralism (on deep structure, langue), and (iii) the highly influential neo-Marxism of Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School. In fact it’s their common interest in a stratum of “unconsciousness” that allows these three intellectual movements to cross-reference each other with ease.

However, what if there is no unconscious?

Many philosophers, psychologists and linguistics think of the unconscious as a fiction, convenient at best. There’s no need to explain how the mind works by resorting to multilayered processes. Similarly, language and architecture do not require the idea of substrata as a basis of their critiques. Not least, the metaphor of layering eventually leads to some notion of a bedrock, the indisputable foundation, the claim to which closes off the investigation, or worse, the discussion.

Skeptics on the unconscious are not only critical of Freud’s ideas about the unconscious as permeated by dark recesses and forbidden thoughts, but the idea that there is any cognitive activity at all that can be usefully labelled as “unconscious.”

One antidote to unconsciousness that in no way diminishes the thrust of the important intellectual movements that feed off it is to understand all inquiry as subject to the workings of interpretation. To “uncover” an unconscious motivation is simply to proffer a particular interpretation, no doubt hard-won and with explanatory power. A variant strategy is that of deconstruction. In so far as we depend on any kind of layering then invert, distort, and confound the structures.

Also see Inconspicuous architectureThe reception of architectureArchitecture as the last fortress and The secret life of games.


  • Bouveresse, Jacques. 1995. Wittgenstein Reads Freud: The Myth of the Unconscious. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Coyne, Richard. 1999. Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism, and the Romance of the Real. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. (pp.239-247)
  • Ricoeur, Paul. 1970. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay in Interpretation. Trans. D. Savage. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Tafuri, Manfredo. 1996. Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development. Trans. B. L. La Penta. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. First published in Italian in 1973.

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.


4 thoughts on “Architectural unconscious

  1. I enjoyed the notion of ‘deep structure’ as a unifying theme underlying psychoanalysis, Freudo-Marxism and structuralism – but could you not also extend this idea to include phenomenology, in the sense that perception could be said to be grounded by the ‘underlying’ structures of bodily experience..? Having said that, ‘grounded’ may not be the best way to describe this, as you suggest, because if we follow Merleau-Ponty’s route back to the Flesh, then ‘bedrock’ is not what we’d expect to find – perhaps more like the Heideggerian ‘abyss’..?

    Posted by bodyoftheory | March 17, 2012, 11:04 am
    • As you know, Ricoeur (who seems to argue against the unconscious most persuasively) is from the phenomenological camp. You could also have challenged phenomenology on the basis of Heidegger’s distinction between the ontological and ontic. The ontological is clearly not the same as the unconscious, but the idea of layering is there — that there’s always something more basic, situated, historical and primordial than the ontic, which is the observable, data-ridden, analysable phenomenon (to put it roughly). So time is built on the primordial notion of temporality, philosophy relies on Thinking, beings draw from Being, etc. Yes, the abyss, sous rature

      Posted by Richard Coyne | March 17, 2012, 11:50 am
  2. The metaphor of the Subconscious is indeed one of the most intriguing metaphors in architecture. Architects often seek foundations for their work in other fields, psychology being one of them.
    The subconscious, as a metaphor in architecture, basically denotes under (preposition sub = under), or, in other words, going deeper. But it can be much more than simply revealing what it is underneath the visible surface. According to Bachelard’s “vertical oneiric house” scheme, the subconscious is compared to the cellar [p19]*: The cellar is always dark and unexplored, the most irrational place of the house.
    By extension, the ground floor of a house can be characterized as the most easily accessible, but on the same time, the most exposed part of the house. This relates to the “metaphor about rooms” as you describe it above. According to this metaphor, the semi-private areas of the house, like the living room, are accessible by everybody that is allowed to enter the house, but, on the other hand, access to the most private, like the bedroom, is only granted to the most intimates. Therefore, the living room, as a metaphor, is the image we aim to project to the world and the bedroom, as a metaphor, represents our most private thoughts, and it is up to us to decide who can enter it.

    In this sense, the basement is not just the most irrational place of the house. It is also the place where we place whatever we don’t need any more, whatever is not really important, and, finally, whatever we might want to hide. Although these notions seem similar, there is a discrete difference between them: forgetting something because it is not useful is completely different than deliberately wanting to forget about it. This is also true in the way our subconscious works, and, thus, in the way we suppress and/or recall memories.

    Perhaps, this reasoning could also be applied in a much larger scale, that of the city, thus moving from personal to collective memory:
    What it is that is hiding underneath the city surface, might be two things: First, it can be forgotten traces of previous civilizations that have gradually become unused or unnecessary, and so, covered from new layers of history (findings of archaeological interest). Second, it can be deliberately hiding or concealing other forces (such as classes struggle).
    In a way, urban space is being re-constructed in such manners that either promote or delete evidence of collective memory, according to the interests of dominant (socioeconomic) forces that construct it. This manipulation of urban space helps the abovementioned forces consolidate. But, since concealing is superficial, underlying conditions eventually emerge on the surface of the city as symptoms, cracking the ‘polished’ and coherent surface of urban (and social) environment, and, also, cracking the image of the city that the above forces aim to project.

    * [Bachelard, Gaston [1994] The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston ]

    Posted by Kelly | November 3, 2012, 1:03 am

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