Robert Harbison - the mysterious interplay between the imagination and the spaces it has made for itself to live in: rooms, buildings, streets, museums, maps, fictional topographies, architectures gardens, monuments, fortifications, ruins, sanctums, machines

Cover Image


Robert Harbison, Eccentric Spaces, The MIT Press, 2000.


Read it at Google Books


Like all of Robert Harbison's works, Eccentric Spaces is a hybrid, informed by the author's interests in art, architecture, fiction, poetry, landscape, geography, history, and philosophy. The subject is the human imagination--and the mysterious interplay between the imagination and the spaces it has made for itself to live in: gardens, rooms, buildings, streets, museums and maps, fictional topographies, and architectures. The book is a lesson in seeing and sensing the manifold forms created by the mind for its own pleasure. Palaces and haunted houses, Victorian parlors, Renaissance sculpture gardens, factories, hill-towns, ruins, cities, even novels and paintings constructed around such environments--these are the spaces over which the author broods. Brilliantly learned, deliberately remote in form from conventional scholarship, Eccentric Spaces is a magical book, an intellectual adventure, a celebration.Since its original publication in 1977, Eccentric Spaces has had a devoted readership. Now it is available to be discovered by a new generation of readers.

Eccentric Spaces... makes me want to rush out in every direction at once and reexamine all I have ever seen. You can hardly ask a book to do more than that." - Anatole Broyard

"It awakens the reader to the space around him, and it is a reminder of how much we want from the world." - Richard Todd

I have picked at this book for years, finally deciding to read it straight through back in 2010. I keep my edition with my architecture books, but it is just as much a work of aesthetics and literary analysis. Harbison's themes are imagination and artifice in the human environment. He begins - as does man's mythic history - in the garden, where man seeks paradoxically to replicate and control the wildness of nature. He moves through various literary environments, such as Holmes' Baker Street sanctum (and what it says about the peculiar English concept of home, and the British comfort of living ensconced in a "pre-Freudian past"), the architectural oddities of Walpole's Strawberry Hill and the John Soane house, the Italian scene from ancient Rome down through Ruskin's Venice, Hawthorne's Marble Faun, Corvo's grotesque Don Renato and Radcliffe's gothic Mysteries of Udolpho. There is a masterful extended summary of Colonna's bizarre Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Harbison looks at the deliberate alienness of Flaubert’s Salammbo and the strange inertia of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, which makes reference to one of Pater’s tweedy descendants:
It is a book of not doing and not being various things most people do and are, and is set in a remote time as a way of saying I cannot hear you, or I could not heed you so finally I can no longer hear you, or I could not heed you so finally I can no longer hear you. The book shows nothing as pronounced as renunciation, but makes a drama of abstention, the things one has not done are more memorable, life lies in deliberately unused possibility which is a preserved youth. Pater resembles in this his descendant C.S. Lewis, another cloistered child-scholar, who creates even more emphatically than Marius a life based on a dreamed recollection of generalized childhood.
The concluding essays address the world in miniature, our attempts to circumscribe, and, in a sense, immobilize the human landscape and artifacts through maps, museums, and catalogues.
Harbison’s book is, in part, a thoughtful commentary on semi-obscure literature such as Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, Huysman’s La Cathedrale (“Like all converts, Huysmans supposes he does the faith a favor by becoming interested in it…”), and the aforementioned works of Colonna and Corvo. He also works in the obvious candidates, such as Kafka, Joyce and James. I have largely neglected to mention his no less impressive commentary on art and architecture, particularly that of Renaissance and 16th century Italy. Although Harbison’s arguments can induce some brow-wrinkling as one attempts to puzzle out his perspectives, as a whole, Eccentric Spaces is a remarkably engaging intellectual experience. - Bibliophilia obscura

There is a powerful attraction to the edges of a discipline, to its most extreme instances, to the exceptions that, breaking some of its most cherished conventions, open penetrating insights into the concealed workings of its logic. Since receiving his doctorate from Cornell more than thirty years ago, the architecture critic Robert Harbison has been single-mindedly pursuing this attraction to the margins. He has described, compared, rediscovered, and reimagined the poetry of the out-of-the-ordinary: palaces and haunted houses, historical fortifications that have lost their use and ruins that have lost their meaning, ideal cities, monuments, and gardens.
Harbison described his first book, Eccentric Spaces (1977), as "the record of a struggle to assimilate more and more to the realm of delight," a delight that he finds in the pursuit of "architectural meaning." For Harbison, this meaning does not lie in explanatory justification; his method is self-avowedly circumstantial, oblique, a mixture of a visual diary and personal philosophical narrative. Beginning always with the particular--an architectural object often innocent in its appearance--he peels off its layers of convention to search for its difference; locating the object at the edge of the discipline, he finds meaning in what makes it exceptional. Zeroing in on the circumstantial discovery which uncovers the object's individuality, Harbison raises understanding to the realm of pleasure.His latest book is the continuation of this tradition. But not only: Thirteen Ways is also a meditation on the dismembered condition of our world and its consequences for architectural thinking. Harbison accepts the intrinsic fragmentation of modern understanding, but strives to put it back together and restore a sense of wholeness. An image in Harbison's The Built, the Unbuilt and the Unbuildable (1991) captures the implications of this approach: an engraving by Fuseli of a traveler overwhelmed by two fragments of a colossal statue of Constantine, a foot and a disconnected hand. In this twofold representation of spectatorship, the figure dwarfed by the remains of the colossus nonetheless captivates our attention; the fragments, incapable of conveying an attitude of their own, become meaningless signs subject to endless manipulation. The ruin, in its dismemberment, becomes ineffectual.
In his work, Harbison attempts to recover meaning by an intuitive process of accumulation. The model that he proposes for this recomposition is the precursor of the museum: the seventeenth-century cabinet of curiosities. For Harbison, the Renaissance connoisseur's creative act is not dissection--the selection of a fragment for his collection--but incorporation, of the fragment into the whole. In entering the cluttered room of the collector, with objects piled everywhere on the floor and the walls, the observer has an instantaneous grasp of the total field: "he is simultaneously aware of the diversity of human speculation and its unencompassability; another name for its incoherence."

The provocation for Thirteen Ways, Harbison acknowledges in an afterword, was a colleague's accusation that it is impossible to create a theory based on circumstantial narrative. Although wary of theory and not personally inclined to it, Harbison undersood this accusation as one also directed against the inability of contemporary architectural writing--after the onslaught of deconstruction--to take a confident step in any direction and has tried to create a model for what architectural theory might be.
But what is theory? Harbison begins to answer this question in Thirteen Ways by identifying a decalogue of perspectives intended to encompass the largest issues at play in architecture. He chooses his headings--Sculpture, Machines, The Body, Landscape, Models, Ideas, Politics, The Sacred, Subjectivity, and Memory--"not because they matched each other or led to a goal but because individually they were the most important I could think of." His title, borrowed from Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," offers a metaphorical explanation of the book's organization. In Stevens's poem, the central object is common but fleeting, an ominous and elusive presence approached obliquely, through a series of separate takes purposely and violently disconnected, creating a kaleidoscopic image of the subject where the gaps are as important as the presences.
The objects that prime Harbison's flow of images remain the same as in his earlier books: gardens, monuments, fortifications, ruins, sanctums, machines, maps, paintings, books, museums, and catalogue. But here, they transcend themselves and become gateways to the realm of more conventional architectural objects. Any theory has to tackle the very core of its subject, and Harbison firmly and opinionatedly moves from the margins of architecture toward its center, taking his bearings from the landmarks of the discipline: the works of Aalto, Kahn, Le Corbusier, Asplund, Gehry, and many others conspicuously absent from his earlier books. Juxtaposing unfamiliar objects and familiar names, Harbison arrives at valiant and surprising conclusions that disturb the most untouchable of architecture's sacred cows.
Each of the ten chapters of the book is organized around one of Harbison's rubrics, but these are not enclosed compartments. Throughout the book, the considered architectural objects reappear frequently. The purpose is twofold: to crack the framework of the encompassing concept, and to transform the object metamorphically into a ever-moving presence. Perhaps this metamorphic desire accounts for an otherwise baffling lack of photographic reproductions in a book about architectural images. Perhaps this austerity is a tacit recognition of the superiority of the word combined with the imagination over the still photograph in describing architecture. After the astonishing advances in cinematic special effects that have accustomed us to witnessing the most unimaginable transformations in front of our eyes, we are perhaps more ready to accept that the static image has never been fully architectural. Like the melting metallic cop who becomes Arnold Schwarzenegger's nemesis in Terminator 2, Harbison's staircases (for example) become in rapid succession sculptures conceived as willful objects, organic depictions of the body, machines that transform the human being into a mechanism, topographical landscapes, instruments of power, subjective nightmares, fields for representing ideas, or even, at times, geometrical models of the universe.
Harbison's tale is not, however, a free fall of endless imaging; the ways of looking at a blackbird are numbered, after all, Harbison's ultimate search is not for contradiction, but for an understanding of reality that provides a basis for a confident step in some direction. The fulcrum upon which he poises his confidence is history, understood not as an ideological apparatus of control but as the inescapable presence of the past. Harbison sides with the compromises of reality in collaboration with history, and he takes a stand against the opinion that "after Derrida (or whoever) there can be no more history." After chastising Robert Venturi's skeletal cartoon of Benjamin Franklin's house in Philadelphia for suggesting that "history is all made up and we do not really know what the past looks like," Harbison ends with a backward glance: "But you only need to be turned loose in the streets of a city like Krakow, the old capital of Poland, to feel the oppressive weight and nearness of the past, vomiting debris into the present, most powerfully when decrepit and tottering towards its fall, when vulnerable and not specially beautiful." It might seem surprising that Krakow interests Harbison precisely when it is "oppressive" and "not especially beautiful." But perhaps that is his ultimate point: that in our relationship with the constructed world beauty is not an unassailable and ethereal concept, but a personal judgment on the value of the mental space that results from the thirteen, or ten, ways of looking at a blackbird. - Alfonso Perez-Mendez

So, on an architect’s recommendation, I read Eccentric Spaces by Robert Harbison. This is one of those books that is rammed full of very intelligent, perfectly nuanced, original ideas.
I like these books but I find they require so much concentration and brain power that I can only manage about two-and-a-half pages at a time. I also continually suffer from the feeling that I’m not fully understanding them.
My tactic for these books is to concentrate particularly hard on the bits that discuss something – as in a building, painting or book – with which I’m familiar, and not to worry too much about the passages that discuss things that I haven’t seen or read. Especially if there aren’t any pictures.
So I found myself very much enjoying Harbison’s discussion of the Boboli gardens, which is one of my favourite places in Florence – and indeed was where we sought respite last summer, when the fiancé got sunstroke. This bit’s particularly good:
If we imagine the forms of a formal garden like the Boboli … in masonry instead of vegetation we get an unexpectedly bizarre construction which shows that people let themselves be confined by plants in ways they would endure uneasily indoors. In the Boboli there is proportionately so much corridor for the number or rooms one might think we came outside for the experience of confinement, which can be enjoyed at greater length there … At times it seems that gardens exist to give a controlled experience of being lost or trapped and the distance seems slight from the maze at Hampton Court to the horrid gardens of fairy tales with poison plants, poison fountains, traps, and cages.
Whenever I’ve been in the Boboli gardens I’ve spent ages wandering around – there never seems to be a good spot to sit down and I’ve always felt that I’ve got to keep going to the next bit, not unlike being in a maze. There is something undoubtedly overbearing about all those hedges and the surprising lack of open space. And there is definitely a resemblance to a fairy-tale, a feeling of having to get past all the obstacles to find one’s way out. I like the way Harbison writes in simple yet precise language, how he uses the word ‘horrid’ and gives the word its sense of ‘horror’ as well as the more common sense of ‘nasty’.
I also like Harbison’s description of what it feels like to wander among the Roman Forum and among ruins in general:
The vegetation softens and makes agreeable huge and sterile buildings yet the spectator longs for what is not there, tries to re-erect fallen pillars, to hold a decayed roof in place, to decorate and furnish before it all collapses into the present.
It seems particularly pertinent for me as I’m writing a novel about a derelict house and the stories which it has to tell. The entire book, I suppose, is an attempt, if not to re-erect fallen pillars, then definitely to ‘hold a decayed roof in place, to decorate and furnish’ it, to imagine what the ruin was like in the past. - EmilyBooks

"I have picked at this book for years, finally deciding to read it straight through back in 2010. I keep my edition with my architecture books, but it is just as much a work of aesthetics and literary analysis. Harbison's themes are imagination and artifice in the human environment. He begins - as does man's mythic history - in the garden, where man seeks paradoxically to replicate and control the wildness of nature. He moves through various literary environments, such as Holmes' Baker Street sanctum (and what it says about the peculiar English concept of home, and the British comfort of living ensconced in a "pre-Freudian past"), the architectural oddities of Walpole's Strawberry Hill and the John Soane house, the Italian scene from ancient Rome down through Ruskin's Venice, Hawthorne's Marble Faun, Corvo's grotesque Don Renato and Radcliffe's gothic Mysteries of Udolpho. There is a masterful extended summary of Colonna's bizarre Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Harbison looks at the deliberate alienness of Flaubert's Salammbo and the strange inertia of Pater's Marius the Epicurean, which makes reference to one of Pater's tweedy descendants:
It is a book of not doing and not being various things most people do and are, and is set in a remote time as a way of saying I cannot hear you, or I could not heed you so finally I can no longer hear you, or I could not heed you so finally I can no longer hear you. The book shows nothing as pronounced as renunciation, but makes a drama of abstention, the things one has not done are more memorable, life lies in deliberately unused possibility which is a preserved youth. Pater resembles in this his descendant C.S. Lewis, another cloistered child-scholar, who creates even more emphatically than Marius a life based on a dreamed recollection of generalized childhood.
The concluding essays address the world in miniature, our attempts to circumscribe, and, in a sense, immobilize the human landscape and artifacts through maps, museums, and catalogues.
Harbison's book is, in part, a thoughtful commentary on semi-obscure literature such as Rodenbach's Bruges-la-Morte, Huysman's La Cathedrale ("Like all converts, Huysmans supposes he does the faith a favor by becoming interested in it..."), and the aforementioned works of Colonna and Corvo. He also works in the obvious candidates, such as Kafka, Joyce and James. I have largely neglected to mention his no less impressive commentary on art and architecture, particularly that of Renaissance and 16th century Italy. Although Harbison's arguments can induce some brow-wrinkling as one attempts to puzzle out his perspectives, as a whole, Eccentric Spaces is a remarkably engaging intellectual experience." - makifat at amazon.com


Cover Image


Robert Harbison, Thirteen Ways: Theoretical Investigations in Architecture, MIT Press, 1998.

"In this book, Robert Harbison offers a novel interpretation of what architectural theory might look like. The title is an echo of Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Like the poem, Harbison's work is a composite structure built of oblique meanings and astonishing shifts that add up to an engaging portrait—in this case a portrait of architecture in which use, symbol, and metaphor coexist.
The chapter titles indicate Harbison's themes, all of which bear parallel, implied, or tangential relations to architecture: Sculpture, Machines, the Body, Landscape, Models, Ideas, Politics, the Sacred, Subjectivity, and Memory. The journey through the chapters is roughly a journey from the physical to the metaphysical, a journey that is at once poetic, technical, and philosophical. Harbison examines his subjects with as few preconceptions as possible, taking familiar concepts and stripping away all associations until they become strange, producing ideas that are refreshing and new for architecture. The book straddles the ground between the intellect and the senses, leading the reader beyond the realm of theory and practice into the universe of the imagination, where "space" is experienced as something touched, seen, and thought.The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable: In Pursuit of Architectural Meaning




Robert Harbison, The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable: In Pursuit of Architectural Meaning, The MIT Press, 1991.

Robert Harbison finds meaning in works of architecture that are unnecessary, having outlived their physical functions or never having been intended to have any.
Robert Harbison reads architecture as one would read poetry for meaning. Meaning, he finds, resides especially in those works of architecture that are unnecessary, having outlived their physical functions or never having been intended to have any. Gardens, monuments, historic fortifications, and ruins are among the examples he uses to reveal the secret meanings of this architecture "freed from function."
"In this era of ubiquitous mass media, when today's catchword is tomorrow's cliche Robert Harbison has produced that rarity, a thoroughly personal and original book. The Built, the Unbuilt and the Unbuildable is a lucid, provocative meditation on architectural meaning, on 'some of the witting and unwitting means by which buildings evade functional necessities, or surpass them even while satisfying them.'" —Nancy Levinson

The pristine, the ruined, the ephemeral, and even the notional are the subject of Robert Harbison's highly original and admittedly romantic contribution to the literature of architecture.

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