Alberto Pérez-Gómez

Dwelling on Heidegger:
Architecture as mimetic techno-poiesis


1Heidegger's essay "Building Dwelling Thinking" is today one of the most popular and yet often misunderstood philosophical texts read by architects in Britain and the USA. Architects' interest in philosophy is of course not a novelty in the tradition of Western culture and indeed it could be argued that architectural theory, until the end of the 18th century, always contained metaphysical concerns, whether explicit in the texts, or implicit in the multidisciplinary nature of architectural thinking and practice. In the context of the specialized architectural theory and practice of modernity, however, particularly after the popularization of the instrumental theories of Jacques-Nicolas-Louis Durand and his followers at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris in the early 19th century, this philosophical interest became rare, and whenever it appeared it became a sign of concern about the poverty of a practice dominated by technology and "calculative thinking." In the last decades, coinciding in fact with the broader critique of European modernism in cultural studies, this concern has demonstrated a desire on the part of architects to understand the status of architecture as something different from "mere" pragmatic building or irrelevant bourgeois decoration.

2This concern, I believe, is echoed in Heidegger's text. Heidegger, as we know, fleshes out beautifully the relationship between building and dwelling as poetic, in the sense of poiesis, the making that is particular to humans. He is also very explicit about the issue that becomes an explicit concern for architects who, following in the footsteps of Piranesi and Boullée, understand the difficulty of "building" a poetic architecture, i.e. a significant architecture, in the "new" world of science and technology. Humanity should dwell poetically in order to fulfill its potential, but since the final installation of the "age of the world-picture" around the turn of the 19th century, it has rarely done so. Reciprocally, not every kind of building allows for dwelling, and even the very possibility of any building of the technological age allowing for dwelling becomes a question. The issue, which is of course the architectural question par excellence, is to characterize the form of building that may, however precariously, allow for dwelling, understanding that dwelling is first and foremost the way human beings are on earth, the authentic way of being human, oriented in thought and action vis-a-vis our inevitable mortality and our capacity to think the infinite: the limits that make freedom a real possibility.

3The question for architecture, we must emphasize from the start, is inherently fraught with dangers. This is because together with the instrumental methodologies of modernity, Durand also introduced a delusory relation with history, one that misconstrues our tradition as a material typology of buildings and offers what seems to be a way out of the dilemma, one that has been taken by postmodern style architects and conservative ideologues to align with Heidegger's concern. While architecture, recognizing its status as a cultural (rather than "natural") discipline since the early 19th century, has by necessity conceptualized its expressive power in terms of linguistic analogies and its present possibilities though a relationship to history, the tendency has been to conceptualize formal strategies in terms of merely syntactic (stylistic) responses to cultural imperatives (usually simply dialectical), leading, for example, to the naive belief that the whole meaning of a medieval city square or a Corinthian capital may be simply "recovered" in the practice of contemporary architecture, disregarding the undeniable reality of our changing mental landscape and our technological flesh.

4In order to qualify how Heidegger's words might be of interest to architecture in the late 20th century, it is my contention that the essay should not be read in isolation. Reading it in isolation usually leads to a nostalgic and even dangerously mystifying concept of architecture. This reading, it must be granted, may be the fault of Heidegger himself as he speaks about vernacular construction or of a seemingly traditional understanding of "place," but read in the context of his other related writings, alternative readings are more plausible. In Heidegger's favour it must be remembered that ever since the late 18th century, the great German Romantics had understood that a position of resistance to the problems of an insufficient reason to account for the major questions of humanity carried with it potential misunderstandings that nevertheless needed to be engaged in order to preserve the very possibility of meaning in our personal existence. I propose that the meaning of Heidegger's critique in "Building Dwelling Thinking" as a non-escapist position emerges most clearly when understood as a piece of an argument that may be construed through Heidegger's late work, in particular considering at least four important essays: "The Question Concerning Technology," "The Origin of the Work of Art" and "The Age of the World Picture" and "Art of Space".

5In the Western tradition, before the Enlightenment and even, precariously, during the 18th century, architecture had preserved its capacity to convey knowledge, in the sense of framing and supporting (ritual) actions that allowed for a radical orientation of human becoming to a suprasensory Being . Late 18th century architects complained about a profound crisis of meaning in their discipline. Once a cosmography and a mythology disappeared as socially accepted realities, the referent of architecture became problematized. This issue is obviously reflected in the philosophical writings of Heidegger, particularly thought his diagnosis of our loss of a world given to experience and substituted by a picture or re-presentation. This is of course the story of modern philosophy, starting with Descartes, and the origins of this problem for architecture may be traced to the late 17th century and the work of Claude Perrault. After Perrault, architects became increasingly interested in developing a tactic of architectural expression based on human culture and institutions, as a mimesis of history, rather than as a mimesis of nature. The early diagnosis of the crisis of meaning in architecture related the form of knowledge conveyed by buildings to reading, as in the example of the cathedral understood as the medieval encyclopedia or biblia pauperum, allowing the individual to understand himself or herself in relation to an order re-presented by the architecture itself. It is perhaps significant that Victor Hugo, in his "Notre-Dame de Paris," declared the end of architecture and associated it to the advent of the book. In his novel, the Renaissance book is made responsible for literally killing the cathedral as a source of knowledge for society. Although in retrospect Victor Hugo's argument is partial, he begs the question, indeed crucial since the early 19th century, concerning the very capacity of architecture to orient us and let us dwell. This is no mere literary fantasy, architecture had fallen into crisis, closely following the initial crisis of the European sciences as diagnosed by Husserl, and the last steps of being's occultation as described by Heidegger. Ever since, architects have been struggling with the very survival of the discipline as a legitimate endeavour, distinct from pragmatic shelter (engineering and technology), and from a mere aesthetization of shelter to comply with fashion and the dictates of consumerism or commercialism.

6Architecture orients, indeed, but its mode of orientation, i.e. what it says, is inseparable from itself. It orients the body in action, framing the actions, traditionally formalized rituals, that allow humans to participate in the totality, the wholeness of culture. Precisely because of its status as the frame for human presence, constituting the space of intersubjectivity where we appear for the other and therefore appear as ourselves, architecture is intricately related to problems of being in the world. It is for this reason that the issue of architecture as a clearing for dwelling cannot be restricted to the cabin in the black forest, or a masonry bridge built by the Romans... Our world as technology is unavoidable, the only way to determine the quality of a building conducive to dwelling must be through technology itself. While recognizing the distinctions between traditional techne and technology as modes of action and the vastly differing relationships they set up between the imagining self and the world, a building as dwelling must be construed through technology, using this critical meditation to disclose the "mysterious" origins of technology in techne and its capacity to embody truth, in the mode of "aletheia." What is at stake is never an overcoming of technology that might "leave it behind," (Überwindung) but rather a twisting and healing (Verwindung), a destabilizing that may show that technology is not absolute truth, that there are other ways available to humanity for relating to the world, means that need also result in a self-transformation that is perhaps related to Heideggerian Gelassenheit, strategies other than power and domination.

7In architectural terms, this would never amount to a nostalgic return to primitive or classical forms, nor to the embracing of any a priori mythology or ideology. Rather the issue is an imaginative "destructuring" that may endanger our presumed existential safety and disclose us as truly mortal. It is this aspect of Heidegger's reading of the work of art, the "earth" that needs emphasis in our epoch of nihilism. We are fragile, and life's uncertainty is not merely incidental. Architecture may open up a space for dwelling if it can use technology to demystify its presumed hegemonic power over us, perhaps simply by taking seriously the capacity of poetic tropes to "unconceal," to frame institutions that may put into question the demystification of humanity's spiritual reality, suffered as a result of positivism and calculative thinking. In order to accomplish this cultural task, architecture must be humble as an act, yet recognize that it emerges from an artistic centre, an imagining self, ethical and responsible, rather than from the consensus of "communicative action." Architectural expression in the space of chora, understood as cultural space but also the space of human appearance, the space of the city beyond classical definitions, may thus gather the fourfold in a non-escapist way, revealing the mystery of depth that makes us human (rather than a prosaic third dimension), the mystery of Merleau-Ponty's "flesh" (rather than a world split into objective and subjective realms in which space is objective and time is merely a subjective effect of repetition or a construction of absent instants). An architecture to reveal humanity not in time but made of time, not in space but radically embodied and existing in a thick, vivid present, between the earth and the sky, as a unique place in the universe, always subject to forces larger than ourselves that in fact make us human, call us to take measure and yet always lay beyond the reach of calculation. In order to accomplish this aim, architecture must understand itself differently. This is, I believe, the challenge offered by Heidegger: For architectural theory never to accept its status to be merely equivalent to applied science; for architecture never to conceive of itself as a resolution of an equation that may result in efficient "form," regardless of the complexity or sophistication of the equation, nor to understand itself as "aesthetic object," if we understand this notion in terms of 18th century categories. Hans-Georg Gadamer, following upon the insights of Heidegger, has convincingly written about "the relevance of the beautiful," i.e. beauty as truth. Extrapolating Gadamer's terminology, architecture may be relevant as knowledge and recover its association with "truth" if we understand it in terms of play, symbol and festival. This involves a recognition of the temporal dimension of architectural meaning, and of its narrative connections. As a project of a potentially poetic way of living on earth, the narrative architectural "project" becomes a privileged mode of construing a true architecture for dwelling. Both "narrative script" and its "formal frame" must issue from the enlightened imagination of the architect, oriented through history and grounded in it, as it is only in this manner, and in the sense of Nietzsche's seminal essay "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," that true and responsible innovation may come about in our post-cosmological epoch. The result should never be a pastiche of the past, but the truly novel, which inspires awe and yet is also recognizable, respectful of our heritage, yet never an act of mere historic restoration. We could quote in this regard the words of Heidegger, who writes without ambiguity: "The flight into tradition, out of a combination of humility and presumption, can bring about nothing in itself other than self-deception and blindness in relation to the historical moment" ("The Age of the World Picture" in The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays" New York, 1977).

8This argument is futher supported if we extrapolate to architecture the argument Heidegger makes for sculpture in "Kunst und Raum". The issue is a making of ´place´ rather than the geometric space of Galilei and Newton, isomorphic and homogeneous; a ´place´ that is neighter merely ´found´ nor merely ´invented´.
Two excellent examples will serve me by the way of closing: Le Corbusier´s Convent La Tourette and Daniel Libeskind´s Jewish Museum in Berlin.
Both are special in a deconstructive or untied way. La Tourette, a religious building that speaks rather about an emptiness that is not nothing -a secular or ecomenic religiousity of nothing. Conversely the museum is a secular space that is also untied of this category. It is as if the sacred/profane dychotomy world is unable to sustain the possibility of dwelling of postmodern humanity. These two buildings defy those categories and in so doing stand for authentic dwelling - neighter aesthetic contemplation nor instrumental use - Awareness of mortality works but does not fit like a glove.