The Architectural Uncanny

Architects of the humanist tradition utilised platonic geometries and the golden section as a means by which to construct buildings in the image of the idealised human form. Ornamental figures were housed in niches or moulded into decorative friezes, themselves supported by caryatids in the shape of the female figure; the imposition and relative proportions of the classical orders mediating between the scale of the building and the scale of the body. As Alberti observed, “the building is in its entirety like a body composed of it’s parts” (Vidler, p.71).

The body was beautiful and buildings were beautiful because they were like the body.

However, the classical belief in the human form as conjurer of harmony and repose has been subverted by contemporary practice and the field of reference opened to other forms of metaphor, corporeal and inanimate. The anthropomorphic qualities by which we understand the architecture of the modern metropolis (‘spines’, ‘limbs’, ‘cores’) are increasingly described in terms of violent imagery; being fragmented, distended, pierced, or torn apart.

It is in this Uncanny analogy to our own bodies that the architectural object finds the power to unsettle. After the classical tenets of architecture have been dismantled so too is the human form disfigured and, by a form of reflected empathy, the body violated.

Vidler’s use of the word ‘viewer’ in place of ‘actor’ or ‘occupant’ is significant in that it positions architecture in the realm of spectacle as opposed to the conventional sense of an environment. My project begins with a walk from Whitechapel Library to Liverpool Street Station via St. Botolph’s Church as described in Janet Cardiff’s The missing voice (case study b). The audio is transcribed and a number of sites selected which become the subject of interrogation. Architectural aggregations of the Uncanny are imagined to evoke Cardiff’s noir-ish paranoias and transform the city into a spectacle of the metaphysical ‘heightened experience’.

Sites are provisionally one, all, or none of the following:

  1. A turn into Gunthorpe Street.

  2. A soft, flaming sword, held in a hand, coming out of a cloud.

  3. A tympanum for St. Botolph’s Church.

  4. The Gates to Liverpool Street Station.

Cardiff, J. (1999) The missing voice (case study b). Available at: http://www.artangel.org.uk//projects/1999/the_missing_voice_case_study_b/download_and_walk/audio (Downloaded: 21 September 2015).

Summerson, J. (2011) The classical language of architecture. 2nd edn. London: Thames and Hudson.

Vidler, A. (1992) The architectural uncanny: essays in the modern unhomely. 4th edn. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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