Intimate spaces

Excerpt from “Intimate Spaces” by Gillian Darley, edited by Marina Benjamin, in which she discusses Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space:

“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.”