This essay appears in issue 81 ofAGNI.
Hikikomori refers both to the phenomenon and to the affected group in Japan.
Hikikomori are people who refuse to leave their home.
I watched a film about hikikomori, and it wasn’t the tightly fitted paper rolls, perfect circles stacked neatly on a shelf; it wasn’t the piles of pizza boxes and books architected into cloistral towers; it wasn’t even the shadows in the room accentuated by the downwind of evening. It was the way he said he could see sunlight move on the floor of his apartment. It was the red of the spherical imprint pressed on his hand, made by one of the rolls, that he watched and waited to disappear; it was his eyes pointed past particles of air, never meeting the delivery person’s face; it was the vagrant echo of overlapping words that he narrated in his mind as he finally placed his foot outside the door, light blinding a halo around his body but not his head.
I am not a hikikomori because I live in the Western Hemisphere, and because two months ago I spent three days in the snow with a friend.
I am not a hikikomori because I still know the rules: brush your teeth and wear clean clothes.
Hikikomori: a word with five syllables, a breath with five sounds: a misfunctioning, a flattening, an absence: a sudden recognition, a beating of the heart.
The year I was nine I began systematically staying home from school every other Thursday, because it helped to break up the week, because a week was suddenly too much to bear. That was the year I began waking up in the mornings with a large darkened body pressing down on my chest, and as I sat at the breakfast table listening to the familiar movements of celestial parental bodies around me, my sunken chest would grow brittle and ache.That was the year I began carrying small objects around with me whenever I left the house, to fill up the sunken cavity: small jade rabbit, oval locket with dusty thumbprint, worn floral handkerchief.
It occurs with individuals typically in their early twenties after they have experienced some sort of failure in measurement.
It happens gradually.
They do not leave the house because they spend their time watching television or drifting in electronic space.
They do not leave the house because they do not hold jobs.
They do not leave the house because they do not want their neighbors to see them in the circumstances of their failures.
They buy their groceries and other functional items late at night, when the city is mostly asleep and the streets are bathed in darkness.
Theoretical formulations focus on the division between inside and outside spheres, intimacy and public persona, the inability to negotiate these spaces.
Theoretical formulations mention learned helplessness and dependency.
Sometimes they go out at night, bags in hand, and look upward into a sky that is cold and beautiful.
Crickets chirp, cicadas whirr, street lamps flicker on and off with a slight buzzing sound.
A list of words and phrases: cocooning, hermit, loneliness, schoolrefusal,selectivemutism.
And beyond that, the sky littered with stars.
I cannot talk about the two years I spent in the Midwest feeling I had somehow lost my voice. It was a metaphor for something. It was living on the moon, except amidst a ghostly city, a sheet of tinted gray transparency, where the people did not seem to know that the moon is not a normal place to live. It was living on the moon, my reddened cellophane body transposed over the ghostly city, so it appeared as if I were on the street, next to a building, amidst a dusty crowd, but really my body was part of another plane.
Words like displacement,alienation,stranger.
There were the circumstances, which were normal enough: marriage, graduate school, gatherings of peers, a basement apartment on the edge of town. Even the circumstances became increasingly metaphorical: codes I could not speak, rhythms I did not follow, my upbringing as a textural sound. In the end there were only objects: wooden chair where I stacked my books, jars gathered in front of the window, a trio of random pictures I printed and stuck to the wall—as though such blitheness, blotted in the corners where the ink had run, might counter some inexplicable and suffocating weight. I wrote down phrases like bookofshut and culturalmuteness, like a creature in the ocean clicking haphazardly, unsure of what it is sounding for. Increasingly in those years I held the image of water in my mind: the invisible pressure, the sudden self-consciousness of a body submerged, a deep and impressionable and stunning silence.
Under the covers at night I felt my throat become raw and hot, then mostly dark. I ignored my husband, moved my books onto a stepladder next to the bed, brought in boxes of tissues and cups of tea. I wanted to know what happens to a person sick in bed who forgets there are other terrains, other countries, other people, whose only memory for years is a home underground and the objects it holds. I felt moored to the crinkly walls, the rickety carpet, the pill bugs under the radiator that curled up when I touched them.
In the Midwest, I once fell into a deep sleep in the middle of the afternoon and dreamt my mother was dead. I woke in a room full of water.
Two years later, when my husband and I left for thundering waves off the West Coast, I tried to remember the sound of my voice against the warmth of others. Sitting together around tables with familiar faces and the bright green of our eating utensils, I could speak again in full sentences, paragraphs. But I could not tell them about the moon, and it loomed large and bright behind my head everywhere I went, blinding my periphery, a massive luminary circle with thin outlines of craters.
Hikikomori: a constellation of bodies, alone in their houses, which when connected by dots or dotted lines, form a vast night sky, blinking on and off, on and off.
Inside our ocean-view apartment, the shadow of the moon would not shake, and after weeks of seeing no one except my husband during nights and weekends, I could not even imagine going out into the building hallway and coming back in with the same clothes now tainted with the outside air, speckles of dirt and germs I could not see but knew were there. On the carpeted stairs outside our unit were tiny fleas and flying insects biting at my ankles; on the bus was an invisible stain where another body pressed briefly against mine.
Every day I spent the mornings in bed, the afternoons on the couch wrapped in a blanket. When the postman came and knocked loudly on the door, I froze, heart pounding, and slid my limbs carefully under the quilt.
I imagined a world made of salt, moving slowly through white piles, a world of my own, hushed and thickened, a preserved secret. In my head were lists of past achievements. A geography of assignments I whispered to myself, underneath the blankets, first is soft crooning tones, then in sharp, angry, accusatory lashes.
Inside the house I arranged my glass jars, their cool hard surfaces, and did not touch them again; I walked around in quiet bare feet, looking at small pictures and paper stars; I chopped crisp green onions and boiled milky broths; I stood at the window for hours, watching the weather shift gradually over the ocean, a thick line of cloud like a skyward train, a shadowy spread of antique yellowing. On the weekends, my husband and I would go to buy groceries or household items. As I stepped outside the building, I felt the sunlight spill over me and my heart rise. But inside the house, where I inevitably retreated, nobody outside could witness how far I had fallen, how afraid of simple things I had become.
Hikikomori: bird-star, with hard-edged point and soft-winged flutter.
A house made of salt would be a house full of muffled desire, an echo among quiet, half-empty sounds.
A house of bleached morning light in which you wake, eyes opening slowly to the washed-out colors. Before your eyes adjust to the light of the day.
A house of objects that do not move.
A house that seeps into the earth like the shadow of a child’s song.
A house made of salt would be a house of briny weather: tepid air to refract the afternoon, eyes closed beneath a filmy blur.
A house, the way each grain sprinkled on a watercolor canvas spreads out in millimeter distances, drying like asterisks.
Literally, the term means pulling away, being confined. There was a boy who shut himself in his room for four years, and when he finally emerged, he had forgotten how to speak to others, how to carry a conversation. In another case, a girl in her twenties failed to secure the job she had set out for, and as her body began to cower and diminish, she grew more and more afraid of leaving her parents’ house.
“Hiroshi didn’t say… why it was too late at age 26 to start a career. He said only that he wouldn’t leave the house ‘until I know exactly what I want to do.’ It was typical hikikomori thinking: better to stay in your room than risk venturing into the world and failing.”
They are afraid of failing the world’s expectations. They reel at the path society has set before them, offering a small space of functionality.The aversion is more than a distaste, it is a hole, it feels like a daunting stranger.
They laugh when they are happy, when on occasion they enter the world.They can have days, even weeks, of normal functioning.
“Hikikomori can see the intangibles, but cannot speak out.”
Staying home became an obsession, a ritual. I counted the number of days between outside weather or interactions of speech. During the month that I imagined our apartment had fleas, I made up rules: 1) The bed is the only safe ground. Nothing outside touches the bed. 2) Stay in the sheets as long as possible, hungering and holding your pee. 3) Do not veer from two paths: first to the bathroom, second to the kitchen. 4) Shower, then flee back to the bed, slipping in one leg at a time as you inspect your limbs.
If I had a secret, it would be that after lying like an embryo I would feel the energy building in my joints like electricity or pipes about to burst, and when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I would flail around until dust and feathers collected under the bed.
Fragments like “the desire to live a normal life but the inability to do so”; “too scared and too scarred to venture into the world beyond…”
Words like navigation, as if one were always caught longing for another set of rules, always wondering how instructions were set onto paper.
In the end, I no longer trusted myself to talk to the post office clerk, the bus driver, the department store lady with her neatly pinned badge and accumulated stature. The possibilities for failure were too great to number.
DearHikikomori, I would write in a letter.I am both repelled and enamoredbyinsects.Thesmallshelloftheirbodies, so easily crushed. Inside thehouse,I cannot stand the thought of anything else moving between these walls. I close all the curtains, shut all the blinds. I do not eat when my husband has forgotten to leave food in the house for me. I sit for hours. Some days I think to myself, tomorrow I will leave the house, tomorrow I will walk into the woods nearby, tomorrow I will smell the eucalyptus and look at small eggshell mushrooms. Some days I stare out the window and growangrywithmyself,what if others could see me, what would they think. On thesedayseventhethoughtofmyparentsmakes me so ashamed. I think to myself, I have only myself to blame. I think of how there are triggers, and then things snowball. I think how easily crushed our trembling desires, how easily shaped the voice inside our head. Some days I think of God, how like an insect I must seem to him.
Hikikomori: How else can we explain birds that burrow? Penguins, seabirds, bee-eaters. Winged creatures that either fail to fly or might still otherwise wrap themselves instead in bits of shadow and earth. So intent is the instinct that sometimes even underwater creatures, already secluded and enveloped in darkness, will burrow obstinately into something as hard as rock.
Words like paralysis,inertia, obsession, dependence, pretending.
Like “anxious travelers…”
They are sometimes described as those who find themselves, mid-journey, stuck in transition, unable to reorient and too aware of the consequences of every choice to be made. Without maps or a compass with which to navigate, they revert to static. Hidden from the world, perhaps they imagine themselves as bodies at an apex, looking down as if from a plane at the green and brown earth carved through with inevitable paths and geological textures. At night it all turns to glittering lights, reminding them that their bodies are made from ancient skies.
Outside, I always felt that people were watching me. That I was doing things incorrectly. So afraid to make any movement, if no one on the bus pulled the cord at my stop, I just kept going. More and more I grew unable to make decisions on my own. Everything—how to sign an email, what to order at the counter, which toothpaste to purchase—every task deferred until I could ask my husband what to do, what the right course of action was. I knew it was a circumstance of my protected situation that I wasn’t forced to hold myself up. But I could only think of the reverberations, all the possible reverberations, and how they just kept going.
Some days I made lists. I wrote down things I was qualified to do, interested in doing. I told myself, ifotherpeoplecandoit. I said, you have a pattern of underestimation. I crossed things out. I rewrote them in. I crossed, rewrote. I thought of all the reasons I could not do this, all the ways in which I was ineligible. I thought of tomorrow, ten years down the line. I tried to imagine a day in this life. I tried to imagine the interview. I tried to imagine waking up to the alarm, walking to the bathroom, turning on the shower, picking clothes, picking shoes, reciting meditations, reciting again, combing my hair, filling my bag, finding coins, leaving the apartment, locking the door, walking downstairs, opening the door, crossing the street, walking to the bus stop, paying the driver, waiting for a ticket, avoiding dark stains, looking out the window, looking for street signs, searching for the address, telling the receptionist the syllables of my name.
There is an age when we become aware as children of the scope of the world, the ever-expansiveness of the universe.
Outside, things shifted and there was no stillness. I could hear the clambering of trains and the momentary stopping of its breaths. I could look out the window and see people walking with both ease and intent, toward a building or some unknown destination, and next to them on the street, cars rattled by, airplanes flew overhead maneuvered by mechanical jungles I could not fathom, and even the trees were bending and shaking in the wind. Outside in the world, things moved without a breath with which to break.
It is no wonder that as adults we found even the slightest motion difficult. We did not know where to begin. As if any tremor might cause a fragile framework, like delicate toothpick structures, to shatter. In an expanse made large that never seemed to end, I wanted a small space I could tend to, envelop in, like a garden of sheltering plants. Children alone are allowed worlds of magical thinking, but so often I woke with a feeling that could only be described as homesick, though for what I did not know.
Most of all I remembered mornings before school, the heavy weight of the house in darkness, my hair dripping cold and wet as I pulled on clothes, the shadows of the woods outside the window where I sat at the breakfast table and watched the sun rise behind the trees, the rest of the house immersed in something dark and hidden, and in that hiddenness was a vulnerability.
Fragments like “cloaked from the world”; “stagnate or drift…”
Fog drifts in and out from the ocean. Mountains in the distance become soft gray shadows. At the summit, the last light disappears beneath a swath of clouds.
On the television I once saw an interview with a woman who did not leave the house for seven years because she was ashamed of the heft of her body, she said that some mornings she still woke up and thought she wouldn’t be able to leave the bed. She allowed herself to wallow for one or two days. And then the next day, she left the house.
Hikikomori: a child’s amateur drawing of Icarus flying into the white blazing circles of the sun, his white wings covering the page in hundreds of pencil curves, his widespread wings spread outward, and one small feather dropping off in the corner.
Constellation: a map that connects one point to another in a field of illusory longing.
At the apex from which one looks out at night, when the lights of the city are gone, there is only darkness, such that everything is sunk in darkness, and the scattering of stars, though everywhere, though so infinitely numerous, are only just pinpricks, tiny infinitesimal pinpricks in the midnight.
When I was a child, I loved enclosed spaces: forts made of blankets, the corner underneath the stairs, even my baby sister’s sleeping crib. I regarded with envy storybooks about boys trapped in peaches and elderly grandparents tucked neatly every day in an old-fashioned bed. Once when I came home from school, I felt the updraft catch my body at our twenty-fourth-floor window. My mother saw me leaning out into the wind and called my school counselor. But perhaps the reason I kept creeping over, across, reaching through the window’s edge was not the desire to end something so much as the desire to fall into it, to be a part of all that was below, the green mountains and small paths, the thrush of trees and mottled dirt, the whitish water lapsing onto an isolated shoreline, thundering hard against the rocks.
One afternoon my husband and I climbed to the top of a hill to watch the moon pass in front of the sun, something that happened in similar precision only once before in my lifetime. At the summit, the wind circled back and forth in every direction, and my husband punched a tiny pinhole through a piece of paper that I angled against the sun. For a few strange moments, the earth darkened and then grew bright again. Light came in the form of crescent suns: tree leaves cast a multitude of overlapping moon-shaped shadows onto the sidewalk. They were like tiny curved mirrors reflecting the sky.
This essay is forthcoming in issue 81 ofAGNI.
I bought my copy of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space at the Architectural Association’s Triangle Bookshop, at a time when inner London telephone codes still began with ‘071’ and while I was the architectural correspondent of the Sunday newspaper TheObserver. That copy has been on the bookshelf above my desk ever since, kept for a lull and quieter times. Now, refreshing my memories of the book, at a moment when the prevailing blandness of planning and design rarely allows for a subjective, even poetic, response, I’ve plunged back into grappling with its enduring, infuriating attractions.
La Poétique de l’Espace (1958) was first published in English in 1964, two years after Bachelard’s death, then in paperback in 1969, and reissued in 1994. An allusive little book, its author was a highly-respected philosopher who late in his career had turned from science to poetry. Nothing about his intellectual journey had been orthodox, particularly as measured against the rigid norms of French academic life and advancement. He was from a provincial background in Champagne, a post-office employee, who rose largely through intellectual tenacity to hold a chair in philosophy at the Sorbonne. Bachelard was, by all accounts, an inimitable lecturer, and on the page he wanders around, as amiable and gentle a cicerone as you could hope to find, introducing himself as ‘an addict of felicitous reading’ whose aim is to extend perceptions, deepen resonances and reinforce connections. The Poetics of Space, his final book, soon appeared on academic reading lists, and in schools of architecture and art, squeezed in alongside the works of better-known cultural theorists and practitioners. Surprisingly enough, it is still there.
‘Bachelardian’ has become cultural shorthand for the lyrical possibilities of conjuring memory from buildings, and it is this book that brought it, and him, to prominence outside France. The first chapter, dealing with ‘the house from cellar to garret’ might well be all that the student will read, since, unlike the direct and determinist link between ideas of surveillance in Michel Foucault’s writings and their roots in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, Bachelard’s dependence on poetry, with digressions into botany, Carl Jung and much else, is intriguing but always elliptical. It remains, according to my limited international straw poll across the generations, a book still more often cited than read.
In 1961, Bachelard was interviewed, aged almost 80, at home in his tiny claustrophobic study in Paris. He sits snugly, seemingly shoe-horned into the only available space, between teetering heaps of books piled floor to ceiling, folios to slim pamphlets, the philosopher incarnate, down to his effulgent Socratic beard and unruly white hair. Life, he tells his awed interviewer lightly, is about thinking and then getting on with living. He admits to listening to the radio news every day.
As Foucault said of Bachelard a few years later, his characteristic approach was to avoid all defined hierarchies, any universal judgments: ‘He plays against his own culture with his own culture.’ He stood apart, separating himself from the mainstream, finding cracks, dissonances, minor phenomena that he could make his own. Poetry of every description was his raw material.
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Bachelard’s previous work had advanced the theory of epistemological rupture, widely accepted by Foucault and others, in which scientific thought is freed from what had previously constrained or encumbered it. In subtle ways, left to the interpretation of the reader, Bachelard now signalled an equally clean break with the weary sterility of post-war modernism in architecture by giving weight to the unforgettable in the context of the ordinary. He considered that ‘inhabited space transcends geometric space’ but, characteristically, his words did no more than imply the considerable value of imprinted memory or the trace of meaning.
In the book, he guides us through an actual or imagined home (your choice), its comforts and mysteries, assembled and brought into focus, in a place and at a time undefined except by the limits of our own daydreams, longings and memories – those inner landscapes from which, he said, new worlds can be made. The philosopher evokes an idealised past, places the miniature against the immense, and guides us back into childhood. Once there, at home, he reminds us how we tend to look down the cellar stairs, apprehensively, while gazing upwards, towards the attic, always eager. Uncertainty is set against promise, dark against light. This house is a key to an inner self, ‘for childhood is certainly greater than reality’.
Thematically, Bachelard divided the schematic house into a vertical entity and a concentrated one, too: ‘a body of images that give mankind proof or illusions of stability’. His use of architectural phenomenology lets the mind loose to make its way, always ready for what might emerge in the process. The house is ‘the topography of our intimate being’, both the repository of memory and the lodging of the soul – in many ways simply the space in our own heads. He offered no shortcuts or routes of avoidance, since ‘the phenomenologist has to pursue every image to the very end’.
After a journey through ‘undergrounds of legendary fortified castles … a cluster of cellars for roots’, he thrusts upon his readers, in a quite shocking change of tone and imagery, a complete antithesis, in which his prejudice against urbanity and the apparent expedience of mass-produced housing is laid bare: ‘In Paris there are no houses, and the inhabitants of the big city live in superimposed boxes.’ These buildings have no ‘roots’ as he would recognise them, for there are no cellars in skyscrapers:
Elevators do away with the heroism of stair climbing so that there is no longer any virtue in living up near the sky. Home has become mere horizontality. 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.
Further, there is no mediating space; everything becomes mechanistic and ‘on every side, intimate living flees’.
In this astonishing and singular outburst, spine-chilling to read after the Grenfell Tower fire in London this June, Bachelard seems to be invoking an extreme vision in which individuals must fend for themselves, society having turned a blind eye to them in their dystopia. There is no other passage in the book that is as graphic, or particular. But he had been struggling, he admits, both with Paris and with insomnia, regaining his equilibrium only by returning to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s treasured evocation of a lamp burning in the window of a hermit’s hut, conjured up by the last (or first?) light switched on in the street as we walk home. Now the house can again assume ‘powers of protection against the forces that besiege it’ before turning into a world of its own.
The journey into intimacy is neatly evoked by drawers, cupboards, wardrobes and above all locks
An elderly man with his heart still in rural France, and a marked provincial accent to prove it, what did the increasingly unfamiliar modern city, its economics and politics, have to offer him? Warning against ‘very definitely closed utilitarianism’, he refrains from suggesting whether the anomie of the collectivist vision that he depicted was that of a capitalist or a communist society. Such was his seeming innocence, most readers do not even pose the question.
Indoors, in The Poetics of Space, the journey into intimacy is neatly evoked by drawers, cupboards, wardrobes and above all locks, although he warns, somewhat testily, against their use as gratuitous metaphors (and he is strongly averse to the idea of habit). But his pages offer continuous temptation to stray, to indulge in one’s own felicitous, serendipitous process. So in Amanda Vickery’s exploration of 18th-century domestic life for ordinary women, Behind Closed Doors (2009), she illustrates how the possessor of a simple locked container was immediately in a superior position to her peers. A single lock made her unimaginably luckier than another servant with, at most, a hiding place behind a wainscot or under a floorboard. That box or drawer, with its key, pointed to a tiny, invaluable measure of privacy, and the securing of personal space, especially in crowded, shared rooms.
The wellbeing of the warm animal (or human) protected in its nest or cocoon or cottage from the bad weather raging outside is a primitive sense of refuge that we can all share, adult or child. The appeal of a safe haven translates into domestic architecture with such features as the accommodating Arts and Crafts inglenook, seats close by the fire, Frank Lloyd Wright’s enduring penchant for an immense fireplace buried at the core of a house, or even, a favourite 1960s touch, the conversation pit – with or without its trademark shagpile carpet. The British writer Ken Worpole suggests that Bachelard’s observations apply particularly to recent developments in hospice design, in which, by focusing on the psychologically resonant imagery of the home, the hearth and the kitchen table, the familiar and the reassuring, ‘places of helpless waiting are re-fashioned … as places of contemplation and a gathering-in of memory and self-discovery’.
It is odd that a philosopher who so tenaciously excluded the harsh environments and hard circumstances of the exterior world, in mass culture, politics or architecture, was so welcomed in the modernist late-1960s while writing, essentially, about a nostalgic version of rustic Mediterranean peasant living.
Bachelard shared something of the instincts and preferences demonstrated in graphic form in the American writer and architect Bernard Rudofsky’s seminal Architecture Without Architects (1964). This book began life as an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, supported by august figures in the contemporary architectural pantheon such as Walter Gropius, Gio Ponti and Kenzo Tange. In celebrating the seductive buildings of ‘humaneness’, Rudofsky illustrated the ‘nearly immutable’ qualities of vernacular architecture: its patterning, materials and instinctual planning, how it transmitted memory and accommodated the ‘vagaries of climate and the challenge of topography’. It was, in short, everything that modernism was not – for better and for worse.
Earlier, W H Auden had coined the word ‘topophilia’ when he was writing, surprisingly enough, an admiring introduction to an American edition of John Betjeman’s poems Slick but not Streamlined in 1947. Late in life, Auden wrote a set of 15 verses titled Thanksgiving for a Habitat (1960-1964). They were a celebration of domestic contentment in his Austrian cottage, and were structured around the rooms of the house, including ‘the Cave of Meaning’ (his study), the cellar, the attic, and his bedroom ‘the Cave of Nakedness’. In the title poem he ends, happily, writing of ‘a place I may go both in and out of’. By then, had the (French-speaking) Auden read Bachelard’s journey through a house of memories – such a topophiliac paradise?
By the time that the British architecture critic Peter Reyner Banham wrote his love letter to the south-western desert, Scenes in America Deserta (1982), it was almost inevitable that he would turn to Bachelard for elucidation since he ‘has become the most quoted authority on matters spatial in the circles in which I move’. To his disappointment, Banham found the noted thinker ‘skimpy and self-defensive’ for his purposes, since the only immensity promised, ‘a philosophical category of day-dream’, was that within oneself – altogether too fuzzy for the chronicler of New Brutalism. Perhaps Banham, his heart so recently captured by the desert, was offended by Bachelard’s offhand remark that an immense horizon of sand might be no more than a ‘schoolboy’s desert, the Sahara to be found in every school atlas’.
The ‘cupboardness’ of children’s play areas; a library tucked beneath some stairs; a universe of emotions in the corner
For all that, Banham’s fashionable world of mouldbreaking American architects, notably the postmodern Charles Moore and the theorist Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern Language (1977), had long been in thrall to Bachelard’s book. Moore had strong ideas about the relationship of architecture to history and, beyond the private house, about the design of public space that served to enliven society. As the American critic Alexandra Lange has written, Moore had a particular penchant for leftover domestic spaces: ‘nooks, porches, lofts, and shelves designed to create room for collections and hobbies, shelter for different moods, and stages for more intimate conversations’. He referred to them as ‘saddlebags’ but they were, surely, merely assembled poetic spaces. Or maybe they sit alongside Bachelard’s admired Bernard Palissy, the 16th-century architect and landscape gardener whose investigation of fortress-building in nature included a slug that did so from its own saliva and reminded Bachelard of his early days in the natural sciences. Observing that the tiniest details ‘increases an object’s stature’ and, quoting from a dictionary of Christian botany, which exemplified the periwinkle as observed by a ‘man with a magnifying glass’, Bachelard transported his readers to a ‘sensitive point of objectivity’.
Bachelard’s earliest Anglophone readers in the fields of architecture and design had been in retreat from formulaic modernism and the backwash of deracination. Gradually the ripples spread. In Space and Learning (2008), the admired Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger gave Bachelard a charming nod when he referred to the ‘cupboardness’ of small children’s play areas: a little library tucked beneath some stairs, the inventive use of available nooks and crannies and everywhere, ‘the kangaroo as our ideal’ offering safety and sanctuary, the doorknob that is at eye level for a small child, the drawer that harbours treasures, and a universe of emotions in the corner. Following that, Colin Ward, author of The Child in the City (1978) and the most perceptive of British writers on the built environment, celebrated Bachelard’s notion of ‘experienced reality’ within childhood, a vein of rich memory available to be evoked in adulthood.
In his neat phrase ‘reading a room’, Bachelard encouraged readers to think of some place in their own past: ‘You have unlocked a door to daydreaming.’ As if in answer to that very personal quest, his description of ‘emotional shapes of the spaces inside houses and flats’ helpfully reflected Jungian ideas for the Anglo-French feminist writer Michéle Roberts as she aligned textual and spatial strands from diaries in her memoir Paper Houses (2007). Roberts configures her own journey through life as one through the city, moving from space to space, in and out of imagination. She responds to Jungian cellars, subterranean and potentially fearful places, set against attics, light and without menace, which as Bachelard confirmed ‘can always efface the fears of night’ but which are, essentially, the terrain of the German critic Walter Benjamin. Decades after the apogee of post-modernism and the lingering, often abstruse, arguments around ‘critical regionalism’, Bachelard’s book still offered ‘a nest for dreaming, a shelter for imagining’ as John Stilgoe, professor of the history of landscape at Harvard University, wrote in his introduction to the 1994 edition.
The enduring position of ThePoetics of Space as a key text sees Bachelard as omnipresent. The Pritzker prize-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor might have been channelling him in his RIBA Royal Gold Medal address in 2013 as he spoke of architecture shorn of intrusive symbolism and imbued with experience, leading to the ultimate goal, ‘to create emotional space’. Emphasising light, materials (involving a sophisticated return to the vernacular, in the sense of the language of the locale) and atmosphere, intensified by remote and particular locations such as the house in south Devon now under construction in the Living Architecture programme, there is a clear confluence between Zumthor’s wish to be seen, above all, as an ‘architect of place’ and Bachelard’s subtle and romantic insights.
The approach can also point to an unfurling of levels of meaning and reality within an existing structure. For the architect Biba Dow, of Dow Jones in London, ThePoetics of Space long ago became ‘my favourite and most essential book on architecture’. Dow and her partner Alun Jones were introduced to Bachelard’s writing by Dalibor Vesely, their first-year tutor at the University of Cambridge school of architecture. The poetic approach offered rich possibilities for extracting wider meaning, phenomenology, and the permitted exercise of the imagination. For example, the medieval church of St Mary-at-Lambeth in south London, once almost derelict, now offers a series of discrete spaces in its current life as the Garden Museum, on which Dow Jones worked in two successive phases. A chapel has become a cabinet of curiosity, displaying treasures associated with the great plant-hunter and gardener John Tradescant the Elder, founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, as well as of the original South Lambeth ‘Ark’ from which it grew. Beyond the outer walls, they have added a ‘cloister’ in the midst of which lies Tradescant under his exotic carved-chest tomb, a world of curiosity in itself.
But it is in the wider field of urban design that The Poetics of Space seems to me to have the greatest resonance, through the work of the American academic urbanist Kevin Lynch and others. The journey between the open vista towards the intimacy of near-enclosure was at the heart of Townscape, the campaign (or movement) waged on the pages of TheArchitectural Review from 1948 onwards by the British architect Gordon Cullen and the magazine’s editor, Hubert de Cronin Hastings.
It is as much the inspiration for the urban designer as it is the source of invaluable mental furniture for the small child
Less obvious was the intellectual weight of Nikolaus Pevsner celebrating, for example, ‘precinctual’ or collegiate planning in Oxford. He later thanked Hastings for encouraging his pleasurable diversion into the picturesque, allowing him, so firmly tarred with the modernist brush in the eyes of the world, ‘the saving grace of just a little bit of inconsistency’.
Cullen and his colleague Ian Nairn extended the visual analysis that Townscape suggested to a number of US cities in a contribution to Exploding Metropolis (1957) where, alongside the urbanist Jane Jacobs, they succinctly analysed, in word and image, the distinct and identifiable spatial qualities of cities from Austin to San Francisco, New York to Pittsburgh. Townscape and the contemporary exploration of ideas of ‘prospect and refuge’ – the terms, used widely in landscape theory, are those of the late British geographer Jay Appleton – share something of Bachelard’s exploration of ‘miniature’ set against ‘intimate immensity’, an unfolding sequence that is as much the inspiration for the urban designer as it is the source of invaluable mental furniture for the small child.
In The Image of the City (1960), Lynch identified the crucial role of the sense of place that ‘in itself enhances every human activity that occurs there and encourages the deposit of a memory trace’. This separation of ‘place’ in spirit and idea could, he argued, be differentiated physically and conceptually, as in edge, path, node, district and landmark. Lynch’s idea of ‘imageability’, a profound way to seek orientation, led Jacobs (a great admirer of his work) to point out in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) that ‘only intricacy and vitality of use give, to the parts of a city, appropriate structure and shape’. By the time The Poetics of Space was available in English, an entirely compatible discourse was in train on both sides of the Atlantic, a current of thinking that could draw on Bachelard’s rich literary diet.
The distant, captured, horizon set against the closely observed and protective (or protected) has always had currency in landscape design, in past or present, occident or orient. The borrowed vista, so central to the aesthetics of oriental gardening and known as the shakkei, reflects Bachelard’s observation that distance creates miniatures on the horizon. In Recovering Landscape (1999), the US-based Englishman James Corner, one of the most persuasive of current writers on landscape and both a practitioner and an academic, cautions readers not to underestimate ‘the power of the landscape idea’ within the physical space in question, landscape being both ‘spiritual milieu and cultural image’. That particular combination of spatial sense and psychic location, Corner argues, distinguishes landscape design definitively from architecture and painting.
Bachelard’s thinking, subtly adjusted to the communal for these purposes, might argue for an intense re-examination of the fabric of the city. The historic patterning of great cities, ever more complex and many-layered versions of themselves, offers ideal templates. The High Line in New York, in which Corner played an important role from instigation to execution, is now almost completed as it approaches Hudson Yards at Penn Station. Essentially an elevated linear park, cutting north-south through the strata of the existing city – just as its 1990s predecessor in Paris does from the Bastille to Austerlitz – it reveals, reminds and confirms the part that the explorer might play in the city, while the memories linger and shreds of mystery remain.
One particularly receptive reader of The Poetics of Space is the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread, her work always transfixed by the polarities of absence and presence. The detail of the domestic setting evoked in Untitled (Paperbacks) (1997) is a masterly exploration of negative space but, above all, it culminates in her piece House (1993), now long gone: the concrete cast of an entire terraced house in (then) unfashionable Bow, given a short (artistic) stay of execution before its demolition, conveyed multiple meanings.
As the British scholar Joe Moran writes, viewed from a distance it might have looked like avant-garde sculpture but ‘closer inspection revealed pockmarks and imperfections in the minimalist façade, signs of the daily life of the house: soot-blackened fireplaces, exposed joist ends slightly rotten from damp, the indentations left by light switches, old plug sockets and door latches’. In that extraordinary installation, so literal, Whiteread had translated something of Bachelard onto the actual streets of east London, and from there, through its brief, but widely recorded and archived existence, passed House into memory.
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is a writer and broadcaster specialising in architecture and landscape. Her latest book, with co-author David McKie, is Ian Nairn: Words in Place (2013). She lives in London.