Many of the best-known myths originate in Classical Greece.  Prometheus, Midas and Achilles are well known throughout the western world.  Scots myths don’t seem to travel well, perhaps because the Laird of Cockpen, or Bruce and the spider, have a certain couthy quality.  By contrast, Greek myths are raw and powerful.  The rawest is the mythical story of Elektra, related in dramatic form by Euripides, and made into an opera a century ago by Richard Strauss.

As it did in January 1909 when it was first performed in Dresden, Elektra still has the ability to propel you from your normal, reasoned existence into a place where savage, uncontrollable emotion wells up inside.  The myth is part of the classical saga of the House of Agamemnon, a study of pathological hatred, sexual repression, and a parable of how violence begets violence. 

Euripides shows that hatred kills the hater: Elektra is caught up in an act of vengeance against her mother, who murdered her father.  In the opera, Strauss comes close to raw expressionism as he tries to represent the title character’s insanity.  As a result, Elektra’s terrifying intensity has few parallels elsewhere in art.  It is difficult enough to translate these feelings and experiences into literature or drama; transferring them into architecture seems almost an impossibility. 

The experience of opera may be heightened by an element of fantasy: whether the dark, glamorous diva who sweeps across the foyer with her spray of black orchids, or that mysterious gent who is about to pull a silenced Browning Hi-Power from his cummerbund, and aim it at the foreign diplomat…  The background to this may be baroque, rococco or merely a parametric architecture with an expensive polish.

Most environments we design are intended to be calm and rational: in fact, the Classical orders of architecture set out to achieve exactly that.  It’s rare that anyone would wish to design somewhere at the opposite extreme, but such places do exist.  Likewise the un-designed places which may have evolved over time – as in the case when you walk into the darkness of an abandoned railway tunnel, or a cave system.  The complete absence of daylight, plus the strange acoustic of these places, suggests the Labyrinth, of Minotaur fame, and under the surface you certainly feel quite different to the world under the sun. 

The senses are heightened, blood pulses in your ears, and your nerves are at a high key – despite depriving the senses of stimuli.  Just make sure you take a torch, and a spare; plus a spare battery, and a spare for the spare … otherwise your mind will play tricks.  The darkness does strange things to space – it grows and shrinks beyond the edge of the torch beam, and imaginary forms flit across the twilight beyond the torch beam.  Fear can become an overwhelming emotion, if your imagination is left to its own devices.

Another example which springs to mind is the Rhubarb House.  With its dank brick vaults hidden behind heavy wooden doors, rhubarb plants were “forced” in its darkness.  The rhubarb was brought on when it was out of season, when it couldn’t grow outside due to the cold and darkness.  Inside is absolute stillness, with moist air hanging at the back of the vaults and a soft carpet of humus and strawy manure which absorbs everything.  When the rhubarb crowns are growing, set three feet apart and sprouting like triffids, their pale stalks and monstrous leaves dominate the space.  Once they’ve been lifted, the hollow sheds are a void. 

I’ve walked through them – tucked away in the Angus countryside, known by only by a handful of local people.  There is a feeling of suppression and sensory deprivation in the vaults, and just like an anechoic chamber or a drainage culvert, they offer their own particular experience once you get used to the idea of being where you are.  Claustrophobia is one symptom, or perhaps a vague unease about those cold, organic things with names like Timperley, Hawkes Champagne, or The Sutton.

The other extreme is a place of over-stimulation, which for these purposes we will call the Hazard Room.  It does exist, somewhere south of the Pentlands – a place with yellow and black striped walls, floor and ceiling; strobing lights and revolving mirrors; sirens sounding at random; blasts of dry heat and freezing fog.  Blood pressure and physiological stress levels are greatly increased: you are set on edge, and the space quickly becomes unendurable for anything more than short periods. 

The loudness, exaltation, bizarre perspectives and confusing visual cues owe something to surrealism, and something more to Jungian psychology.  No-one really knows why the Hazard Room was created, although its context suggests it was dreamed up by psychiatrists, or perhaps installation artists.  It is not a comfortable place to be – but that’s the idea.  It was designed to over-power with raw emotion to represent, or perhaps trigger, insanity.

The godfather of the study of these sensations is Edmund Burke, who attempted to theorise the sublime in his Philosophical Treatise of 1756.  Burke was the first philosopher to scrutinise our sense of awe: what stimulates it, how it acts upon us, and why the triggers exist in our mind in the first place.  He listed attributes such as obscurity, power, darkness, vastness, and magnitude.  “To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary.  When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”

Perhaps we need to feel, in a metaphysical sense, that there is something greater than us out there – whether through an understanding of religion, animism or aestheticism.  Perhaps it does no harm to be jolted into a state of agitation by these extreme stimuli?  This was the thesis of the Lettrist International, when they conceived their Formulary for a New Urbanism in the early 1950’s – that group of amateur revolutionaries later evolved onto the Situationists, who fomented the student rising in Paris in 1968.  The Lettrists put forward a city which works directly on the passions and emotions, and they offered us a new conception of space:

“They are to be found in the magical spots of fairy stories and in some surrealist art: castles, great walls that cannot be climbed, small bars run to seed, caverns with a mammoth frozen in the ice, the mirror behind the pool table.  Even as images as dated as these will have some power as a catalyst.  Not that they could actually be used in a building a new symbolic town without being completely transformed, without being given a completely new sense.  Our minds, ridden by key images from the past, have fallen far behind the sophistication of our machinery.  The few attempts made to fuse modern science into a new myth that proved abortive.  As a result, all contemporary art has been forced to become abstract – contemporary architecture being the worst example of all.  Pure plastic art, telling no story and making no movement, cold and soothing to the eye …” - Gilles Ivain

The Situationists crystallised the impulses of their predecessors, such as the Lettrists’ “Formulary”, and Constant Nieuwenhuys went on to develop a radical proposal for an architecture in which all traces of conventional buildings and social institutions would be abandoned.  Everyone would drift around in vast, labyrinthine interiors, which would be continuously reconstructed to meet their needs.  Any desire could be satisfied, so the theory went, and new desires could be stimulated, along with new modes of behaviour – all through an architecture forever in flux.  The underlying aim was to create an environment in which we experienced a far wider range of sensations than today. 

Similarly, one of Constant’s Situationist colleagues, the Scots writer Alex Trocchi, developed a radical new kind of university (in a loose sense) called the Sigma Project.  As the name suggests, it was intended as a summation of the many strands of human experience and knowledge, and owed something to the Black Mountain School of the 1950’s.  Raw emotion might be harnessed alongside rational analysis – so that “Primal Scream” therapy and psychotropics might play their part in a curriculum that extended self-discovery across a wide range of arts, sciences and humanities.

More recently, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin could be construed as an architecture of raw emotion: the harsh surfaces, disorientating floor planes and jagged forms are designed to challenge, and make you feel unsettled.  It’s the embodiment of unheimlich, a German word which is slightly tricky to translate.  It describes the uneasy feeling which raises the birse on the back of your neck; the edginess you feel when you know something’s out of place. 

Unheimlich is what countless horror film-makers have attempted to capture: it’s the noises off in pictures like “Silent Hill” which create a clautrophobic atmosphere and account for their creepiness.  These cues touch primitive parts of our brains, where the gut instincts live, and which fight the rational thoughts that tell us nothing is amiss.

Why do we need these stimuli?  Firstly, at the very core of our humanity is a need to explore the world around us, and our inner selves.  We seem to lose a certain degree of curiosity as we grow older, but it remains at the heart of some peoples’ lives.  They need to feel challenged, to see and experience new things, and they aren’t satisfied with simply ignoring those parts of the city that the authorities have proscribed. 

Secondly, we live in a heavily moderated and constrained world.  A good Health & Safety culture on building sites is essential, because they are dangerous places – but it has extended into the safest parts of everyday life, arguably making us too risk averse.  Because of this, we no longer live a complete existence, we do not experience life fully, nor by extension do we experience the fullest range of sensations and human emotions.  After all, a dangerous world is an interesting place to be, and it will teach you to trust your own judgement, to understand your limits, and crucially it will teach self-reliance. 

Meanwhile, what about Richard Strauss?  It’s been suggested that because he and his librettist, Hofmannstahl, worked in fin-de-siecle Europe, consequently their operatic works were Art Nouveau.  However, not everyone working at a given time uses the same aesthetic, and in fact artists often react against a prevailing trend.  Edward Munch (who painted “The Scream”) is one of few artists to approach the metaphysical savagery of Strauss’s Elektra, whilst his contemporaries such as Gustav Klimt followed a very different path. 

Similarly, none of the Art Nouveau architects, such as Horta, Mackintosh or Hoffman tried to cast those emotions into stone: in fact, the harmonious forms and flowing lines of their buildings seem to embody calmness and control, the very antithesis of raw emotion.

Elektra, then, is out on her own.

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