Remembering Robert (Bob) Harbison

The former Professor of Architecture at London Met is remembered for the innovative approach he took to to his subject, and for the sense of wonder with which he approached the world.

Date: 28 July 2021

London Met was saddened to learn of the passing of former Professor of Architecture, Robert Harbison. He had a major impact on the University’s School of Art, Architecture and Design and on his subject, which he took a truly interdisciplinary and innovative approach to. 

Bob was born in Baltimore, USA, and lived in London for over 50 years. 

He was a key member of the History and Theory of Architecture team at London Met and was a much loved and highly respected colleague. 

In addition to his work at London Met, he lectured widely on architecture at, among others, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Cornell University and the Architectural Association, London.

He described himself as "addicted to looking and thinking about buildings, paintings, books and places… I’ve spent a lot of my time writing about a wide range of subjects–architecture, literature, landscape and painting mainly–always hoping that I would find some key that would show that they are all part of one discourse, and happiest when I could dissolve the boundaries between these different territories"

He wrote many books, including Eccentric Spaces (1977), which focuses on 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; Thirteen Ways (1997), which offered a novel interpretation of what architectural theory might look like; and The Built, The Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable (1991), which was described as "a highly original and admittedly romantic contribution to the literature of architecture."

One of his more recent books, Travels in the History of Architecture, was launched at the School of Art, Architecture and Design in 2009 along with the opening of 'Travels with Bob', an exhibition of photographs taken by his wife Esther Whitby, in celebration of his twenty years as a teacher at London Metropolitan University.

Following his retirement from London Met, Bob went on to collaborate with his former student and now Course Leader of London Met’s MA Architectural History, Research and Writing, Ektoras Arkomanis, on a documentary about architecture and urban space in London, Another London, in 2014. Bob’s book, Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery was published in 2015.

Alexander Catina, a former student of Bob’s and now PG History & Theory of Architecture Coordinator at London Met, said, "Bob had an intense interest in the work of his students, as much as in their personalities and thoughts. He never underplayed the importance of being true to one's inner voice, as a writer and a person, which is the most genuinely expressed when we talk about things we love.

"He was able to express his love for the particular, the specific, even the peculiar more eloquently than anyone. His writing carries his voice, authentically and beautifully, like a poem at times, that encourages us to reconnect with the openness that Bob always maintained toward the possibility of amazement and wonder in the world, its buildings, its people, its words."

He is survived by his wife Esther. The School of Art, Architecture and Design will hold an event to commemorate Bob’s life in the autumn. 

man looking into a camera in front of a stone building

Image by and courtesy of Esther Whitby