The Architect as Alchemist



The architect as alchemist is an analogy used by many in the building discipline to elude to the innate similarities between the methods of both practitioners. As a means of describing (or even sensationalizing) the process and output of the architect, this esoteric reference relies on the mystical aura surrounding the alchemist as a mad scientist who transforms basic elements into radical creations. At first glance the analogy seems quite fertile, however, deeper scrutiny reveals its superficiality in that anyone who takes a series of elements and creates something novel can be considered an alchemist of sorts. The fashion designer cutting and sewing fabrics to create a stunning outfit for the runway. The chef composing a collection of disparate ingredients to create a Michelin-quality meal. 

The broad applicability of the analogy seems to dilute its significance in relation to the architect. However, rather than invalidate its meaning, I believe this generality offers an opportunity for further scrutiny, in order to mine for concepts and connections that clarify or re-frame the architect as alchemist. 

In other words, further investigation reveals the shortcomings of the initial analogy while offering new means of representing the architect and their process. Employing Carl Jung’s analysis of the alchemist from his seminal Psychology and Alchemy, as well as his conceptions of the collective unconscious and individuation, I argue to reframe the metaphor as depicting an architectural practitioner who balances theory and practice to create buildings that challenge the standard identity of a given typology. 

The process on which the analogy hinges is known as Chrysopoeia, wherein the alchemist takes base metals such as zinc, copper and lead and transmutes them into noble metals, such as gold. In parallel, the architect takes basic construction elements and through the design process, creates a masterwork. 

Yet this analogy is incomplete, as a major component is typically omitted. Because alchemy is rooted in Hermeticism, a religion that acknowledges the imperfection of worldly beings, the transmutation process is not simply based in the physical realm, but is rooted in spiritual thought and represents the cleansing of one’s soul. The practice of alchemical transmutation has a theoretical and theological foundation that is therefore translated into the execution of a physical process.

In Alchemy and Psychology, Carl Jung claims the work of the alchemist is split between theory and practice, with mystical underpinnings yielding the chemical process. He describes this as the “double face of alchemy” wherein the practical aspect “consists of a series of experiments in the laboratory” driven by a speculative “edifice of ideas” realized through writings and drawings.

Infamous for their cryptic and symbolic nature, alchemical drawings were graphic representations of the alchemist’s theories and processes. It is within these drawings that Alexander Roos claims Jung “was solely interested in the internal nature of the hybrid form of alchemy and only acknowledged its external, chemical workings as the scientific projection of psychological developments.” Jung claims that alchemists used specific symbolism within their writings and drawings that humans inherently and universally understand. Known as the collective unconscious, Jung claims, these symbols have archetypal identities that have a profound impact on one’s life and interpretations of the world. An example of an archetype within the collective unconscious is the wise old man, a person assumed to be much wiser and sounder of judgement than others due to his age.

In order to differentiate oneself from the collective unconscious, every person depends on the process of individuation, through which one’s personal unconscious and experiences impact their development as an individual. Jung claims it is through individuation that alchemical processes offer insight into the transformation of a person. It is this process of individuation from the collective unconscious, on which the analogy of the architect as alchemist relies.

Recognized as a creator of radical productions, the architect is only analogous to the alchemist when the practitioner relies on theory to create a building that challenges its archetypal identity. Therefore, the analogy of architect as alchemist is reserved for a select few who have challenged the standard identity of a given typology via their theories. 

Though admittedly brief, this book will offer four architects who are analogous to the alchemist by this new definition. Their theories and buildings are presented with equal importance and no preference is given in relation to aesthetic or ideological beliefs. I selected the house as grounds for experimentation, as it is a typology that pervades our unconscious through its archetypal square mass and pitched roof. The evidence for this lies in the consistent drawings of children who depict the typology with shared consistency. These case studies offer evidence into how the architects employed theories of architecture to influence their production, creating radical homes that challenge our conventional thought and in doing so, re-framing the analogy of architect as alchemist.