From a psychoanalytic point of view thus discussing the interaction between metaphors and architecture must inevitably lead to a discussion of the relation between symptom and architecture. Curiously here we are on safe ground again. Whereas architects seem rather anxious about what to do with the concept of metaphor in their work, they feel much more – but as I would argue unjustly so – at home with the notion of symptom. Considering architecture as symptomatical has in fact a well-known tradition probably as old as Vitruv’s famous comparison between dwelling and human body. A comparison which was further enhanced by Alberti who in the third book of «On the Art of Building” proposes that “with every type of vault, we should imitate nature throughout, that is, bind together the bones and interweave flesh with nerves running across every possible section.“ (Alberti, 86). Architecture thus inevitably becomes a matter of life and death: Critics argue that walls ‘need to breathe’ or talk about a building’s ‘healthy structure’. As architecture is supposed to be modelled after the image of the human body, conversely its aberrations are taken as foreboding of bodily harm. From Anthony Vidlers work on uncanny spaces (Vidler 1992 & 2000) and Jane Jacobs seminal study «The Death and Life of Great American Cities» (Jacobs 1992) back to Friedrich Engels «The Condition of the Working Class in England» (Engels 1957) the city and its architecture was and still is widely believed to reveal symptomatically the malfunctions of society.
Probably the most notorious example of such a reading may be found in Le Corbusiers «Urbanisme» from 1925 where the architect considers the development of urban architecture in general, and of Paris in particular, as a symptom for nothing less than the degeneration of mankind. «Man strides forward in a straight line because he has a goal; he knows where he is going (…) The donkey walks in zigzag line, takes a little nap, dumb from the heat and distracted (…) The donkey has left his mark in all the cities of the continent, in Paris too, sadly enough.» (Le Corbusier, 5-6). Those are the famous opening lines of the first chapter aptly entitled with «Le chemin des anes. Le chemin des hommes» – «The path of the donkey. The path of man». In contrast to authors such as Franz Hessel or Walter Benjamin Le Corbusier sees no advantage in an urban architecture that forces it’s inhabitants to wander around as flaneurs. On the contrary: to him the curved streets of the old Paris and its labyrinthine spaces are nothing but the traces of a brutish society. For Le Corbusier Paris is not a city made by humans but by donkeys.
The notion of an imbrutement of architecture foreshadows rather uncannily the notion of “entartete Kunst” – “degenerate art” nationalsocialism will deploy only some years later. The utter brutality of Le Corbusiers analysis gets even clearer when looking at the illustrations in his book. Especially the aerial shots of old Paris in chapter 15 are telling: In the captions Le Corbusiers compares the sight of old Paris with a view of Dantes’ Hell. But what is even more significant is the very position from which these pictures are taken as it’s exactly the point of view of a bomber pilot in a military attack. The images thus speak out what the caption can only insinuate: that it would be preferable to radically erase the existing architecture with its history, to give way for a homogeneous, uniformed urban space.
Consciously or unconsciously Le Corbusier is picking up on a thought that already Descartes proposed in his «Discours de la méthode». In the third chapter Descartes argues: «those ancient cities which, from being at first only villages, have become, in course of time, large towns, are usually but ill laid out compared with the regularly constructed towns which a professional architect has freely planned on an open plain (…) when one observes their indiscriminate juxtaposition, there a large one and here a small, and the consequent crookedness and irregularity of the streets, one is disposed to allege that chance rather than any human will guided by reason must have led to such an arrangement.» (Descartes, 17).
The moment Le Corbusiers tries to turn this abstract and only textual utopia into an actual city cleansed of all its contradictions and devoid of all symptoms it becomes obvious how frightening such an ideal city would be. Thus the very lack of any symptomatic disturbance becomes the sign of an even more dangerous sickness.
Le Corbusier wants to cut away the symptomatic excess of the city like a surgeon. But from a psychoanalytic point of view it gets clear how fatal such an operation would be, as for the analyst the symptom isn’t to be erased but rather to be preserved.
In his late teachings and most prominently in his 1975 seminar entitled «Le sinthome» Lacan suggests a radical new reading and eventually a valorisation of the symptom. On the one hand the symptom encapsulates the patient’s suffering, it is – as was already pointed out – a metaphor for his pain, a stand-in for everything that doesn’t work out. However, without the symptom, things would become even more problematic. The symptom, as Lacan stresses continously, is not the psychic dysfunction itself but rather a way to deal with this dysfunction. The symptom is in fact nothing less than an invention to make things work.
This ambivalence of the symptom may best be seen in the hallucinations and delusions of psychosis. The delusion, being a symptom of psychosis must not be mistaken for the psychotic breakdown as such. Rather it is a way to make sense – although a very strange and twisted on – of the psychotic breakdown as such. The conspiracy theories psychotic patients grow convinced of as much as the orders they believe to be given by hallucinated voices, all those symptoms are in fact protective shields against the much more frightening abyss of pure psychosis, an abyss of nothingness and nonsense. Thus the duplicity of the symptom: it functions both as a sign for but also as safeguard against psychic breakdown. Accordingly the very lack of any symptom cannot be considered as a sign of mental health but rather reveals the very opposite. Perfection as such is psychotic. In fact, that’s how Lacan defines paranoia, as complete lack of any symptom (Lacan 2005, 53). We could argue that its precisely because of this striving for perfection and the absence of any symptomatic flaw why both Le Corbusier’s «plan voisin» for Paris and Descartes’ radical philosophy it is informed by seem so terrifying and paranoid.