James Hillman: Do cities have a soul?


American psychotherapist James Hillman on how buildings contribute a city’s supposed sould

‘Soulless’ is term often used to describe places we don’t like. Desolate estuaries, moorlands or fens may equally be places where we would prefer not to linger, but being manifestations of nature rather than of manmade things, they may oppress us with too much soul rather than too little. Yet man-made places without a blade of grass or single tree can give us a deep satisfaction similar what we might experience in a woodland glade or on the edge of a river. At other times, the reverse is the case.

City and Soul: Uniform: 02, by James Hillman, New York, Spring Publications, 2005

If this is true it is important, and if it is important, it’s surprising how little we seem able to talk about it. We could put together a list of architectural writers who have tried to convey the quality of soul in places – Ian Nairn, Christian Norberg-Schulz and Christopher Alexander come to mind, each different, but linked as contemporaries, writing as they did to warn us about the unprecedented new wave, in the 1950s and 60s, of cityscapes afflicted by nullity. The Catholic poet David Jones was another, who wrote of a hopeless attempt to relate to this aspect of modernity:

‘I have said to the perfected steel,
be my sister and for the glassy towers I thought I felt
some beginnings of His creature, but A,a,a Domine Deus,
my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible
crystal a stage-paste …Eia, Domine Deus.’

If anyone asked me to recommend a writer on soul and the city, who could show us a way out from David Jones’s angst, however, I would propose James Hillman (1926-2011), an American psychotherapist, follower of Carl Gustav Jung and author of numerous books all calling, in different ways for what one of his disciples, Thomas Moore, called ‘Care of the Soul’. He was unusual among psychologists in giving a lot of attention to buildings, but putting the me in the context of a wider and perhaps surprising theory. He quickly tired of the conventions of analysis, seeing the problems and their solutions not in the locations of personal history where Freud and Jung had sought them, but in a broader, social pathology that extended into the surrounding environment.

Over the doorway of Jung’s house at Kusnacht was carved the Latin translation of the inscription at Delphi: vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit’ (‘called or not called, the god will be present’). This Hillman took as his key message, together with the corollary from Jung, that the gods, denied their proper place, ‘have become diseases.’ That is to say, there’s no escape from this condition and it will come back and bite us. As a diagnosis for a world riddled with injustice, disease and ecosystem collapse, does this seem too harsh?

Each time he addressed a new audience (and most of his writing consists of speeches), Hillman had to explain that for him, ‘soul’ was not the same as ‘spirit’. Soul – psycheanima – is a ‘tertium’ or third way between spirit and matter. As Hillman explained in a printed conversation in 1980, ‘I’m talking about things, things. Tables and cars and shoes and tin cans, plastic. We have to open our minds to possibility of soul everywhere.’ Since the advent of the digital world, it is not just the neo-Jungians who yearn for materiality, but Hillman takes this several stages further, invoking ancient mythical archetypes, especially the classical gods and goddesses whom, he claims, represent life principles to which humans unwittingly align themselves at different times.

Perhaps his tin cans would relate to the shapes in which Christopher Alexander (as he describes in his four-part book, The Nature of Order) would like us to see ‘a picture of the self’, but there are differences. Nairn didn’t call it ‘soul’, but he found the equivalent thing lurking in the tight passageway between the two sides of Hawksmoor’s St George’s, Bloomsbury, as described in Nairn’s London: ‘it sounds simple but in fact has the drama of a full symphonic movement, charged up by the stupendous classical detail that bores a hole in your right flank.’ I doubt you could bore such a hole with virtual reality.

Hillman wrote on many themes from his perspective of soul, and his writings have been collected in a Uniform Edition, with a second volume called City and Soul. Even if you are unconvinced by my necessarily oversimplified and foreshortened attempt to put complex matters into a few words, give it a try. Merely out of curiosity, you might like to read how depression may be triggered by suspended ceilings, and extend his ideas into your criticism of your surroundings. To some it may seem fey and impractical, but to me it is nourishing and inspiring. Not everything achieved in the past fifty years or so is bad, but seldom has so much been strewn around the landscape so carelessly. Caring for the soul, we may yet, to paraphrase David Jones, find that creaturliness in the supposedly inanimate that we all crave.

Book digests

As the world gets more complex, it is increasingly difficult to keep up with even the most essential reading. This is particularly so for architects because so many fields of learning impact upon its creation, interpretation and assessment.

To accumulate into a useful archive, each issue of Citizen includes digests of writings readers deem particularly useful or revelatory. Because the best writing tends to be of long-term value, digests are not restricted to those of recently published material. And the selection is largely left to readers to reflect the diversity of architects’ interests and inspirations.

Readers willing to contribute to this ongoing series are encouraged to first contact the editors proposing a book or article they consider particularly appropriate.

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