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Fairy Tales, Fantasy and the 'Unheimlich': their role in the revelation of place, with specific reference to Loo's Villa Müller

Part 1 Dissertation 2000
Gillian Oakes
Kingston University Kingston-Upon-Thames UK
This dissertation evolved alongside my major design project: a creche and nursery school within a community centre/library on the Isle of Dogs. The proposal included overnight accommodation for working parents. The brief was to integrate a 'left-over' space, to make not only public space of encounter and exchange, but also intimate place of inhabitation.

The child's bedtime fairytale provides the exciting collision of space and place, where the space of fearful imagining is entwined with the intimate security of place and the act of story-telling. It is through fantasy that the child finds the 'opening on to other possible worlds which transcend the established limits of our actual world' (Ricoeur).

The form and content of fairytales, while fantastical, have been shown to correspond to a child's conception of the world and provide, paradoxically, a more ordered world on which the child can draw, using the space of the imagination to construct a place in which to dwell.

Freud argues that the uncanny or 'unheimlich' brings us closer to the familiar or 'heimlich'. In the same way, the 'otherness' of fairytales allows a child to resolve 'ego-disturbance' (Bettelheim). It appeals to both children and adults in the revelation of a stasis through uncanny experience.

Is the place-making of architecture enabled through uncovering the 'unheimlich'? This question is examined through Loos' Villa Muller - a treasure box of material and spatial complexity.

In the Villa Muller, we see that the uncanny slides alongside the familiar. By experiencing the unfamiliar, the familiar is seen again, differently - it is made strange. By re-cognition, the whole is revealed and made known. This journey of uncovering, disclosure and recognition has the power to stabilise us and hold us in the world. The experience of engaging with the 'unheimlich' enables place to be revealed.

By engaging with the 'living spirit' (Arendt), the world discovered by the imagination is revealed to the public realm, thereby setting up a creative dialectical involvement with the world. The nomad adventurer becomes an inhabitant, making his own place in the world.


Selected bibliography:

Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition, Doubleday, 1958

Sigmund Freud: The Uncanny, Penguin, 1990

Adolf Loos : Spoken into the Void, MIT Press, 1982

van Duzer & Kleinman: Villa Muller, Princeton Architectural Press, 1994

Jack Zipes: Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, Heinemann, 1983

Gillian Oakes


Gillian Oakes' dissertation explores the importance of fantasy in the architecural imagination. She begins with the notion that fairy stories allow a moment of strangeness and otherness to enter into the domestic realm. This experience is also one in which order is seen to reside in fantastical situations. The story time is seen to be at once homely and disturbing and can be described as uncanny: at once secure and frightening and thus capable of resolving 'ego disturbances'(Bettelheim). Her work attempts to forge links between the psychoanalytical and phenomenological traditions in order to expose the possibility of public places infused with 'intimated' spaces.

The example which she explores, Adolf Loo's Villa Müller, is a canonical Modernist house which she has investigated with a 'post-modernist' perspective. This is a means to reassess the conventional PO-MO readings of modernist spaces which tend to accuse the architects of purely functionalist intentions. In Gillian's reading of the spaces, Loo's own words reveal his distrust for over design. She investigates the liminal, interstitial realms of the staicases, the halls, the foyers, ante-chambers, etc. In these 'rooms' she locates 'the modernist uncanny'. Loos, she argues, wanted to create the sense that one could discover his buildings in a non-linear narrative manner. Rather than imposing his ego upon the place, children in particular are encouraged to 'occupy' and inhabit the corridors and large hall ways in the manner of an adventurer in a tale. They participate in the action of the architecture by taking over space which seems at once nowhere and awaiting appropriation. This act of inhabitation is an example of creativity of the architect completed by the imagination of the user. In other words, Gillian reverses the typical prejudice concerning Loo's work - that it is prescriptive- and posits the assertion that he made spaces which refuse easy appropriation and thus require time in which to participate in making them meaningful. This process awaits renewal and can be reconfigured by others. The ante-rooms of the Villa Müller are sites for the imagination of the children and areas for liaisons between them and adults in an in-between realm of place and non-place, privacy and publicity, revelation and disclosure. The uncanny is that which we make strange; renewing a sense of wonder. Renewal and complicity encourage conviviality, she argues. Her Critical Hermenutics becomes a statement of political intent in which Hannah Arendt's notion of the 'dead letter' is seen as the potential of all communication to establish the grounds for the 'living spirit' of the public realm.

Along the way Gillian incorporates Freud's work as well as that of his followers, Bettelheim, Piaget, etc., with the writings on myth of Paul Ricouer, Arendt's work on communication and politics, Augé's work on Augé's sense of place, Heidegger's poetics, Cassirer's sense of life as process; and the architectural writings of Colomina, Frampton, Zumthor, J.B Jackson; as well as extensive scholarship concerning the history of the fairy story, the books of Franz, Opie, Zipes, etc.

This dissertation overcomes the petty distinctions between modern and post-modern, phenomenology and critical thinking, which typify the Anglo-Saxon academic. Her work is a brilliant synthesis of her design project, a creche at Mudchute on the Isle of Dogs, specifically aimed at creating a sense of place for working mothers to stay over after finishing late at the office. The design investigated the nature of residing rather than dwelling, and she proposed various timber surfaces which release vapours when carressed and touched, evoking memories and images of recollection and place. Gillian was a part-time student.

2000
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