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Reviewed by Joan Ockman
The Poetics of Space
by Gaston Bachelard Translated from the French by Maria Jolas Foreword by Etienne Gilson
New York: Orion Press, 1964
New foreword by John R. Stilgoe
Boston: Beacon Press, 1994
T H R E E O R F O U R D E C A D E S ago a book entitled The Poetics of Space could hardly fail to stir the architectural imagination. First published in French in 1957 and translated into English in 1964, Gaston Bachelard’s philosophical meditation on oneiric space appeared at a moment when phenomenology and the pursuit of symbolic and archetypal meanings in architecture seemed to open fertile ground within the desiccated culture of late modernism. “We are far removed from any reference to simple geometrical forms,” Bachelard wrote in a chapter entitled “House and Universe.” “A house that has been experienced is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.”2 In lyrical chapters on the “topography of our intimate being”—of nests, drawers, shells, corners, miniatures, forests, and above all the house, with its vertical polarity of cellar and attic—he undertook a systematic study, or “topoanalysis,” of the “space we love.” Although Bachelard was specifically concerned with the psychodynamics of the literary image, architects saw in his excavation of the spatial imaginary a counter to both technoscientific positivism and abstract formalism, as
But any doctrine of the imaginary is necessarily a philosophy of excess.1
well as an alternative to the schematicism of the other emerging intellectual tendency of the day, structuralism. In his book Existence, Space and Architecture (1971), Christian Norberg-Schulz, the most prolific and long-term proponent of a phenomenological architecture, asserted that “further research on architectural space is dependent upon a better understanding of existential space,” citing Bachelard’s Poetics of Space together with Otto Friedrich Bollnow’s Mensch und Raum (1963), the chapter on space in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception (1962; original French, 1945), and two key works by Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1962; German, 1927) and the essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” (1971; German, 1954), as fundamental texts.3 Yet if Bachelard’s phenomenological orientation was already evident before the Second World War, the philosophy of science—the subject of his initial formation—remained a central preoccupation throughout his career. To read only The Poetics of Space is therefore to miss his originality with respect to the philosophical tradition from which he emerged, as well as the historical specificity of his development. One must consider his work on the creative imagination together with his writings on science and rationality to appreciate the dialectic that informs his thought. Indeed, in a rereading of Bachelard today, it is the interrelationship between science and poetry, experiment and experience, that seems to have the most radical potential, while his well-known vision of the oneiric house, with its rather nostalgic and essentialist world view, comes across as historically dated. In his own time, Bachelard (1884–1962) was a remarkable intellecH A RVA R D D E S I G N M A G A Z I N E
to unite them as two well-defined opposites. from “the axis of objectivization” to “that of subjectivity. resulting in a suite of remarkable volumes on fire. confronting the philosophical implications of Einstein’s monumental breakthrough in physics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. is his concern with how creative thought comes into being.” The project of discerning a loi des quatre éléments would preoccupy him until his death. All that philosophy can hope to accomplish is to make poetry and science complementary. conceived as constituting the repertory of poetic reverie. signaled a shift in his focus from physical science to the phenomena of consciousness. “surrationalism. Countering the codification of universal systems of thought and the formation of collective mentalities. not counting his scores of essays. one on the acquisition of scientific knowledge by approximation and the other on the thermodynamics of solids. and elevated flights of thought made him something of a guru. At the Sorbonne. locational. As Bachelard acknowledged in The Psychoanalysis of Fire.” “to escape from the rigidity of mental habits formed by contact with familiar experiences”4—he initiated a series of investigations into the psychic meanings of the four cosmic elements. As he puts it in The Poetics of Space—underscoring the irony in the title of his earlier book on fire—the problem with psychoanalysis (just as with Marxist interpretations of history) is that it seeks to explain the flower by the fertilizer. the “material imagination. neither history nor psychology can ever fully determine or explain it. earth. and water. But Bachelard’s inquiry into the revolutionary character of the new scientific mind little prepared his colleagues for the unconventional turn his work was to take at the end of the 1930s. however. Influenced by psychoanalysis and surrealism.8 For Bachelard as for Foucault. and author of twenty-three at the time of his death. he initially intended to pursue a career in engineering. earthy accents. he changed his sights to philosophy. where he obtained a doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1927 with two dissertations. Bachelard took up the contradictions between Descartes’s and Newton’s concepts of physical space as empirical.”11 Bachelard’s notion of the role played by chance and mutability in the emergence of the poetic image is virtually identical to the creative principle of the surrealists.Book Reviews The Poetics of Space tual figure. Born into a family of modest shopkeepers and shoemakers in a provincial town in the idyllic countryside of Champagne about 200 miles southeast of Paris.10 For Bachelard.” writes Bachelard in “Le Surrationalisme” (1936). Not to be reproduced without the permission of the publisher . were events and thresholds that suspended the linear advancement of knowledge. it “constantly surpasses its origins. In L’Expérience de l’espace dans la physique contemporaine (1937). air. surrealism is related to realism as surrationalism is to rationalism. Over the next decade he produced eight more volumes dealing with the epistemology of knowledge in various sciences. on whom Bachelard was to be deeply influential). and posthumous fragments.” “If one doesn’t put one’s reason at stake in an experiment. it is not under the sway of some inner drive. and the abstract. reputedly a reader of six books a day. . For Bachelard. his scientific epistemology to his study of psychic phenomena. “animalizing” imagery of the 19th-century Uruguayan poet Isidore Ducasse. where he occupied the chair of history and philosophy of science from 1940 to 1955. The “epistemological profile” of any scientific idea included the multiple obstacles that had to be negated or transcended dialectically—and thus ab- sorbed—in the process of arriving at more rational levels of knowledge. “The axes of poetry and of science are opposed to one another from the outset. . and stable. prefaces. In this way. In Bachelard’s view. counterexperiential constructs of space-time being theorized by 20th-century microphysics. becoming increasingly preoccupied with the dangers of a priori thinking and questions of objectivity and experimental evidence.” Hence. After three years in the trenches of the First World War. the role played by the epistemological obstacle in experimental science is exactly paralleled by that of the poetic image in literary language.5 In Lautréamont. The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938) and Lautréamont (1939).”9 For Bachelard. such epistemological obstacles played a crucial and creative function in the history of thought. as noted by Deleuze and Guattari. modern rationalism would be a transcendent rationalism. as Foucault would put it. author of Les Chants de Maldoror. eventually moving to Paris. FA L L 1 9 9 8 2 H A RVA R D D E S I G N M A G A Z I N E © 2001 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and The MIT Press. Scientific inquiry therefore had to remain nonteleological and open to the possibility of such reorderings and reversals. another excursion into the domain of depth psychology—more Jungian than Freudian.”7 Yet what profoundly links Bachelard’s philosophy of knowledge to his poetics of the imagination. thereby forcing new ideas to appear and altering the course of thought. Like Michel Foucault after him (and anticipating Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the paradigm shift). Bachelard’s concept of the epistemological obstacle—a concept Foucault would assimilate in The Archaeology of Knowledge—was an attempt to demonstrate how knowledge incorporates its own history of errors and divagations.” With The Psychoanalysis of Fire—a book in which Bachelard set out to “question everything. he was a beloved pedagogue whose flowing beard. Bachelard directed epistemological inquiry away from the continuities within systems of knowledge toward the obstacles and events that interrupt the continuum.” As such. . admirers of the book6— Bachelard set out to study the phenomenology of aggression in the wild. one of the sacred texts of the surrealists (and later of the Cobra group. “the experiment is not worth attempting. the poetic image “has no past. forcing thought into discontinuous rhythms and transforming or displacing concepts along novel avenues of inquiry. the authentically poetic image emerges from a form of forgetting or not-knowing that “is not ignorance but a difficult transcendence of knowledge. two books. The trait proper to the image is suddenness and brevity: it springs up in language like the sudden springing forth of language itself. nor is it a measure of the pressures the poet sustains in the course of his early life.
in which Foucault suggestively proposes to shift the problematic of Bachelardian topoanalysis from intimate space to “other spaces”—spaces of crisis. 1969). and stable home. to heterotopoanalysis. 47. 1971)—complete the list of Bachelard’s books on the phenomenology of the imagination. 4. 3. © 2001 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and The MIT Press. trans. 5. His radical will to question all received ideas and experience. They have no roots and. 1964). 1. For this reason the phenomenology of dwelling has little to do with an analysis of “architecture” or design as such: “it is not a question of describing houses. Foucault prefers to confront the “coefficient of adversity” in the phenomenology of human habitation.19 Notes 1. quasi-religious and in fact almost absolute space” that both Bachelard and Heidegger associate with the idea of house reflects “the terrible urban reality that the twentieth century has instituted. Everything about it is mechanical and. 1972). intimate living flees. who admired both philosophers. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press. sheltering and remote. and his post-Newtonian philosophy of science contradict a conception of dwelling rooted in the soil of the preindustrial French countryside. womblike. Home has become mere horizontality. to Foucault’s seminal essay of 1967 on heterotopia. La Terre et les rêveries de la volonté (1948). at least by one route. in Denis Hollier. But in addition to the intimate nature of verticality. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Despite its perceptual sophistication. The “special. on every side. The College of Sociology. ed. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. is. as in surrealist literature and art. Ibid. 1988).”17 The reverie of a maternal. trans. and the problem for the phenomenologist is to study how it accommodates consciousness—or the half-dreaming consciousness Bachelard calls reverie. the relationship between house and space becomes an artificial one. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Space and Architecture (New York: Praeger. Bachelard’s vision of the oneiric house— influential as it has been on a certain sector of architectural discourse since the ’60s—itself seems to constitute a blind spot or epistemological obstacle. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon.. It is no coincidence that Bachelard first evokes this atavistic dream world—“a house that comes forth from the earth. The different rooms that compose living quarters jammed into one floor all lack one of the fundamental principles for distinguishing and classifying the values of intimacy. Two more related works—La Poétique de la rêverie (1960. and the inhabitants of the big city live in superimposed boxes. that lives rooted in its black earth”—in his book La Terre et les rêveries du repos. in other words. Christian Norberg-Schulz. 1937–39. the rooms pile up one on top of the other. Essai sur l’imagination de la matière (1942. 210. and Fragments d’une poétique du feu (posthumous. 7. trans. The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood. while the tent of a horizonless sky encloses the entire city. 1988). 1988). M. skyscrapers have no cellars. English trans. is a critique of the ocular privilege accorded by Enlightenment philosophy to geometry and visual evidence. Not to be reproduced without the permission of the publisher Bachelard’s evocation of the rustic abode in Champagne is almost exactly contemporary with Heidegger’s paean to the peasant hut in the Black Forest..15 space. 6.. where houses are no longer set in natural surroundings. L’Air et les songes: Essai sur l’imagination du mouvement (1943. Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement. 1983). The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Perhaps it listens to itself. Ross (Boston: Beacon Press. was among the first to point out the shared aura of nostalgia that suffuses their poetics of dwelling. But precisely from the standpoint of clinging to traditional modes of thought. n. Instead of Bachelard’s timeless reverie of felicitous 3 H A RVA R D D E S I G N M A G A Z I N E FA L L 1 9 9 8 . A. 1969) and Le Droit de rêver (posthumous. is not primarily a container of three-dimensional objects. 1987). 6.. The Right to Dream. the work of Foucault begins—consciously—where Bachelard leaves off. Elevators do away with the heroism of stair climbing so that there is no longer any virtue in living up near the sky. Gaston Bachelard.. Gaston Bachelard. space is the abode of human consciousness. 2. 2. trans. His antipathy to 20th-century urbanism and technology receives its strongest expression in The Poetics of Space: In Paris there are no houses. addressing questions of historicity and power in relation to spatial discourse and institutions. 1970. as Anthony Vidler has suggested more recently. Bachelard would undoubtedly argue that almost everything we know about architecture as a historical discipline stands in the way of everything we can know about the poetics of dwelling. Indeed. From the street to the roof. exclusion. Being does not see itself. just after the Second World War. La Flamme d’une chandelle (1961. . 397. Following La Psychanalyse du feu. Existence. for Bachelard. published in 1948. trans.”13 Rather.. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. 235–236. trans. . trans. The Poetics of Space is properly part of this series. 9. For here. . trans. La Terre et les rêveries du repos (1948). 15–16. Language. In this sense. and the Cosmos. Cit. The Poetics of Space. M. a house in a big city lacks cosmicity. 4. any “application” of Bachelard’s ideas to architecture requires a cautious approach at best.16 Henri Lefebvre. and illusion.”12 Space.14 Bachelard’s recourse to the poetics of “felicitous space” would seem to be a way of countering an encroaching modernity. the house belonging to the earthly element of the cosmos. his concept of the dynamism of the creative imagination. Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter. or enumerating their picturesque features and analyzing for which reasons they are comfortable. Bachelard’s books on the cosmic imagination are L’Eau et les rêves.18 a symptomatic response to the experience of an unheimlich modernity. trans. Alan C. 8. still sacred. Michel Foucault.. The Flame of a Candle. The Poetics of Space thus leads. 1972). 1988). But the height of city buildings is a purely exterior one.Book Reviews The Poetics of Space Explicit in his ontology of the poetic image.2. what is quite unthinkable for a dweller of houses. From this perspective. deviance. the eye cannot necessarily go beyond a description of surface: “Sight says too many things at the same time.
4. The Infinite Conversation. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell. xxviii–xxix. 13.” is republished in Architecture Culture.” in Christopher Reed. Planning and Preservation. 1992). Henri Lefebvre. Casey’s illuminating philosophical history. I came across Edward S. 11. 12. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 388. 257–258. The “coefficient of adversity” is Bachelard’s term. 1994). n. The Fate of Place (University of California Press. Language.29. The Poetics of Space. © 2001 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and The MIT Press. “Building Dwelling Thinking. 320–321. 157. Joan Ockman. 215. Bachelard’s italics. in Martin Jay. “The Oneiric House. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias. 16. in Joan Ockman with Edward Eigen.Book Reviews The Poetics of Space 10. 1993). which situates Bachelard’s Poetics of Space in the broad context of Western philosophical discourse on the concept of place. 18. 160. Foucault’s essay. 1993). See Martin Heidegger. 15. 63–66. Not at Home: The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture (London: Thames and Hudson. trans. see Sharon Haar and Christopher Reed. see Water and Dreams. xxvi. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row. 419-426. trans. Thought. The Poetics of Space. ed. The Poetics of Space. 19. 1997). 1975).” trans.. Anthony Vidler. As this article was going to press. The Production of Space. trans. Architecture Culture 1943–1968: A Documentary Anthology (New York: Rizzoli. 1996). 14. “Coming Home: A Postscript on Postmodernism. ed. 120–121. The Architectural Uncanny: Essays on the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge: MIT Press. 1943-1968. Cit. Gaston Bachelard.. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press. The Poetics of Space. 1991). Not to be reproduced without the permission of the publisher FA L L 1 9 9 8 Joan Ockman teaches history and theory at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture. 17. suggesting that the dream of dwelling “in the bosom of the house” is a male fantasy not shared by most women (for whom the house is more a place of labor than repose). For a feminist reading along similar lines. 4 H A RVA R D D E S I G N M A G A Z I N E . 111. p. 26–27. Maurice Blanchot.” in Poetry.
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