Gramsci was said to be known for his passionate commitment to honesty. His co-collaborator Andrea Viglongo described Gramsci as demanding total honesty and trust in their personal relations. Their mobile reading club – which discussed Aurelius’s Meditations whilst roaming the streets – was seen by Gramsci as the embryonic form of revolutionary change. Honesty, and therefore doubt, was necessary for thinking and politics. It can be hard to find traces of such sentiments in today’s academia. What makes Sara Westin’s The Paradoxes of Planning such a stimulating read is that it is delivered with such honesty one cannot immediately decipher her position or academic strategy; the usual academic prescriptions and pretences are missing from much of this work. This book operates outside of the normal academic conventions, taking the form of internal dialogue – Sara arguing with Sara – that seeks little more than an understanding of a particular place.

Westin’s exploration of the efficacy of psychoanalysis for understanding urbanity therefore possesses a Kantian character. Throughout the book Westin continually confronts inconvenient truths in the application of Freudian reason. As an articulation of therapeutic thought, this book is an account of Sara’s attempt to seek out a (repressed) truth. Lacan described repression as a fault within speech, a snag in the linguistic structure that reveals some unconscious presence. For Westin, a repression lies at the heart of the urban condition. She describes this repression as “a gap”, a distance between intent and outcome that functions because of, and not in spite of, the human condition. The gap is quite real for Westin. Her concern about the gap emerges from a visit to Hammarby Sjöstad, a suburban development in Stockholm that fails to come close to the blueprint promises of its architects.

Westin’s own making sense of Hammarby Sjöstad is staged in order to confront the radical incompleteness of the urban project. Understanding why this new residential development proved to be sterile is part of the broader effort to tell us why it is that the amazingly complex cities we build fail to deliver the dreams that motivate us. Westin turns to psychoanalysis to answer this question. This commits the analysis to a pair of critical psychoanalytical assumptions: that man [sic] has a tendency to make himself unhappy, and that the relationship between self and society is fundamentally conflicted.

This account of urbanization’s failure therefore revolves around dialectical conflicts: the formalized desire to improve (i.e. provide utility, happiness, ethical etc.) and the informal/unconscious desire to scupper those projects that incorporate the aforementioned desire. In order to examine this dialectical tension, Westin employs perspectivism, an approach that brings conflicting viewpoints into dialogue. In quite unfashionable style, Westin therefore sets up a series of binary oppositions to stage the confrontations of perspectives: flaneur versus planner, philobats versus ocnophils, Apollo versus Dionysus.

The examination of Hammarby Sjöstad uses these dualisms to stimulate dialectics, utilizing archetypes to create therapy sessions and generates caricatures to make pairs of combatants. This commitment to psychoanalytical dialectics is unique and challenging. To be sure, it is often difficult to tell if Westin knows where the dialectical debate she stages is heading. But this remains a quality of the scholarship, despite the demands placed upon the reader. The honesty of the rigorous scholarly exploration shines through. This said, the book often sets off on tangents that disorientate the reader. It can be useful when reading the book to remind oneself about what is going on here: an exploration of why urban spaces designed to be social spaces become anything but. You can therefore put Westin’s book in the same linage as William Whyte (1980) and Jane Jacobs (1961); this is the same problematic that concerned them in the form of an extended therapy session.

As Westin pursues her dialectical engagement between psychoanalytical and urban theory, a number of insights are generated. Some of these insights are developed more fully than others, and some will be familiar to those versed in Marxian urban theory (Lefebvre, 1991). Yet there remains a great deal of productive and stimulating thought in this book. A couple of areas of theoretical development are worth noting here.

The book’s discussion of architecture and planning locates the failure of developments such as Hammarby Sjöstad in the visual practice of architecture and urban planning. Architecture and planning are abstract visual practices that, as Lefebvre (1991) represented through his spatial triad, tend to impose upon the lived experience of subjects: the flaneur is experiential and organic whereas the planner is prescriptive and distanced. Westin also points out that the planner is also concerned with power; he is a professional and, by definition, will be intolerant towards “non-expert opinions” (page 52). She is also empowered through an ability to create space. In contrast, the flaneur is only empowered to experience that which has already been made.

As Westin thinks through the various dimension of the planner versus flaneur dualism, what becomes apparent are the particularities of the creative urban process. In contrast to the poet, writer or artist, the particularities of the urban process (e.g. planning requirements, the social and technological nature of construction) demands an abstraction of design and construction. The urban becomes, by definition, the application of abstractions. Westin hints that such urban planning is by definition dehumanizing; for an archetype the finger is pointed at the modernist dogma of Le Corbusier and van der Rohe. And yet it is hard to imagine an organic urban process that could ever remove and/or replace this form of abstraction: Walden Pond (Thoreau, 2006[1854]) is no metropolis. No solutions to this problematic of urban abstraction are offered in the book.

The second major commentary on urban planning developed by Westin is that urban planning is a neurosis: urban planning is a compensation act that ultimately recreates the conditions it seeks to improve. In this section of the book, the utility of psychoanalysis to understanding (or undermining) urban planning is most evident. Westin claims the general lesson of psychoanalysis is that “Man [sic] has reason, but at best it plays a peripheral or superficial role” (page 96). What therefore dominates the coordination of planning is the superego:

“the superego is the individual’s (or society’s) moral function: the agency that pushes the ego to think and act modestly. That which challenges the superego’s standards of how things should be is repressed” (Westin, page 99).

The imposition of external standards – what Zizek calls “the point in which permitted enjoyment turns into ordained enjoyment” (1999a) – creates places that are realized for the approval of an external authority. The trouble with such an approach, Westin claims, is that it inevitably generates alienation: good urban planning is not for those who inhabit, it is for those that deem it rational.

Here in lies Westin’s most important commentary:

“city planning is an activity in which the superego has run amok, falling into its own trap. Due to the superego’s desire to avoid the irrational and the chaotic, it has more or less overdosed the rational and the orderly, so much that is can be diagnosed as neurotic” (page 129).

The planner can only see needs, desire is incompatible with her practice. Westin consequently claims that “architecture has little to do with urbanity” (page 132). Urban planning, as seen through Westin’s psychoanalytical lens, emerges as something utterly boring. The strict adherence to a set of bureaucratic ethics creates places like Hammarby Sjöstad.

The trouble with this commentary is that it is incomplete. Westin never probes the nature of the superego, abandoning her dialectics at a critical moment. What is the superego today, and how does it get played out in the city? Lacan claimed the essential component of the superego is its injunction to enjoy. This differentiates it from the symbolic law (Zizek, 1999b). Whereas the symbolic law can simply repress (i.e. you must), the superego inverts this to mean “you must, because you can” (ibid.). If the superego dominates urban planning, we must be concerned with more than a dictation by rationality. As such, the alienation that Westin finds so prevalent in Hammarby Sjöstad must be supplemented with the permissiveness enabled by the superego’s authority:

“obedience to the master allows you to transgress everyday moral rules: all the dirty things you were dreaming of, everything you had to renounce when you subordinated yourself to the traditional, patriarchal, symbolic Law you are now allowed to indulge in without punishment” (Zizek, 1999b).

Might it be, for example, that the faux urbanism played out within this Stockholm suburb (i.e. we moved here because we wanted community, friends etc.) is really an exercise in (dirty, repressed) property speculation and self-segregation?

The truncated exposition of superego is just one example within this book where the discussion needs development. Unfinished theses litter the text. For example, early in the book Westin claims:

“[B]oth urbanity and the sexual act involve a crossing, a collapsing of boundaries, a definition that render the urban not only as a sexual but also a poetic phenomenon” (page 56).

Yet the examination of this sweeping argument is all but gone two lines later, as the chapter diverts elsewhere. Although this example should probably have become a victim of the editor’s pen, other instances of thought-dropping infuriate while, on occasion, some others exhilarate. This criticism is, of course, the flip-side of what stands out in the book. Its enjoyable and stimulating rapid river like internalized argument is flawed by an unavoidable tendency to generate the unfulfilled conceptual promise or two.

However, there are parts of this book that stand to bear more criticism. Despite all its criticism of the undialectical urban planner, there is very little in the book about attempts at dialectical planning. As an account of urban planning, connecting the often present Lefebvre to the Situationists and, in particular Constant Nieuwenhuys, would have offered Westin many opportunities to refine the book’s core arguments. Nor is the Marxism of Lefebvre – a critical intellectual influence throughout the text – ever developed. Even at a minimal level, the connection between urban planning and the production of commodity (i.e. private market housing) is never touched upon. Beyond this, an engagement with the connection between psychology and capitalism is missing. These absences do not mean the book’s core objective of showing the efficacy of psychoanalysis for understanding the city is missed. Rather one is left with the impression that the reason why psychoanalysis is important is never forcefully put.

All of this has implications for the politics of the book. In the chapter on perspectivism, Westin asks: “How will people know what is best for others when they do not even know what is best for themselves?” (page 33). Later in the book this is followed by a critique of reason: “logic is thus the language of reason. Basically, logic – like geometry – is a form of rhetoric, but over time it has gained such a high status that it is considered natural of God-given” (page 203). Logic therefore becomes ideology. All of this generates an uncomfortable sense of relativism. If we have nothing beyond rhetoric, what can (urban) politics be?

Such questions have concerned critical theorists for the past three decades (Badiou, 2006; Butler, 1993; Laclau and Mouffe, 1989; Zizek, 1989). Within this “post” post-modernist search for politics, psychoanalysis – and particularly Jacques Lacan’s iteration – has been an important resource. It is therefore disappointing that some engagement between psychoanalysis and (Marxian) politics does not enter into Westin’s discussion. I would acknowledge that asking for another tangent in a tangent-laden text is perhaps a demand too far, but can we leave such questions to others?

Westin’s The Paradoxes of Planning therefore has its limitations. As an exposition of the utility of psychoanalytical theory for understanding the urban process, it offers a great deal. The book is brimming with insights, despite many of them being under-developed. There are some parts of the book that appear a little too idiosyncratic when placed in the context of the overall project; the sections that deal with Space Syntax are confounding and the limited spatial and temporal focus on Hammarby Sjöstad restricts the application of the book’s thesis. All of which, I think, makes this an important book. True to its dialectical method, the flaws of the text open up spaces for conversation: Politics, yes we do need to talk about them! The relation between the particular and the universal, yep, need to talk about that too! You never get the sense Westin wants to avoid or foreclose any of these debates.

I do not think any of these openings become possible without Westin’s book being such an honest piece of scholarship. This book does not pretend to be anything more than a perspective. It shuns academic conventions in favor of sincere prose. Gaps are left open to be filled, not disguised or obfuscated. As a piece of scholarship, Westin’s work is true to the book’s Arendtian conclusion about urban planning:

“An action is ethically justifiable only if it treats human beings as human beings and not as things or means to an end” (page 229).

The glimmers of Kant in this culmination are clear. The internal dialogue that plays out in Westin’s book reflects her process of thinking. You get a sense of how Westin actually thinks about space and concepts. The brutal honesty of this is inspiring. Herein lies the hidden worth of the book. Despite the conceptual and political limitations of the text, it operates as an instructive piece of scholarship. To paraphrase Kant, even if the text lacks the power to completely accomplish its purpose, this jewel of a book shines a great light.

In an academic world of publication counting, citation scores, impact factors, and so on, the fact that this book was developed from a doctoral thesis is tremendously encouraging. Thought has clearly taken precedence over the false promises of careerism. Whether interested in psychoanalytical readings of the urban or not, this is a book that should be read by today’s doctoral students. It is a lesson on what scholarship can look like: honest, flawed, engaging and tremendously thoughtful. 


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Butler J (1993) Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge.
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Laclau E and C Mouffe (1989) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso.
Lefebvre H (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Thoreau HD (1854/2006) Walden. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Whyte WH (1980) The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. New York: Project for Public Space.