Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

Room with a view: 60 years on, Gaston Bachelard's ideas still ignite our imagination

For more than 60 years, French thinker Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, has inspired poets, artists, architects, philosophers ⁠— and daydreamers. Millions of us around the world have spent two years sequestered in our homes, so what does his book about daydreaming and the imagination offer us now?

'The Poetics of Space' reflects on the idea of home as a metaphor for refuge

For more than 60 years, French thinker Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space has inspired poets, artists, architects, philosophers ⁠— and daydreamers. (Presses Universitaires de France/Wikimedia)

*Originally published on March 7, 2022.

"The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace." 

So wrote Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), the French postmaster turned physicist, turned philosopher, in what would become his most celebrated work, The Poetics of Space, a philosophical and literary meditation on the imagination — and on the idea of home as a metaphor for our interior landscapes.

First published in French in 1958, the book's English translation appeared in 1964, and went on to become a classic. 

What precisely is The Poetics of Space? It's a hard question to answer, according to Richard Kearney, professor of philosophy at Boston College. Bachelard's work has been a guiding inspiration in Kearney's life and work.

"It's a unique kind of book. It's not strictly speaking just philosophy, or just psychoanalysis, or just literary criticism, or just memoir or just essay, or just a sort of good advice for architects, engineers and designers.

"It's all of these things and none of them at once. It's a unique hybrid invention. It's a poem in a way, you might say a philosophical poem, a meditative poem that is open to everyone." 

The house on Quai Gaillot where Gaston Bachelard lived in Dijon. He was a professor at the university between 1930 to 1940. (gastonbachelard.org )

"Every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination." – Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

For poet and biographer Molly Peacock, The Poetics of Space is a 'talisman book.' She first encountered the work more than 50 years ago, as a 19-year-old university student. It was a revelation.

"The first time I read The Poetics of Space, I was thrilled. I felt shock after shock of recognition. [Bachelard] was saying things that I had always felt but never articulated. 

"There is this sense that our murky, less clear thoughts happen in the lower levels, underground," Peacock explained,"Then our thoughts keep clarifying as they come into light, into the central part of the house, and we really relax into our reveries by the time we get to the attic."

She suggests if there's a single idea to take away from The Poetics of Space, "it's that your emotional architecture and the architecture of the house are one." 

"Over and above our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us." – Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

A refuge

In 2021, more than half a century after she first picked up the book, Peacock turned to it again, as a balm during a time of upheaval. She was 73 years old, the pandemic was raging, and her husband was in the last stages of his life.

She needed an anchor. And she found it: a red hardcover book, its pages yellowing, with her original pencil markings in the margins.

'Gaston Bachelard allowed a way to reframe the chaos of my childhood and to make my emotional reactions make sense,' says poet Molly Peacock. Her cherished copy of The Poetics of Space is marked up with notes in the margins. (Candice Ferreira)

"During my husband's final illness… I needed a refuge. The Poetics of Space offers a refuge. It offers safety. And in crisis mode, I could turn to the idea of doors, chests and wardrobes. The idea of nests, the idea of shells… corners, for instance, pockets… miniature spaces, tiny houses.

"It was a great solace to me. It's a book about refuges, and the book itself became a refuge." 

"Over and above our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us." – Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

A refuge. A place to daydream. A place where our memories are born and where they continue to reside. 

Inspired by The Poetics of Space, artist Isobel Egan's Cityscape explores 'issues of fragility, personal space and memory. These rooms recall the cardboard box houses and other fantastical environments of childhood; flimsy structures made robust by force of imagination.' (Submitted by Isobel Egan )

The ideas drawn from The Poetics of Space also live and breathe in the paper-thin porcelain boxes created by Irish ceramic artist, Isobel Egan.

"These little boxes store the memories of our lifetime. Little memories that are really sacred to us and that we can tap into at different times of our lives." 

"Our soul is an abode. And by remembering houses and rooms, we learn to abide within ourselves." – Gaston Bachelard 

'Home has a soul'

"Home is very close to our intimate, naked skin, says Finnish architect, Juhani Pallasmaa, whose own designs and thinking have been profoundly influenced by Bachelard's writing.

Pallasmaa sees our homes as live creatures and likens our relationship with our homes to those with our spouses, our children, our most intimate. Pallasmaa believes we ought to look to Bachelard as a compass.

"The notion of home," he said, "is understood nowadays in too pragmatic and concrete and material terms and also economic terms. Home has a soul." 

Architect Juhani Pallasmaa's project, House and Gazebo, Lakeside Site in Eastern Finland. (Juhani Pallasmaa)

For British writer and social historian Ken Worpole, Bachelard's book grows in importance, particularly as populations age. When Worpole began working with architects and designers in the field of hospital and hospice design, he turned to The Poetics of Space as a guide. 

"I think it's a book like The Poetics of Space that made architects aware that when you are designing hospitals and hospices, you are not designing cells. You are designing rooms, and the atmosphere of those rooms… it's a particular room that so many people end up in at the end of their lives, which is often a bedroom or a hospital room, and their place is a bed," Worpole said.

"That room has to give back everything that the person in the bed wants to give it. We have to make them a home again."

Reclaiming house

As the world faces refugee and environmental crises, Molly Peacock points out that The Poetics of Space provides an important reminder. It underscores the most basic of truths: that our homes are primary. 

"Think of the ways in which people return again and again to their houses to reclaim them. They go back and reclaim, because that refuge, that prototype of the childhood house is in there. Not recognizing the importance of the house, of the primacy of people's necessity for a place to live, is to my mind the road to defeat for the way we are governing our nations," Peacock said.

"And that's the importance of The Poetics of Space. That room that each of us carries with us, that is what is traumatically endangered." 

"In every great work, no matter how dark," Richard Kearney said, "one will find a moment of what Bachelard calls epiphany — an instant that breaks out of chronological time and that gives us hope that things can be different."

He believes that Bachelard also offers an alternative universe, not escapism but rather a vital and "responsible form of daydreaming." 

"In the midst of 20th-century horrors and indeed a philosophy of anxiety and worry and dread," Kearney said, "Bachelard without denying any of that, opens a space for welcome and for joy. One of his contemporaries, Paul Ricoeur, summed up Bachelard's philosophy by saying, it's the joy of yes, in the sadness of no."


Guests in this episode:

Aurosa Alison is a professor of Landscape Aesthetics at Politecnico di Milano and in Digital Aesthetics at the University of Naples, Federico II. She is editor-in-chief of the international journal, Bachelard Studies. Her PhD thesis focussed on Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space

Isobel Egan is a ceramic artist living and working in Ireland. Her work is included in a number of permanent collections including the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin and the Taipei County Yingge Ceramics Museum, Taiwan. 

Richard Kearney holds the Charles B. Seelig Chair of Philosophy at Boston College and has served as a Visiting Professor at University College Dublin and the University of Paris (Sorbonne). He is the author of 25 books on European philosophy and literature. 

Juhani Pallasmaa is an architect, professor emeritus, and writer in Helsinki. He is former rector of the Institute of Industrial Design Helsinki. His many books include The Embodied Image, The Thinking Hand, The Architecture of Image, and The Eyes of the Skin.

Molly Peacock is a distinguished North American poet and biographer, author of The Analyst: Poems and Flower Diary: In Which Mary Hiester Reid Paints, Travels, Marries & Opens a Door about the neglected Canadian painter. Her newest poetry endeavour, A Friend Sails in on a Poem, is forthcoming in Fall 2023 from Palimpsest Press. 

Ken Worpole is a writer and social historian, whose work includes books on architecture, landscape and public policy.  A new edition of his book Modern Hospice Design: The Architecture of Palliative Care (Routledge, 2009) will be published in 2023. His most recent book, No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen, is a study of a wartime Christian pacifist community in Frating, Essex.

Archival audio of Gaston Bachelard from an interview with Paule Chavasses, RDF. Recorded February 21,1959. Archive Ina-Radio France.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Translated by Maria Jolas. Penguin Books, 2014. First published in the U.S. by Orion Press, Inc., 1964. Copyright 1958 by Presses Universitaires de France.


*This documentary about Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space was produced by Alisa Siegel.

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