The Psychologizing of Modernity in Art and Architecture

Historian Mark Jarzombek on the influence of psychoanalysis on modern architecture, stadiums and bathhouses, and the Self

videos | August 19, 2015

What does it mean to have modern consciousness? How does architecture manipulate our perception? How can we study the effect architecture on a viewer? These and other questions are answered by Professor of the History and Theory of Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Mark Jarzombek.

All of us, we think of ourselves as modern: we have modern conveniences, cars, world views and what not. But what does it mean to be modern? And this is the question that I am interested in precisely because I think psychology helps us be modern in a way that doesn’t reveal its modernity. So, in other words, I think of steel and concrete that make this building, I see, “Oh, that’s modern”. I can point to it and say, “That’s modern”. But if someone says “Why are you modern?”, I might not point to myself and say “I am modern” as a person – my self-hood, my identity is modern. So how does that happen, so why is that that we point to things as modern and not in some sense to our own consciousness as being modern?

And this is the paradox of what psychology can do for us. We know that psychology is a discipline, there are professors and doctors who teach   it and work on it, but in some sense there’s another type of psychology which is already embedded within us that we have naturalized and normalized. I can turn to a newspaper that says: if you want to be at a meeting you should wear red tie, or a blue tie means this, or a striped tie means that. Or how we sit and talk to each other can send some sort of psychological messages. And all undergraduates in the United States take psych 101, so they learn how to not only understand psychology, but to participate, if you will, in this sort of the secret game of being potent of possibly psychologize yourself, but engaging in a trick uncoupling yourself from the psychology world.

Every time I go shopping, I am the victim of some psychological study that has decided that men  when they enter a store  will turn right or turn left, or that luxury goods should be here, or luxury goods should be there, or that this type of music makes you feel relaxed, and maybe you’ll buy more this way. There’s not a store in the United States that has not been produced by commercial psychologists. We don’t know who they are, these are invisible people who are continuously cooperating in this field. So why is that we have allowed ourselves to be to be manipulated this way – sometimes very artificially we might say – but actually we are participants in this manipulation all the time.

So we have naturalized this in the same way that you could think of perspective in painting. In the 15th century, when perspective was invented, people were like, “Wow, this looks really weird!” Today if you do a perspective, no one thinks it’s weird. We completely understand what perspective means, whether you paint it or not. Psychology is the same thing, basically invented in the 1880’s as a field in a discipline. We have naturalized all or many of its messages, so today we see it as completely normal. If you would go into 1850 and talk about psychology, people would go, “That’s like… I don’t understand what you’re talking about”.

The idea of a “Self”, with the capital S, which is sort of supposed to be integral to its identity and its relationship to other people, and those relationships with other people are supposed to be working and be filled with empathy, and connections, and so forth – these types of world views basically come from the 20th century. And in some sense you could really say that after the World War II they were even strengthened by art and architecture that began to sort of look at psychology as a way to in some sense invigorate its own performability in the social world.

Gestalt psychology, which is a particular way of understanding how objects become in some sense embodied certain psychological principles – so that’s not just humans having psychologies, now an object can have a psychology – which for some may sound sort of strange. But basically this was very much of a powerful argument in the in the 50s.

Or we can look at how certain spaces can affect us psychologically. Dark spaces, light spaces, with windows, or no windows, or whatever it is – we can analyze the psychological impact that architecture has on us or could have on us, and not just how we go shopping, but how architecture itself becomes a medium for certain psychological manipulations.

Do you design those in  while you’re designing? Do you use those   operations to produce a certain type of architectural affect, or do you design a building and then in some sense forget that there are effects that you produced through certain types of manipulations?

What I wanted to research was how we are continuously playing the game while pretending not to play the game.  And this is a philosophical project as much as it is a question about psychology. Because it gets to where do we position this magical Self that is both empowered though psychology and simultaneously rendered and disempowered through psychology.

In other words, if someone can look at me and render me transparent by analyzing the way I move my body, the type of clothes I’m wearing and so forth, then in some sense I’m becoming sort of invisible in the larger scheme of reality. But of course, I wouldn’t feel that because psychology tells me about certain types of impairments. So art, and architecture particularly, already in the early 20th century, but particularly in the fifties and sixties, sort of embraced this problem. I would say, by the time we got to the seventies and eighties it was realized that it was harder to play the game than one would expect it.

So in art we see the drift towards psychoanalysis which is a much more complicated, purposeful driven, subjectivist driven project, not about psychological connections, but about your own personal issues, if you will. Architecture also drifted away from the psychological structure by looking at other types of issues having to do with the cultural paradigms, historical agencies and so forth.

But there’s a moment in the 50s when psychology really was sort of part and parcel of how many artists and architects functioned both theoretically, you know, apositive, but also simultaneously, if you will, disempowering or rethinking the questions of architecture as a stable building with a function and a program, and that’s all you have to talk about. Also in architecture, the study of architecture has to study lots of different things, including impacts and this sort of more difficult things to talk about.

The psychologizing of modernity is a process in which psychology seeps like water into a sponge – you don’t see the water, you just see the sponge getting bigger. You know that the water is in there, it’s just that you don’t really see it. But if you squeeze a little bit, you get drips coming out. And what is it that is collected in that sponge of modernity if you try to look at it, if you think of the squeezes being architectural or theoretical research?

You can trace different philosophers, artists, architects, theorist who are embedded in that sponge. So, for example Lipps who is a German psychologist – he’s the one who, you can say, discovered the idea of empathy, the fact that we relate to people individually by understanding each other’s psychological realities. And you could go from there to someone like Arnheim who was an architectural theorist who writes about how space becomes – I mean, we might think of a concrete building, what does it have to do psychologically – but he talks about how space within certain buildings, even modern buildings, forces us to think in a certain way or feel certain things.

So we can feel a sense of exhaustion by walking up a long staircase, or we can feel a sense of community by walking into a space where there are chairs and tables. So by understanding how these spaces produce certain communalities or individual spaces, individual realities, they can be designed in that particular way. So Arnheim looks at, you know, various things like a sport stadium as a psychological space.

When we are on our own, we might like the Patriots or you might like a certain basketball game, but when we’re in a stadium a whole different psychology develops. That is meant to be produced by the stadium itself, so the stadium is not just looking at a sports thing, it’s a psychological space about communal participation in a particular event. And the way the sound is organized, the way the music is put in, and this seating and viewing and all this stuff is meant to produce certain effects.

Another great example is a building by Peter Zumthor, he’s a Swiss architect. It’s a bathhouse in Switzerland in Therme Vals, and this would be, you know, a classic example of a type of psychologized space. So here he wants a building where you go into the water, you are isolated by yourself, even if there might be a few other bodies floating around. He wants you to understand that the stone is cut in a particular way, so that you’re seeing the stone, the lighting is very mysterious and dark, coming from the oblique angles. Even the changing room with its red coloration and small windows looking out in different ways is meant to produce sense of tranquility, repose, a type of thoughtfulness in how you’re supposed to behave, how you are supposed to think, how you are supposed to get into the water. Sort of a cleansing activities – it’s not just a place where you go and get wet and say, “That was really a nice sauna.” It is supposed to have a whole almost mystical experience about it. And it’s fabulous, and people really love it.

So that architect is particularly sensitive to, if you will, the individual psychology and how you use architecture to mould certain psychological experiences. So it’s not just the experience of being in a bathhouse and washing, and getting wet, and the heat, and the cold, and so forth. But the architecture is a particularly strong player, and the materials that were chosen, and how the materials are used and shaped around you.

I give these two examples: a stadium where it’s meant to be loud and powerful, and everybody’s chanting the same thing is one type of psychological space, Zumthor’s space which is just the opposite, it produces exactly the opposite effect. But both spaces are meant to produce certain effects within you, they’re not just “go to pay your admissions and do something”, they are supposed to transform you in a particular way. From the very, very quiet to the very noisy, but they all participate in that project which is to affect your psychological inner being. Maybe by the time after an hour or two after the bath you’ve forgotten it, but I’m sure Zumthor would hope it’s a life changing experience in some way. Just as going into a football stadium with forty thousand other people would be a life changing experience if it’s the first time you’ve done this.

Psychology is there, very much in how certain architects – not all – understand their operations within the designed framework. Some architects couldn’t care less about it. That still doesn’t mean that psychology is out of the game, it’s just that it’s not part of the conscious aspect of design. But some architects will very clearly use psychology as a way to begin to understand the manipulative aspect of the people that are using it.

Today if we compare what we study in an architecture school, psychology is really never discussed at all anymore. It is a completely forgotten discipline, no one studies how buildings affect you as such. You sort of have an intuition in the architecture school about how these things work. You might design a stadium and you might know, of course, that it impacts your psychology. But we don’t really study psychologists, we don’t have them coming in and helping us in forming our decision. It’s seen as completely separate.

That doesn’t mean that psychology doesn’t saturate trough everything. And if you think of how in even what Rem Koolhaas calls “junk space” – just, you know, shopping centers – shopping centers are 100% built around psychology to get you to do more shopping. So what is the psychology of shopping? So if you are designing a shopping center, you may not be a world star famous architect, but you’re using psychology a lot. So you could say that much of the junk space around us – the places where we go shopping, or where we are buying food, or this, or that – these are to a large extent already saturated with certain prototype ideas about how we respond psychologically. So McDonalds has people who have understood the psychology of buying fast food and what the color repertoire is – the orange is supposed to sort of excite certain salivatory processes that are just biological production that gets you want to buy food.

So we are in that manipulative world, and architecture plays in that world whether we teach it or not. I mean, you can think that’s what it is. As a theoretical postulate it’s probably nowhere in the academic world, but in the practical world of the build world out there, in the boxes, and in the shopping centers, and in the restaurants there’s a lot of psychology, and it manipulates the world around it.

How do we analyse that, that’s the critical part. Many of these studies are proprietary, you’re not going to find them on any website, that’s for sure, and you have to dig very, very deep into research to understand how these things are operating. And by that time we get into sociology or into almost anthropology of space which brings us far from architectural design. But I think it needs to be really forwarded much more, so that we see architecture, how in some sense it plays a very dynamic role, even if it’s maybe just a box.

We may now think: how can a box be a part of an architectural world? But it actually might have more impact on us in how we present ourselves as a modern subject then we might think. So the question is always not just what architecture is, but how architecture and us as modern subjects relate to these types of spaces, and for that we need a lot more research.

Professor of the History and Theory of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Associate Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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