Phil Gyford


Wednesday 14 January 2004

PreviousIndexNext The Poetics of Space

I spent much of the New Year reading The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, which had been on my reading list for a while: two friends highly recommended it and a third kindly bought it for me (for which I’m hugely grateful, however the rest of this sounds). Unfortunately I was disappointed and so I’d love to know why the book is so highly rated by people I admire.

I’m not saying it’s a bad book, but probably not what I was expecting, and not quite up my street. Knowing little about it, I was hioping for more about real spaces, rather than its explorations of different kinds of spaces in poetry and literature. I have obviously been wired wrongly, because poetry rarely sparks my interest (unless it’s funny), so this all seemed wasted on me. Discussions about Rilke et al.’s mentions of houses, drawers, and other spaces just don’t do anything for me.

The back-cover blurb brings to mind Nicholson Baker: “All worlds from literary creation to housework to aesthetics to carpentry take on enhanced — and enchanted — significances. Every reader will never again see ordinary spaces in ordinary ways.” But while I find Baker’s musings a joy to read that do open my eyes to the world, The Poetics of Space was heavy going; the text seemed clumsy and stilted, and I’m not sure if this is simply the florid French style or a disappointing translation.

So, given how warmly the book has been recommended I’d like to know what I’m sure I’ve missed. (While you’re at it, feel free to enlighten me about Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, which came to me with a similar pedigree but is the only book I’ve failed to finish in several years, as I could make little sense of the first few dozen pages.)


I read it in 1991,stayed with me, often mean to reread it. I always think of it in the context of polishing things. I used to spend hours polishing my bicycle as a child, I was really proud of it. I wash the car every six months now so that hasn't stayed with me, the bike is permanently dirty. The British Army have always had this thing linking morale to a pair of sparkling polished boots. Remember the Karate Kid 1 and the car polishing? Doesn't strike a chord with everyone though.

Posted by Richard Hyett on 16 January 2004, 11:10 am | Link

I'm with Phil. I borrowed it from the college library and carried it around for a few weeks and never got into it, and just ended up feeling stupid. It didn't even impress the chicks either.

Posted by paul murphy on 16 January 2004, 1:51 pm | Link

And what use is THAT!?

Posted by Phil Gyford on 16 January 2004, 2:03 pm | Link

Remember Michael J Pollard in the Steve Martin Movie Roxanne? He carried around Sartre's "Being and Nothingness" with much the same aim - to impress a woman. Didn't work for him either.

Posted by Richard Hyett on 16 January 2004, 10:39 pm | Link

It is rough going at first but worth the effort. It took me almost a year to read because I did not want it to end. The chapter on the nest, its delicacy, its fragile nature and the monumental painful effort of the bird to build it is wonderful. You guys should try again.

Posted by Lucia Espinosa on 23 January 2004, 2:48 am | Link

Yeah, but I did read it all the way through, and very little grabbed me. It was a chore rather than a pleasure unfortunately!

Posted by Phil Gyford on 23 January 2004, 10:05 am | Link

hey everyone
i am a design student at an art school in germany...
i'm supossed to make a review of the book
and talk about it.
i am having a hard time reading...i kinda get the point but it is way hard. just don't like... i thought it would be very interesting but when i started reading it turned out to be not what i expected.
my question is, does anyone here has some kind of review or something what explains the books context better...
thanx tobi

Posted by TOBIAS on 23 January 2004, 9:35 pm | Link

I just lent my copy of Poetics of Space to a guy here at the office. I mentioned to him that a better book on the subject is Body, Memory and Architecture by Charles Moore. Also another great book is Experiencing Architecture by Rasmussen. Aslo Placeways by E.V. Walters. These three later books are a great read. Poetics of Space is too far on the side of poetics that mention architectural experiences.

Posted by Travis on 5 February 2004, 2:21 pm | Link

some practical poetics here:

Posted by andrew on 8 February 2004, 10:50 pm | Link

Uhhh I think you are all are missing souls. It is exactly in the qoutidian things such as drawers and boxes that our lives are contained. This was a powerful book filled with insight. I am so tired of many of our generation whose heads are filled with shit and self importance, that they can't comprehend the value of this work.

Posted by caleibow on 11 May 2005, 5:27 am | Link

Way to go with the considered criticism of why this book might not appeal to some people Caleibow. "Shit and self importance"?

Posted by Phil Gyford on 11 May 2005, 8:09 am | Link

This is the book that so many artists read, and are influenced by, in their associations of the domestic and so on, but it is not the book that it should be. I'd like to write another based around its skeleton, only this time with pictures of some of the art work that has been created as a result of it. When you open it up it is dense and difficult, but when you let yourself wander into it you come up with all these images. What would be great is if everybody pooled their images and made a new book.

Posted by Dana on 7 November 2005, 3:33 pm | Link

What you're missing is fundamental to Bachelard's archaeology of the "deep structures" (to borrow a term from linguistics) of subjective experience (i.e. the Phenomenological approach). Bachelard intends a lyrical "topoanalysis" of the spaces which we inhabit subjectively, at the level of reverie, daydream, submerged memory and sub-conscious association (all part of what some phenomenlogists call "lived experience"). Perhaps you expected to find an elucidation of the relationship of architecture to the individual. This is not Bachelard's intended project. In gross oversimplification, Bachelard is interested in exploring how we subjectively experience "intimate" spaces as we daydream within them. That is why this book appeals to artists and philosophers and other creative, sensitive or "dreamy" souls who can access the wonder and open-mindedness they had as a child more than it appeals to trained logicians, scientists or, presumably, many a working architect. Incidentally, I personally feel that, for his intended purpose, the writing is exquisite.

A "poetics" normally gives an account of poetry and its aesthetic devices and theoretical underpinnings; what is a "poetics of space" then, if not an exploration of the lyrical engagement with our surroundings? Where else would one look to find such a thing other than in poetry and other artistic works?

Part of the basic disconnect may be that Bachelard (and often poetry in general) de-emphasizes sight (privileged by Enlightenment thinking as the primary organ of perception), which architecture very much depends upon. For Bachelard and other phenomenologists, cognition is multi-dimensional and ambiguous; Bachelard (like Heidegger before him) turns to the literary image as a mirror of subconscious, associative expression of the kind of subjectivity normally accessible only in dreams. The following is copied from an excellent Harvard Design Magazine article (…), and it captures what I'm trying to say far better than I could:

"Despite its perceptual sophistication, the eye cannot necessarily go beyond a description of surface: “Sight says too many things at the same time. Being does not see itself. Perhaps it listens to itself.”(12). Space, for Bachelard, is not primarily a container of three-dimensional objects. 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, or enumerating their picturesque features and analyzing for which reasons they are comfortable.”(13) Rather, space is the abode of human consciousness, and the problem for the phenomenologist is to study how it accommodates consciousness—or the half-dreaming consciousness Bachelard calls reverie.... 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."

I hope this is vaguely helpful.

Posted by Chris on 19 July 2006, 5:28 pm | Link

to chris 19 july 2006 your writing has given me a clearer understanding of the concept so I cannot wait 2 possess a copy and absorb thanks

Posted by cas on 31 January 2007, 9:58 pm | Link

I have read this book before - about four years ago, it was also recommended to me by a tutor at art college. Initailly I found it very dense and confusing, but also very addictive, it is a palletable form of philosophy which if you let it will open doors to you. I understand that what he is doing is writing in a poetical, philosohical stream of consiousness, that's probably not the correct phrase, but if you approach the book understanding that a lot will go over your head and probably not all of it will be of interest, you may be slightly more open to it, and understanding.
I'm reading it because it does relate to architecture - and as chris mentions, not strictly to the structure, more the experiencing of space and "phenomenology" the importance words have on our understanding of our situation and the criteria by which we judge and make informed decisions.
It should be a book that you never lend out.

Posted by Charlotte on 15 January 2008, 12:02 am | Link

Chris: thanks for the link

Posted by Charlotte on 15 January 2008, 11:31 pm | Link

I'm a philosophy student, trained in logic, discourse and all those other wonderful tools that philosophers use to expound the simplest truths with dizzying complexity. I have to do a report on this book for a course and I'm beginning to think I shan't be done in time.

In any case, it may be my logic training, but I have a very difficult time grasping this book. Even with a grasp of phenomenology I find this book to be almost incomprehensible. I get the point that Bachelard makes about spaces affecting our immaterial beings. This point is easy to accept if we consider that man is not solely a material being but also a spiritual one. It then follows that man's habitats have not only physical but also metaphysical affects on him. Now as to weather the space itself has these properties or they are simply in the perception of the inhabitant is another question entirely. There are arguments for both sides.

The best way that I can think of to understand this metaphysical affect is to think of that sense of familiarity we get with some places, even if we don't remember being there before. A house that resembles the ones we grew up in for instance. It lingers as an intangible sense that this is a familiar space. This can be attributed to this metaphysical affect that our spaces have on us. The same can be said for spaces like cupboards and draws and attics and cellars and so on. In fact many children's stories use these places as settings for happy things, or sad things, or scary things, or to give a sense of adventure etc. etc. There is something about these places, or at least our perception of them, that seems to carry a metaphysical weight to them.

Now that's about as deep as my logician mind got into this book. Much thanks to Chris for a few clarifying ideas (which I have not yet applied) and the link. If anybody would care to elaborate further on the book or its application of phenomenology I'm sure it would prove helpful and so I am grateful in anticipation.

Posted by Conrad on 17 April 2008, 10:06 am | Link

hi guys,
I'm searching for this book on e book format! does anyone have it?
I'll be thankful though..

Posted by shahin on 2 February 2009, 3:33 pm | Link

sounds interesting, i think i'll read it... thanks all for sharing your insights!

Posted by din on 13 April 2009, 11:01 am | Link

I am a bit late to this discussion but am currently writing a paper on Norberg-Shulz who uses the same references to "phenomenology" as Bachelard and applies it more toward architecture and place rather than space. A major philosophical reference underlying both writers is the work of Martin Heidegger.

Posted by Hanel on 10 May 2009, 4:55 am | Link

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