Gunter A. Dittmar

Architecture as Dwelling and Building

Design as Ontological Act

1It has been almost fifty years since Martin Heidegger presented his seminal lecture, "Building Dwelling Thinking" 1 to a group of leading architects in Darmstadt, Germany. Although the essay has meanwhile become famous within architectural circles, and is often cited by authors and architects as relevant to their work, it is curious that it has had very little impact on either the practice, or the theory of architecture.
Why is this the case?
The answer is at once simple and complex. It is the thesis of this paper, that the reason for this situation is that the world view and paradigm which underlies and informs architecture’s mode of thought, and even more so its mode of operation, is anathetical to the notions delineated in Heidegger’s essay, and, thus, makes these practically impossible to incorporate. Furthermore, that this paradigm is in conflict with the nature of architecture and, thus, is responsible for the increasing difficulties architecture faces concerning its social relevance, and its identity and legitimacy as a discipline. And, finally, that this condition is the result of a serious failure of architectural theory which, rather than concentrating on what architecture is, focuses on what form it should take.

2The roots of these developments can be traced back several centuries. Beginning with the Renaissance, the beginning of modern time, and culminating in the Twentieth Century, our world view has been undergoing a major shift: from a focus on the subject and its destiny to the emphasis and investigation of the object and object world ; from the exploration of meaning to the search for truth; from metaphysics to physics.
The consequences of this shift in world view were profound. It radically changed the way we see, analyze and try to understand our world. It gave birth to modern science, and derived from it, technology and modern engineering. But, more important, it gave rise to a powerful mode of thinking without which neither would have been possible. As the paradigmatic mode of thought of the Twentieth Century it underlies almost everything we do, the way we think, and how we approach a problem, to such a degree that it has become second nature to us and we are not even aware of this anymore.

3Known as scientific method, or more commonly as reductive problem-solving, it was most clearly formalized first in the Seventeenth Century by René Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, in his "Discourse on Method" 2. Among its fundamental premises, besides his famous dictum "cogito, ergo sum", were the following:

· our world and its order is knowable, and to acquire this knowledge is to gain control over it.

· to arrive at true knowledge with certainty demands total objectivity, i.e. the divorce of one’s personality and, thus, the potential for preconceptions, from any investigation; or, to say it differently, it requires the complete elimination of the subject.

· the manner in which to solve any problem, or in Descartes’ words "difficulties", was to divide it into as many parts as possible, and then proceed solving the problem by beginning with the simplest and easiest and then advance gradually and in logical order to the more complex, composite ones; in purely methodological terms, it is now commonly known and used as the process of analysis/synthesis: breaking a problem down into its parts and then synthesizing these into a whole.

4Beyond its methodological significance, though related to it, Descartes’ philosophy continued and reenforced the dualism that underlies much of Western philosophy and thought, exemplified by such distinctions as, for instance, individual/world, culture/nature, subject/object, mind/body, matter/spirit, truth/meaning, part/whole, et al., but also by the division, specialization and proliferation of disciplines and subdisciplines to address the complex multiplicity of our world.

5Architecture and architectural theory could not but be affected by this change in world view, the subject/object split and the subsequent shift of emphasis to the object and object world. Ever since, beginning with the Renaissance and continuing up to our present time, architecture has concentrated on - and attempted to define itself - through the object of its investigations - the building; what form it should take and why! It has done so regardless of the time period, style or prevailing ideology that conditions or conditioned its particular expression.
The subject, the question of our being, and the subject matter of architecture, the question of our place in the world, which had formed the basis of architecture’s explorations for thousands of years from Stonehenge to the pyramids and the Gothic cathedrals, is addressed, if at all, only indirectly, i.e. it is subsumed within the object, the building, its form, and its properties.

6Heidegger, in his essay, attempts to recover and re-assert some of this world and world view. More specifically, by etymologically tracing the roots of the terms ‘to build’ and ‘to dwell’, he uncovers not only their original meaning, but more important, he is able to determine what their real nature is, and the role they play for our being, and our being in the world. He, thus, arrives at the following conclusions and definitions:

· that building is really about dwelling

· that dwelling is about the initiation and exploration of our being, the manner we humans are as mortals on this earth

· that the question of building, the issue of our dwelling, and the issue of our being, are inexorably linked and cannot be separated without doing harm to each one of them.

7How much of this understanding of building and dwelling has been lost, or become altered during the ascendance of the techno-scientific world view and paradigm, becomes clear if one examines current architectural practice in light of Heidegger’s tenets :

· building, the creative, material act through which dwelling comes into being, has been reduced to engineering and construction: the calculation, technical production and assembly of buildings.

· dwelling, the issue, has been replaced by dwellings, i.e. housing as a commodity, or, more generally, by buildings as inhabitable, functional shelter.

· being, the ultimate question, as well as its complex totality, have been reduced to, and substituted by, such conceptual components as function, space, comfort and aesthetics as the major ingredients of buildings.

· as a consequence, building and dwelling have become separated into distinct, if related, entities and disciplines: the design, the engineering, and the construction of buildings.

8As already mentioned before, for architecture these developments begin with the Renaissance. The (re-)discovery of Vitruvius, combined with the intellectual curiosity and scholarly pursuit so characteristic for the age, also led to an explosion of architectural theory and theoretical treatises. Many of these treatises were based on Vitruvius’ "The Ten Books on Architecture"3 as a model, including even its title. The most famous and most enduring aspect, however, the so-called "Vitruvian Triad" of utilitas, firmitas and venustas (commodity, firmness and delight, or in its modern version, function, technology and form) are actually the result of a misreading of Vitruvius. For, while Vitruvius makes reference to these categories, he mentions them in his book almost like an afterthought and uses them akin to attributes or properties.4 It is the Renaissance that elevates them to distinct, autonomous entities; the fundamental, conceptual components that not only constitute the ideal building, but have come to stand for a definition of architecture in general.

9For centuries, up to this day, architecture has struggled to bring the different, inherently conflicting, demands posed by the three categories of function, technology and aesthetics into a harmonious balance and integrate them into a coherent whole. With limited success. For to do so requires either a compromise, or the suppression or clear subordination of at least one, more often though two, of the components to the dominant remaining one(s). Typically, the component that prevails over the other two is that of aesthetics. One reason is that beauty, due to its self-sufficient, autonomous nature, does not easily bend to compromise or subordination. Another is the commonly held belief - again a product of the Renaissance when architecture emancipated from a craft to an art - that what distinguishes architecture from mere building, i.e. construction and engineering, is the element of aesthetics.

10If and when an equilibrium between the three components of function, technology and aesthetics is established, it tends to be short-lived, for it is inherently instable due the contradictory nature of the components. One has to look only at the three architectural movements of our own century - Modernism, Post-Modernism and Deconstructivism - for examples.
Modernism attempted to solve the issue of aesthetics from within the components of function and technology (function + technology = beauty). The models were nature as revealed through science, and the machine. The result was what Modernism had aspired to as its ideal: architecture as aesthetic engineering. Inspite of its lofty, social and utopian goals to help bring about a new society and new world, Modernism produced mostly, especially in lesser hands, an abstract, empty and often inhumane architecture, or after W.W.II, an exaggerated, monumental formalism.
Post-Modernism criticized Modernism for its disregard of both, beauty (primarily its lack of decoration) and meaning. It attempted to correct Modernism’s "mistake" by factoring the component of aesthetics - and as part of it, meaning - back into the equation. It did so not by trying to integrate it with the other two components of the Triad, but by a compromise that acknowledged the incompatibility of aesthetics with function and technology, and by dealing with it separately as an added element. Known as the "architecture of the decorated shed" since Robert Venturi so aptly defined it, it combines function and technology into "building", essentially functional/technological shelter, and then treats aesthetics as decorative appliqué (building + decoration)
5. Though Post-Modernism produced, perhaps, a richer and more varied architecture, in most instances it turned out to be little more than historicist and eclectic scenography, and its meaning stayed both, literally and figuratively, on a superficial level.
Deconstructivism, as the name already indicates, is partially inspired by the early Modernist movement of Russian Constructivism. However, its real roots are in the literary and philosophical movement and theory of Deconstruction. Deconstruction attempts to "de-construct" and "de-center" the "logo-centric" thought and order that it contends we have imposed on our world, be it philosophical, social, political cultural, scientific, technological or physical etc., which prevent us from confronting the true reality of our world, i.e. its heterogenetic diversity. The claim is that, through our centralized, hierarchically ordered structures, we impose univalent meaning and, thus, suppress the multiplicity of potentially other, equally valid, interpretations.

11In character with these tenets, Deconstructivism aims to "de-construct" the anthropocentric, and thus by definition logo-centric, world view and structures that, it maintains, still control architecture. Of the Vitruvian Triad of components, it is especially critical of the notion of function and dismisses it as an artificial construct. But it also attempts to displace technology, perhaps the most logo-centric of all logo-centric systems, from its prominent role in architecture by subsuming it within the element of aesthetics, thereby reducing the Vitruvian Triad to just this one component. Above all, though, Deconstructivism challenges and aims to de-construct architecture’s aesthetic conventions, particularly its orthogonal, formal order and expression, and its quest for a harmonious whole from clearly defined parts as manifestations of its logo-centric and anthropocentric nature. Deconstructivism, thus, is essentially in search of a new aesthetic. Characteristic for its architecture is the avoidance of Cartesian order and geometry, the fragmentation of form, the lack of any perceivable center, and the use of components in contradictory and/or ambiguous relationships.

12There is no doubt that Deconstructivism has brought new energy to architecture and has broken open and invigorated its aesthetics. Yet, contrary to its professed principles of diversity, Deconstructivist architecture shows a remarkable uniformity of expression, i.e. it has become little more than another stylistic movement. In the final analysis, it - like Modernism and Post-Modernism before it - is still a product of the object-oriented world view and paradigm that underlies and controls architecture. Furthermore, all three of the movements reduce architecture to something less than its totality: Modernism by abstracting human existence to function and space, Post-Modernism by replacing architecture with skin-deep imagery and decoration, and Deconstructivism by narrowing architecture to a mere issue of aesthetics, works of art, to be explored and contemplated rather than inhabited.

13This reductive, objectified approach does not stop at the theoretical and intellectual underpinnings of architecture, it naturally also extends to, and conditions, architecture’s mode of operation - its practice - and the methodology used to produce works of architecture. Since under this paradigm architecture is equated with the design and construction of edifices - functional, technological and aesthetic, architectural objects - it seems logical that the process used to create these objects - design - is analogous to that of construction, i.e. it is essentially a process of assembly and composition; of selecting appropriate components to meet the needs and demands of a particular project and finding arrangements which make it possible to synthesize its various parts into a coherent whole. Or to state it in more methodological terms: design is commonly approached as a creative process of solving a functional, technological, spatial and formal problem, akin to a complex, open-ended, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

14Contrary to common belief, the majority of designs are not "new creations". Rather they are derived from previous answers, a "library" of similar, architectural precedents and already established building types. These then serve as models for the new project. They are more or less adapted and modified to accommodate the particular circumstances of the project at hand, and their architectural expression shaped by the prevailing aesthetic ideology and/or the personal preference and style of the respective designer.
This notion and methodology of design as the assembly of answers from distinct components, already implicit in the Vitruvian Triad, is re-enforced by the division of labor and the specialization architecture has undergone. When first construction, and later engineering, became separate disciplines, architecture began to lose control over the totality of the building process. Architecture - design - became, more or less, divorced from building, with architecture primarily responsible for the lay-out and form of the building, and engineering and construction primarily responsible for its technical realization and production.

15In countries like the US where architecture does not enjoy a state-guaranteed monopoly, the validity of architecture itself has come into serious question because of this development. Since the general public believes architecture to be about the "construction of buildings", and since it considers this to be the domain of engineers and builders, it cannot see any real value or relevance for architects. The consequences are increasing competition by engineering offices and builders for architectural commissions. About the only authority and competence still conceded to architecture is in the area of aesthetics. But even there aesthetics is misunderstood as "image-making" (one of the reasons why Post-Modern architecture - "the architecture of the decorated shed" - became such a popular success). The recent escape of avant-garde architecture like Deconstructivism into art and sculpture, while understandable within the context of this development, is but a symptom rather than a real solution to architecture’s problems.

16So, what is the answer? How can architecture overcome this seemingly vitious circle?
Heidegger, in his essay, addresses the cause of architecture’s difficulties, which are centuries old, head on and in the most fundamental way when he probes and attempts to define the nature of our dwelling and the nature of building, and when he points out that both are means to affirm and explore the identity of our being. Though he barely mentions the term architecture, his essay is clearly a call for an alternate view, definition and approach to architecture. But he goes further. He outlines the basic structure for such an approach by defining the constituent parameters of our existence and our dwelling - the fourfold of the earth, the sky, the mortals and the divinities - which architecture must engage if it wants to be true to its nature and its calling.
Architecture, in this sense, locates us within the larger order of our world by "carving out a place for our being" from the vast and shapeless continuity of time and space and giving it symbolic and physical presence. At its best, architecture connects our inner with our outer world and brings them - at least temporarily - into congruence, thereby revealing to us some of the mystery of both.
Buildings, thus, are more than inhabitable structures that protect us from the elements, let in light, and provide privacy and space for our activities, though these are demands they also have to satisfy. Buildings are not ends in themselves, but mediating objects through which we create a world for ourselves and enter into a dialogue with the world around us by defining and articulating our relationship to our fellow beings, nature and its phenomena, and "the world beyond". As such they involve the totality of our existence and our being, not a reductive, objectified notion of it. The earth that grounds us and all things, and provides the material for our building; the sky, the origin of space; the sun that animates all life and gives us the measure of time; the diurnal rhythm of night and day, light and dark; the dynamic cycle of the seasons and the climate; these are the primary components of architecture, not their derivatives of function, space, structure and form.

17At the very end of his essay Heidegger makes what is, perhaps, its most important point when he observes that, due to our human condition, our homelessness in this world, "[t]he real dwelling plight lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the nature of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell "6. It is a point that is rarely noted, possibly because it is not understood, or dismissed as eloquent rhetoric. What it essentially says, is that, as a result of our consciousness, as humans we are at once a part of the world and yet apart from it, and that, therefore, we never quite feel at home in the world; that our dwelling is and remains an un-ending quest and open question. Or, to say it differently, it is a question that poses itself anew for every time period, culture and society; that we all, individually and collectively, confront and have to solve within the understanding, opportunities and available means of our time: to discover and define an identity and a place for ourselves in the world; who we are, what we are, and where we belong within the larger order of our universe? Every work of architecture shares in this quest and addresses aspects of these questions from within its particular vantage point.

18For architecture this search is fundamental to its nature as a discipline. If our dwelling - and, thus, architecture - is a continuing, open-ended question, then design, the process through which a work of architecture comes into being, is first and foremost a discourse and a form of inquiry. It is not the assembly of building components, of "anwers" to limited, superficial questions derived from previous solutions; or the composition of abstract geometry and form to be subsequently "translated" into a building.
The meaning of a work of architecture - and its logic - comes from "within" rather than "without" (i.e. it is not "imported" from previous precedents, normative theories, or aesthetic ideologies). As the nature of the work emerges and its understanding becomes clearer, so does its form as the manifestation of this understanding. Design is, therefore, an evolutionary learning process, a process of exploration, discovery, understanding and interpretation, i.e. it is fundamentally a hermeneutic process. Furthermore, since its subject is the question of our being and our dwelling in this world, design is more than a process of solving functional, spatial, technological and formal problems: it is inherently a phenomenological and ontological process.
But design as the guardian of the issue of dwelling cannot exist without the material act of building. As already mentioned, through architecture - and, thus, through design - we enter into a dialogue and a discourse with the world around us. Through the shaping of the earth and organizing its material into a spatial and tectonic framework we engage the forces and phenomena of nature, reveal its order, and make this order part of our own. It is evident that building cannot be reduced to just "construction", nor separated from the question of dwelling, and, thus, the process of design, without subverting both. Trying to understand and bring forth the essence and meaning of a work is synonymous with the exploration of its material form and order and, thus, the inquiry into the formal, phenomenal and tectonic nature of building.

19Such a view of architecture and design runs counter to the current design ethic and, by implication, challenges the object-oriented, techno-scientific paradigm that is responsible for it. It would be foolish to think that we can turn back the clock and change this paradigm, e.g. undo the process of specialization and re-integrate architecture with construction and engineering. But we do not have to be captive to this paradigm. We do not have to accept that architecture becomes reduced to " form-making" and/or functional/technical problemsolving. We can change the way we think about and approach design. Within its own domain architecture - design - can still pursue the question of our being, building and dwelling in its totality and still collaborate with the other two disciplines. The only thing that stops us is our own mind-set.

20"Building Dwelling Thinking" is often criticized and dismissed as an anachronism, a throw-back to a long gone past. (Evidence typically cited for this is Heidegger’s poetic description of a two hundred year old Black Forest farmhouse as an ideal example of dwelling through the gathering and embodiment of the four-fold, even though he specifically states that this in no way should be interpreted as a model for the present.) Yet, in a world dominated by the viewpoint of science and technology, architecture increasingly has difficulties to demonstrate its value and relevance to society and to establish a true identity as a legitimate discipline all its own. The problem that architecture faces is not how best to accommodate itself within the techno-scientific world view and paradigm of thought. Regardless whether it veers towards science and engineering or towards art, or attempts to find a compromise, it is destined to further lose its identity and its very existence is in question. The problem, as Heidegger points out, is first and foremost for architecture to understand its very own nature. Thus, Heidegger’s essay by implication not only calls for an alternate view and approach to architecture it also shines a bright light on the serious failure of architectural theory.

21Current architectural theory has become little more than sophisticated criticism. It focuses on architectural problems rather than the problem of architecture; theories rather than theory. While it is good at diagnosing the pathology of architecture’s deficiencies, whether of a social, cultural, technological, or aesthetic nature, it is blind to the fact that these are essentially the consequences of the underlying paradigm that controls architecture’s thought and practice. Meanwhile, while it is criticizing what is wrong with architecture, often looking to other disciplines for guidance, from philosophy to sociology, cultural and literary criticism and art, it has abrogated it’s obligation to help architecture find its own identity and definition as a discipline by exploring what architecture is, instead of what form it should take, i.e. what its nature is, its role, its meaning and its place within the rest of human endeavor. Only if architectural theory begins to pursue these issues will architecture, rather than constantly be meandering between art, social science, engineering and the humanities, finally begin to develop its own center and core, and be able to go forward. Heidegger’s essay, rather than an anachronism, could actually help begin to point the way to the future.


1 lecture given on August 5, 1951 as part of "Darmstädter Gespräch II" (Darmstadt Symposium) on the topic "Mensch und Raum" (Man and Space); first published in the proceedings (Darmstadt: Neue Darmstädter Verlagsanstalt, 1952); English publication, trans., by Albert Hofstadter in Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought (New York, Harper & Row, 1975)

2 Donald A. Cress, trans., René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company, second edition, 1986); Discourse on Method originally published in 1637

3 Morris Hicky Morgan, trans., Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture (New York, Dover Publications Inc.,1960)

4 cf. Vitruvius, Book I, Chapter III. 2, "The Departments of Architecture"

5 cf. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas , in particular the definition on p. 87 (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1985; revised edition)

6 "Building Dwelling Thinking", Poetry, Language, Thought , p. 161(the italics are Heidegger’s)