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Thirteen Ways: Theoretical Investigations in Architecture
Robert Harbison
MIT Press, $20

by Alfonso Perez-Mendez

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. n

Originally published in the October/ November 1997 issue of Boston Review

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