Melancholy and the City

Werner Boehner is a professor of Architecture at Cornell University, Department of Architecture, where he has served as the associate dean and director of graduate studies. He has been associate director of the Department of Comprehensive Urban Development in Karlsruhe, and has won numerous honors, including a DAAD Fellowship, the Cornell Outstanding Educator Award, and prizes in international urban and architectural design competitions.

I can barely conceive a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy.
Charles Baudelaire

Industrialization, progressive capitalism, technological progress, and mass consumption transformed the historic city into the metropolis of today. Along with progress came the inevitable dark-side of the modern city: traffic, crowds, billboards, high-rise buildings ... and consequently, new psychological states: the emotions of alienation, fear, anonymity, and loneliness — states might collectively be called melancholy. The following three key texts summarize this condition.

In Capitalism and the City, Richard Sennett mentions two urban virtues — sociability and subjectivity — that make living in the city worthwhile. The city is a place to learn on the ground and with your body―to live and to be confronted with the experiences and interests of strangers. He considers the urban realm to be a space of self-knowledge, molding subjectivity through the experience of complexity, which reflects back on the person’s identity, in turn producing multiple images of that identity. As the city was born, the presence of the stranger on the street required new behaviors: cool-acting and indifference in public versus curiosity and uncertainty in private. In the contemporary city, bureaucratic rigidity and strangeness has evolved into work-related flexibility and indifference to place, expressed in the diminished physical attachment to the city, the standardization of the urban environment, and the relationship between family and urban work. Sennett states: “When a society’s organizational, bureaucratic forms alter, both the experience of time and place alters. This conjoined alteration in the time of labor and the space of cities is what we are living through today, expressed in geographic impermanence, the effects of impermanence on standardization in the public realm and conflicts between work and family, office and home.”1

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau portrays the city as predominantly influenced and shaped by governments, corporations, and city planning offices, which depict the city as a uni ed whole represented in maps. In contrast, daily urban life, with its own logic, takes place on the ground, experienced with the body. Walking individuates and makes ambiguous the order given to cities by planners, similar to waking life being made ambiguous by dreaming. The walker in the city reappropriates the urban space for his or her own interests.2

In The Geopolitics of Emotions, Dominique Moïsi asks the rhetorical question: Are reason and objective facts, like borders, economical resources, military power, or the cold calculation of political interests, the only determinants in geopolitics? Supported by many examples, Moïsi demonstrates that one cannot understand the world if one does not consider the role of emotions. He argues that fear, hope, or humiliation — which can lead to irrationality and on occasion to violence — shape human history.3

Read together, these three texts diminish the dominance of top-down urbanism in favor of the individual, his or her own emotions, and the daily reappropriation of the given physical frame with each moment. All three cases allude to the tension between the dominant ideas for the city and the power of the daily human responses in the trenches of the urban reality, where emotions and feelings are acted out.

Melancholy arises out of a sense of deprivation and hopelessness, a feeling of loss, originating in the discrepancy between the unfulfilled promises of technological future and the present. This sense of loss is one that has occupied thinkers from Sigmund Freud to Walter Benjamin, and has remained an interesting yet peripheral subject matter to urban designers. To see the city through the melancholy eye provides the potential to critique contemporary urban practice.


Melancholy, as a cultural phenomenon, is not coherent as a whole. Over two millennia the concept of melancholy has accrued a variety of different meanings. The Greeks determined the term, “melaina kole” or “black bile” from the Hippocratic theory of humors, which inhabited the body and when overactive, created a black substance that caused an illness. Since Aristotle, the way melancholy has been thought of served at the same time as an explanatory model for creativity, brilliance of mind, being the temper of geniuses, and madness.

In his 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud redefines the melancholy humor as a clinical condition in which a lost object, rather than being released from the mind after a period of mourning, persists as a ghost. The melancholic person resists confronting the loss of the object and preserves it through repetition and through a process of internalization, the object becoming a ghost in the psyche.4

Melancholy, today, is commonly associated with sadness, suffering, or depression, but also with thoughtfulness, creative energy, brilliance, and reflection; in other words, an oscillation between opposite emotions, cheerfulness and despair, love and hate. It is this dual distinctive character that differentiates it from the pathological condition of depression, and makes melancholy a re ned emotion. The effort of recollection, the retrieval of weak or faint memories, constitutes the reflective aspect of melancholy. This process separates melancholy people from the world, but on the other hand, allows them to act as a conduit for a forgotten world that may inform and enrich their vision of the present.

The Image of the Melancholy City

As cities are planned, a range of inputs are considered in the shaping of the urban environment. Grappling with issues of economics, mobility, logistics, infrastructure, and security, planners of great cities have oftentimes neglected individuals and their states of mind as they encounter and shape the city for themselves. The fascination of contemporary urban discourse with the great things late capitalism has brought about — the emancipatory phenomena of globalization, information exchange, and the culture of speed, to name a few — has overshadowed the concern for the daily experiences of the city’s inhabitants. The image of melancholy in the city has been represented in many paintings and photographs whose appearance occurs in tandem with Modernism’s influence on architecture and the city. Scenes of emptiness and absence are taken from sources across the world, but the same clues of melancholic conditions reappear again and again.

Giorgio de Chirico, the founder of the Scuola Metafisica, is best known for his metaphysical paintings produced between 1909 and 1919. These melancholic renderings of low-lit town squares with long shadows and empty walkways are not treated as conventional cityscapes — as perspectives of places full of movement and everyday life — but rather as the kinds of haunted streets we might encounter in dreams. His piazzas serve as backdrops for pregnant symbols: clocks (linearity of time), fountains (circularity of time), and so on. Abandoned except for shadows and statues, the melancholy emptiness conjures ghosts — whether those of antiquity in the austere arcades, or those of modernism in the distance.5

Between 1897 and 1920, Eugene Atget made more than 10,000 photographic plates of Paris. What is remarkable about this collection is that only a few photos show the city’s grand boulevards. Atget’s work ignores the Haussmannization of Paris, and favors instead streets in the old quarters, in an apparent attempt to preserve the past for the people of his time, who were still traumatized by the dramatic incisions that had been made into their city. Atget depicts a dislocated world and a humanity disjointed: places appear unchanging. There is a certain morbid quality, a certain melancholic trait in Atget’s photos, linked to the loss of communication and relational space in a Paris transformed by Haussmann. They demonstrate a melancholic desire to possess the past. Atget once wrote, “I can say that I possess all of old Paris”— a refusal to let go, and a refusal of the modern.

The above depictions of the city in art and photography are capable of conveying the city’s melancholy tone. In contemplating these deserted scenes, lonely and still, the viewer becomes lost in another reality in which the ever-present melancholies are brought to the fore.

Melancholy and Modernity in the Metropolis

Philosophical ruminations characterizing life in the metropolis are rife in the 19th and 20th centuries, from Georg Simmel6 and Max Weber7 to Friedrich Nietzsche8 and Martin Heidegger.9 Many assess modernity and the life in the emergent metropolis as having something to do with loss, and critique grand ideological constructions that are not concerned with the person in the street and his or her possible sensorial responses.

In Paris, the transformative impact of Haussmann’s boulevards became a concern for many cultural critics. The boulevard was a new kind of modern public space on which the whole panoply of capitalist society was displayed. Inevitably, Haussmann’s “modernization” of Paris’s urban landscape in the name of efficiency, military, and social control instilled an overwhelming sense of loss and a melancholic feeling in many Parisians.

Charles Baudelaire celebrates the ephemeral, fugitive life in Paris and discovers the prostitute, the dandy, the beggar, the ragpicker, and the flâneur―previously hidden in the old quarters, now made visible to everybody on the grand boulevards. Baudelaire’s identification with the marginal elements of Parisian society enables him to defamiliarize the experience of loss, alienation, and melancholy. For Baudelaire, feeling loss, it seems, is the only way to endure the melancholic nature of modern life: loss as a secret source of interest and even pleasure in the world.10
Flânerie, seen as a critique of the tightening urban time schedule, is a “walking cure” against the prevailing melancholy in capitalist modernity. The flâneur likes to stroll without purpose, observing the crowd in search of mystery and the unexpected. The 1839 fad of walking a tortoise in the Parisian arcades has been interpreted as an example of the protest against the time discipline superimposed by modern capitalism.

The harnessing of melancholy as a creative force is only possible, according to Walter Benjamin, through a degree of “self-estrangement,” being able to treat oneself as an object in order to better scrutinize one’s emotional life. In his analysis of Baudelaire, Benjamin ties the flâneur to a specific time and place: the 19th century Parisian arcades. The arcades were centers of the luxury-goods trade, cut through the interior of the Parisian urban blocks. For Benjamin, the flâneur is able to live an affectively charged and emotionally rich experience. It is a figure who still is able to grasp concrete, organic, historical experience (Erfahrung) and not merely phantasmagoric experience (Erlebnis)―the former being an all-embracing and auratic experience, the latter being an alienated, reified, and commodified experience accompanying the rise of modernity. Benjamin writes, “The flâneur is someone abandoned in the crowd ... The intoxication to which the flâneur surrenders is the intoxication of the commodity around which surges the stream of customers.”11

More aggressive and organized than the solitary flâneur, the Situationist Movement invented a critical practice called Unitary Urbanism, employing techniques of drifting, dérive or detournement: another flânerie. It was a walking protest to critique the quasi-religious status of science, progress, and the convention of urban planning, and to resist the productivist ethics of post–World War II reconstructive urbanism in Europe. An international group of poets, writers, painters, and urbanists began to develop a critique of these phenomena, out of a sense of melancholic yearning, loss, and an absolute aversion to the present. In his book, The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord developed a concept of a modern society in which capital accumulated to become image and authentic social experience was replaced by its representations, leading to the destruction of human interaction.12

In the dérive, an unplanned journey through an urban landscape, the subtle aesthetic contours of the surrounding urban environment subconsciously direct travelers with the ultimate goal of encountering an entirely new and authentic experience. The artistic practice of sampling and remixing messages from mass media and subverting or ‘détourning’ their predetermined meanings enables new, antithetical messages to emerge in order to cultivate an awareness of the ways in which daily life is controlled and manipulated. Through psycho-geography — ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, on the emotions and behavior of individuals’ — the Situationists tried to achieve entirely new and authentic experiences by combining the soft ambiance — light, sound, time, and associations of ideas — with the hardscape: the actual physical constructions of the city. By envisioning alternative psycho-geographies, they provided ways in which planned urban space could be re-appropriated by its citizens. The mixing of memory and sensation held in the modern unconscious was sought after to inform and map out a new experience of the world. Situationist maps, though cognitive, were not rational: they linked space together via intuition rather than function.

Each city has its tales of melancholy: London has Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” (1840); Lisbon has the Portuguese concept of saudade (a mood vaguely translated as nostalgia, love, pain, longing, hope, and despair: a profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves and often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing may never return). Istanbul has what Orhan Pamuk describes as hüzün, a coming together of a melancholy emanating from the cityscape of Istanbul and the melancholy of the individual inhabitant. These terms refer not to personal melancholy; rather, they describe a melancholy that has moved into the city itself, and is shared by all inhabitants. Every modern city has had to deal with traumatic changes in its urban environment, and every modern city thus has a certain melancholia. As with saudade and hüzün, melancholy can be transferred to an object or a whole city, which makes melancholy a communal affair. At the same time, melancholy is a prevalent individual emotion of the city’s inhabitants when confronted with accelerated change within the lived reality of the city. Deploring the loss of familiarity, the citizen struggles to come to grips with it through “acting out” these feelings or sometimes by “working through of these losses.”13

This struggle on the ground by the city’s inhabitants is the force that enabled the city as a living environment and as an embodiment of people’s ambitions and desires to absorb and deal with the many a priori urban planning ideas, like the 19th-century gridded city-extensions, the City Beautiful Movement, and the Rational City and the Ville Radieuse of the 1920s.

The overemphasis of contemporary urban discourse on the great things late capitalism has brought about for us has overshadowed the concern for the daily experiences of the city’s inhabitants, and has historically always been and still is accompanied by its opposite: the persistence of memory and the unfulfilled promises of human history. The importance of the individual’s emotional and psychological reaction to changing urban conditions is greatly undervalued. It seems to be forgotten that being in the city is a distinct emotional condition, sometimes characterized as melancholy. Moving forward; it is for the purposes of not repeating the traumas of the past that one must allow the melancholy spirit to continue to haunt us.
With the advent of the internet and instant communication, “everything arrives without necessarily having to depart”;14 the significance of being in and identifying with an urban place is replaced by the possibility of being in many places at the same time. Today the physical attachment of the citizen to the Global City is in the process of getting lost because of the increased standardization of the urban environment and the transformation in production with its high degree of flexibility, impermanence, and indifference. The complexity and fast pace of transformation in the Global City makes it more and more difficult to connect the personal life- world in the city with a construction of a cognitive image of that totality. Reflection — a prerequisite for melancholy — will be increasingly dif cult to come by.15


1 Richard Sennett, “Capitalism and the City,” in Future City, ed. Stephen Read, Jürgen Rosemann, and Job van Eldijk (London: Psychology Press, 2005).

2 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

3 Dominique Moïsi, “The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation and Hope Are Reshaping the World,” Geographical Journal 177, no. 97 (2011).

4 Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, Volume XIV (London: Hogarth Press, 1914–1916).

5 These melancholic renderings would profoundly influence the Surrealists, and in their thematic exploration of alienation, nostalgia, and myth, his works are also said to have influenced Edward Hopper as well as Michelangelo Antonioni.

6 Georg Simmel in his essay, “Metropolis and Mental Life,” (in. Georg Simmel on Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings. Georg Simmel and Donald Levine, Chicago: U of Chicago, 1971) delineated the defense mechanisms to preserve individuality against the intensification of nervous stimulation. He states that the money economy makes quality a sole matter of quantity, and acts as a frightful leveler.

7 The political economist Max Weber pointed in his writings to the institutionalization of purposive rational economic and administrative action, with the result that punctuality and exactness became the rationale of modern life in the metropolis.

8 Nietzsche pointed out the increasing emotional responses, like the spreading sense of angst in the modern world. His apocalyptic metaphors about the death of god, religion, and spirituality foresaw the rise of the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community, and the resulting terrifying rootlessness.

9 Martin Heidegger questioned our being within modernity from an existential point of view. In his words: “Modern technology and with it the scientific industrialization of the world, in their unstoppable course, are destined to erase all possibilities of sojourn [Aufenthalt].” In a lecture to architects about the rebuilding of Germany after World War II, with the title “Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” he talks about the “impossibility of dwelling” in relation to modernity. The loss of being within the fourfold [Geviert]: “one lives on the earth, under the sky, remaining before the divinities and belonging to men’s being with one another.”

10 Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London: Phaidon Press, 1995).

11 Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life, Essays on Charles Baudelaire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); Reflections, Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (New York: Schocken Books, 1986); Illuminations, Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1969).

12 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994).

13 Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating and Working Through (Further Recommendations on Technique of Psychoanalysis II),” in vol. 12 of Standard Edition (1950), 145–157.

14 Paul Virilio, “The Overexposed City,” Zone 1/2 (1986), 19.

15 For further reading, see: Jennifer Radden, The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Covent Gardens, UK: George Bell & Sons, 1893); Emily Brady and Arto Haapala, “Melancholy as an Aesthetic Emotion,” http://www. (Vol 1, 2003); Jonathan Flatley, Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1990); Adam Caruso, “The Emotional City,” Quaderns 228 (January 2001), 8–13, http://; and Georg Simmel, “Metropolis and Mental Life,” in The Blackwell City Reader, ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson (Chichester, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2010), 103–111.

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