The prosthetic paradox

the prosthetic paradox


There can be no doubt that within the contemporary Western condition, fear is the driving force behind the (re-) organization of the public and private space. Fear is a factor that, due to its destabilizing influence, is expelled and excluded from society. Yet the way in which we do this makes a meaningful discussion about the relationship between fear and space impossible. The issue of fear and space is currently approached in such a way that the solutions are becoming invisible, in size and in function. This leads to an age of permanent justification, control, recording and interpretation. Technological prostheses installed in strategic locations keep our collective and individual fear under control. Simultaneously, these are signals that indicate that thinking about architecture and urban planning has abandoned society.

Architecture and urban planning, both once specific organizational answers (as controlling as they were liberating) to societal debates, have divested themselves, from the second half of the twentieth century, from the idea that they could be, as form and programme, a means of social progress and/or reflection. They have now become an economic, political, cultural or social end – employable anywhere, simultaneously and with equal value. The current societal debate still relates to a significant extent to the discourse on progress, but architecture and urban planning are no longer fundamental participants. The city and architecture are no longer a theatre of progress; instead they have literally become a decor. This is what some would have us believe. There is a form of truth in it, but it is behind this decor that an odd shadow play is taking place. On and behind the decor we see black contours, silhouettes and shadows moving, inspiring anxiety because they are unknown. What can we do? Watch anxiously or tear down the decor?

In Eurotaoïsme (1989) Peter Sloterdijk draws the following conclusion on the modern era: ‘There is only one period called the modern era, because in the new era the capacity of Western people to act fascinated them to such an extent that they found the courage to proclaim the arrangement of the world purely through their own actions.’ ((Peter Sloterdijk, ‘Eurotaoïsme’, Amsterdam 1991, p. 22.)) For Sloterdijk the project of the modern era is based on a ‘kinetic Utopia’: every movement in the world should bring about our design of it: ‘progress is movement into movement, movement into multiple movement, movement toward increased capacity for movement’. ((Peter Sloterdijk, ‘Eurotaoïsme’, Amsterdam 1991, p. 31.)) The modern architectural and urban project has been characterized since 1950 by a shift from inclusive to exclusive, from synthesis to opposition and from freedom to control. Anxiety has replaced fascination. We camouflage this by making our actions and arrangements dependent on prosthetics which we view as logical components of the kinetic Utopia. If architecture and urban planning want to make a meaningful contribution to the movement, it must escape this logic. Otherwise we are headed – the signs are there already – toward a petrified city.

Collective versus individual

Until a few decades ago, designers strived for interaction with the modern project – as a total (Le Corbusier, among others), structural (Smithsons, Maki, among others) or reactive project (Archigram, among others). In this evolution the demonstration of a shape of and for the modern era was the driving force. The failure of the partial execution of this led to the analysis that total transformation was not a good thing. The reasoning was that if the synthesis of architecture and urban planning could not formulate an answer to the collective needs of the modern era, then its ambitions had to be broken down until it provided an answer to individual needs. City and architecture no longer relate in design to the collective, but to the individual. Sprawl as an ideal. The individual problem of Western man (including anxiety, security, culture, consumption, speed) became the global problem of the city and its architecture. In order to address this, we use prostheses – objects distributed here and there, both in the public and private space, which record, process and issue signals. The ad hoc and improvised way in which these have been distributed has led to a constant sense of dissatisfaction within society; waiting until problems appear before one resolves them is seldom a successful strategy – certainly in architecture and urban planning.

The conflict between architecture and urban planning formulates an answer to individual problems in enclave or gated architecture. This answer represents a fear of the city, its antithesis, which is composed of various architectures. We bring this dialectic to its synthesis in a culture of prosthetics; the prosthesis replaces a part that has been lost; it supplements, adds something to what remains and refines it. The reasons why the public space leads both to freedom and to fear (including anonymity, mass, chance) are provided with a functional answer (including identifiability, individual, rules). In the public and private space the prosthesis works in an identical way; it isolates or provides, but it also has another aim: in one sphere control is the necessary component of freedom, in the other freedom is a necessary component of control. The public and private spheres thus seem to exist in a perfect dialectic, the synthesis of which is our society. Yet this dialectic is not perfect; just like the public and private space, control and freedom are permeable and osmotic. Complete segregation is both utopian and dystopian – the contemporary hybrid is an inevitable paradox. What is the significance of design in this condition?

the prosthetic paradox

The prosthetic program

The expulsion of fear from our space has been manifested in different forms and organizations: in the past kept out by crude architectural and technological means (ramparts, forts and canons), now prevented by sophisticated architectural and technological means. Fear keeps chance at bay. Prosthetic elements have palliated fear in a world with increasing movement capacity including hoods, epaulettes, pacifiers, helmets and suits of armour, iron lungs, chastity belts, Ladyshave razors, head rests, piercings, Pichler’s prototypes and ‘Wohnzimmer’. Now the prostheses that are supposed to eliminate public and private fear are security cameras, alarm systems, TFT monitors, magnetic contacts, PI technology, volumetric motion detectors, glass breakage detectors, interior and exterior sirens, voice and digital telephone transmitters, active infrared barriers, iris scans, and so forth.


Sigmund Freud says in Hemmung, Symptom und Angst (1926) that anxiety is first experienced at birth, a situation in which feelings of displeasure are not psychologically processed or discharged. Freud links anxiety to the threat of the loss of self, and so anxiety is narcissistic; in order to survive in this new condition the child has at its disposal expressions of anxiety, which it uses to attract the mother’s attention. Anxiety is a signal of abandonment.

In the course of development into a social being, the danger becomes undefined and an impersonal entity. In his development the child conforms to social examples. This leads to an increasing and structured emancipation of the person; he or she acquires control, replacing external supervision, of his or her own attitude toward life. Anxiety is characterized not so much by disappearance as by expectation, which is ‘an unknown, threatening crowded place’. When ‘the I’ (or ego) in this situation is strong enough, it is ready to encounter forms of existence that are not yet part of the structure of its environment. Anxiety signals enable the ego to protect defend itself against danger before it gets the upper hand. Techniques to ward off danger, and therefore avoid anxiety, are defence mechanisms.

Anxiety signals mean a disruption of the integrity of the personality, which produces resistance. This is expressed as repression, ‘isolation in relation to consciousness’, ‘exclusion from reproduction by memory’ and anticipation. Another defence mechanism is the ego’s reaction formation. To Freud, the most essential defence is regression, resulting in an ‘introjection’ and identification with what cannot be mastered. In the worst instance this regression does not occur and the personality can become fixated: ‘… fixated to such an extent that any form of openness to other forms of being and life are abandoned or rejected, so that the defence becomes an end in itself’. ((Gustav Bally, De psychoanalyse van Sigmund Freud, Utrecht/Amsterdam 1965, p. 179.))

The modern city

Space is the interaction of all the forms, directions, positions, distances and dimensions, conscious or not, which together with kinetic Utopia result in a collection of impressions, experiences, situations and perceptions to which we respond instinctively, emotionally, psychologically and physically. The connections and meanings among these are controlled by our thinking, instinct and character. Space has self-awareness and memory and develops over time. For instance, 9-11 not only influenced how terrorism had to be responded around the world, but also how New York had to be reorganized.

Fear of the modern city led people to embrace the modern city in the first half of the twentieth century, but this turned into resistance in the second half – a resistance that offered no reactive alternative. The second wave of modernization, roughly from 1950 onward, constructed its imagery out of a negation of the first. Feelings of unreality, alienation, consternation, attraction and anxiety in the face the moving chaos represented by the metropolis were not to be provided with an answer but instead radically disempowered, forgetting that these are the foundation upon which the city constantly reinvents itself. This radical disempowerment became a permanent condition and was not resolved publicly, but rather in certain places and certain zones. Anxiety was no longer kept outside the city, but outside its buildings. Fear became the only thing connecting the neurotic private spaces. And it roamed the public space. The city was no longer a womb of cultural possibilities, but a test tube for cultural control. An urban trend slowly emerged: thematic architecture would eliminate personal anxiety, thematic urban planning would eliminate communal anxiety. But what architecture keeps out is at the mercy of the city, and what the city excludes is at the mercy of architecture.

Movement leads to more capacity for movement, access, freedom of choice, contact, relationships, and it occurs in situations that subject movement to strict controls. Our anxiety grows in direct correlation with our increased knowledge of the world; it is avoided and combated everywhere and at all times. Wherever this is not the case, man is left to the mercy of the survival of the fittest. We live, work and spend time in kinetic dystopias that some see as the harbingers of capsular civilizations, others as ‘ecologies of fear’. The debate on this seems only to feed negativism. A miasma of anxiety hangs round the kinetic Utopia, in which the confrontation with the unknown and with chance, the disappearance of familiar structures and the loss of familiar behavioural responses lead to isolation, suppression and exclusion of the (un) known and the suspect. Wherever the kinetic Utopia settles in monumental forms or organization (including mosques, peripheral expansions, airports, nuclear power plants, headquarters) it becomes a formalistic epicentre of anxiety and paralyzes any meaningful and reactive cultural debate. Anxiety has paralyzed the world into a permanent now-condition, with now-problems and now-fears – which have to be resolved now. Architecture and urban planning, as organizers of space, seem unequal to the challenge; their slowness and impotence take greater and more mythical proportions every day. They have been supplanted by prosthetics, which are constant radars, on the lookout for danger, and emit smart, efficient signals, as in precision bombing. But against which fear are we actually protecting ourselves? Architecture and urban planning are both victim and suspect in the current dilemma. Yet is there really a spatial connection between the arrangement of the world and the anxiety that brings it about in ourselves and others?

the prosthetic paradox

Public-private prostheses

Structure and change can be subsumed into space: among other things, space can isolate, offer resistance, exclude, secure, suppress, include, reject, petrify, absorb, digest and camouflage… Through control, anxiety situations are no longer awaited or predicted, but prevented, warded off and isolated. In the best situation this leads to stability in the building, the street, the square or even the community itself, in the worst to a regression in which defence (against the mythical unknown) becomes an end in itself and certain sections of the population and certain lifestyles are denied access. They roam the public space and are moving anxiety signals; they confirm public anxiety because they are denied entry into the anxiety-free space.
New possibilities, technologies and structures, whether sociological, political, economic or architectural, have turned every space, since the beginning of the modern era, into a bewilderingly crowded place, described with concepts derived from Romanticism, like ‘unheimlich’, ‘uncanny’, ‘Entfremdung’, ‘Entäusserung’, ‘alienation’… Later the public domain, the city as a free space, was further divided, sold off and compulsively arranged until it was fully controlled. A signal is sufficient to control public anxieties: orange for New York. Since 1950 large sections of the city have been turned over to private interests and turned into a slagheap of themed private initiatives. The only function of the government is to guarantee security on the slagheap. It attaches public prostheses to the surface of private vulgarity. The task of the government consists in guaranteeing security in a condition (the city) in which it has no say. The government is concerned with only one issue for the public space: security. The developer is concerned with only one issue for the private space: security.

The prosthetic Utopia and paradox

Yet the prosthetic Utopia provides a strange and unconvincing sense of comfort. There is a vague presumption that our need for security is being satisfied, but this is never confirmed, merely controlled. We see security failing, repeatedly. Where it succeeds, it exudes an artificial, dystopian temporariness. There is something out there. In this condition, fear becomes a means to achieve other objectives. Insecurity, the unexpected, freedom and chance are spatially delimited – no longer by a wall or glass façade, but by infrared. It seems that we can no longer create a future for the urban space, where anxiety is undoubtedly playing out, more than in the countryside. What then is the legitimacy to keep this modern project going?

There is a battle raging for the public space, the mythological acme of anxiety-free liberty, which is being fought on two fronts, each with different means, each in different guises, but both with the same objective: in what remains of the public domain visible and hidden mechanisms of control have appeared, coupled with a masochistic mythologization of that public domain; the private domain is enclosed and equally controlled, leading to a narcissistic sense of security for the individual within the mass. Take the mass out of the latter, and all that remains, despite all precautionary measures, is fear. Take fear out of the former, and only the mass remains.

The spatial connection between the arrangement of the world and the anxiety that brings it about in ourselves and the other is the result of a prosthetic paradox that haunts our spaces: the public space is that of freedom and anxiety, the private space that of control and anxiety. The first wants more control in order to eliminate anxiety, the latter more freedom in order to eliminate anxiety. The first does this by deploying the prosthesis as an instrument of control, thereby making the space suspect, the latter by using the prosthesis as a free signal, making the person suspect. Increasing isolation, suppression and segregation of the public and private initiatives in the city will further petrify and thematize progress. Contemporary anxiety is a signal of abandonment: of the city, of architecture, people, culture, the economy. The only thing we will be able to proclaim in the future will be fear of our actions, fear of chance, fear of the shadow play in which we are the leading players. Unless the condition in which we live manages to fascinate us once again.

2005. Bert de Muynck.


This essay was published in; Fear & Space The view of young designers in the Netherlands

Urban Affairs (eds.), Untitled, Mr Smith, DUS, Shine 5.0, Bert de Muynck, Marc Pimlott, Jacob Voorthuis, Benjamin Barber, Joshua Karant, Moritz Küng

Design: Stout/Kramer, Illustrated (colour and b/w), Paperback, sewn, 160 pages, Size: 17 x 24 cm
Text in Dutch and English, ISBN 90-5662-422-9, € 30.00

With the support of the Netherlands Architecture Fund and the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture (Fonds BKVB)

NAi Publishers [now nai010]
Group Portraits 2004