The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable

The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable

In Pursuit of Architectural Meaning

By Robert Harbison





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. His fresh perceptions open this practical art to new interpretations as he explores the means by which buildings, real or imagined, evade or surpass functional necessities while sometimes satisfying them. What fascinates Harbison in these discussions are the paradoxes and ironies of function that give rise to meaning, to a psychological impact that may or may not have been intended. He chooses examples from an architectural borderland - of gardens, monuments, ideal cities and fortification, ruins, paintings, and unbuildable buildings -where use and symbolism overlap; he examines the exceptions at the edges of a field that will illuminate its center. Harbison's pursuit of man's efforts to "fashion art from nonhuman life" begins with a consideration of gardens and the organic architecture of the English Arts and Crafts movement and of Gaudi, then turns to monuments (Claes Oldenburg, Christo, the Vietnam Memorial) that are "either the nearest or the furthest thing from gardens." Harbison's discussion of fortification and urban planning leads to metaphorical themes (fort-features in churches or prisons or Fascist municipal buildings) and mocked-up worlds (Williamsburg, Disneyland), and to the subject of fictional space as expressed in ruins, in painting, in the unbuildable, and finally in the inconceivable as revealed in Kafka's sketches.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262082044 192 pp. | 6.2 in x 9.1 in


$25.00 X ISBN: 9780262581226 192 pp. | 6.2 in x 9.1 in

For sale only in the US and Canada.


  • 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

    Architectural Record

  • Robert Harbison's book is an extraordinary enterprise; there is nothing else quite like it. Boldly, he has collected all the images of architecture and landscape gardening, whether real or not, that have attracted and intrigued him over the years, seeing them as fascinating objects, expressions of the inner workings of the mind and psyche.

    Robin Middleton

    Columbia University

  • An attractive and popular book for a range of people. architects, obviously, will appreciate its ingenious demonstrations, but many more will enjoy it because it wears its learning lightly and raises issues which go far beyond the architectural field.

    Stephen Bann

    University of Kent at Canterbury