Concretizing Heidegger´s Notion of Dwelling:
1In "Building Dwelling Thinking," phenomenological philosopher Martin Heidegger discusses the notion of dwelling and contends that "only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build" (Heidegger, 1971, p. 160). A major problem with dwelling as an idea is its lack of specificity, particularly in terms of design significance. This article argues that the work of two architects--Thomas Thiis-Evensen and Christopher Alexanderindicates important but different ways in which Heideggers dwelling can be translated into more grounded architectural meaning. Thiis-Evensen and Alexander's ideas, placed in a Heideggerian framework, point toward a way of thinking that might lead to the kind of dwelling-building relationship suggested by Heidegger when he writes that "to build is already to dwell" (ibid., p. 146).
DWELLING AND BUILDING
2In "Building Dwelling Thinking," Heidegger's major means
of investigation is etymological: what is the word history of "to build" ("bauen")
and its links to dwelling? Bauen, says Heidegger, relates to nearness and
neighborliness and also implies "to cherish and protect, to preserve and care
for" (ibid., p. 147). Bauen also relates to the old High German word for
building, "baun," which means "to dwell" in the sense of
remaining or staying in place.
3Heidegger also argues that, in practical terms, dwelling involves
the gathering of the fourfold--the coming together of earth, sky, people, and a
sense of spiritual reverence, or "the gods," as he signifies higher realities
(ibid.). In this sense, dwelling is no mere extension of existential space or place;
rather, "it becomes itself the fundamental human activity, in the light of which both
place and space find their first clarification" (Jager, 1983, p. 154). As
Heidegger interprets dwelling, the built environment is crucial because it supports and
reflects a person and group's way of being-in-the-world. The built environment is a
certain embodied grasp of the world, a particular way of taking up the body and the world,
a specific orientation disclosing certain aspects of a worldly horizon (ibid.,
pp. 154-155). The world in which we find ourselves completes us in what we are, and
therefore the specific nature of the built environment becomes crucial.
4Heidegger argues that, in our modern age, human dwelling is reduced
and so, therefore, is building. His explication of why we dwell less fully today is
complicated; he suggests that, in part, it is because we manipulate and demand from our
world rather than meet it an attitude of sparing and preserving--i.e., allowing it to be
and become. In this sense, a key to dwelling is letting ourselves and the world be, and
this letting-be includes the ways we build, see, understand, and think.
A PHENOMENOLOGY OF ARCHITECTURAL FORM
5Norwegian architect Thomas Thiis-Evensen's Archetypes in Architecture goes far in developing a language of architectural elements as they have relation to dwelling (Thiis-Evensen 1987).1 Thiis-Evensen's aim is to understand "the universality of architectural expression" (ibid., 8). His vehicle is what he calls architectural archetypes"the most basic elements of architecture," which for Thiis-Evensen can be identified as the floor, wall, and roof (ibid.). Thiis-Evensen argues that these three architectural elements are not arbitrary but, rather, are common to all historical and cultural traditions. The essential existential ground of floor, wall, and roof, he argues, is the relationship between inside and outside. Just by being what they are, the floor, wall, and roof automatically create an inside in the midst of an outside, though in different ways: the floor, through above and beneath; the wall, through within and around; and the roof, through over and below.
6Using examples from architectural history as evidence, Thiis-Evensen
argues that any building can be interpreted experientially in terms of these three
archetypes. His main purpose is to describe the kinds of environmental and architectural
experience that different variations of floor, wall, and roof sustain and presuppose. The
result, he claims, is "a common language of [architectural] form which we can
immediately understand, regardless of individual or culture" (ibid., 17).
7In broadest terms, the central question Thiis-Evensen asks in Archetypes
is, "How do floor, wall, and roof express insideness and outsideness through motion,
weight, and substance?" The relationship between insideness and outsideness has, in
fact, received considerable attention in phenomenological research on environmental and
architectural experience (e.g., Chaffin 1989, Dovey 1985, Mugerauer 1991, Mugerauer, 1994,
Seamon 1991, Silverstein 1991), especially in geographer Edward Relph's phenomenology of
place (Relph 1976), which demonstrates that insideness is the hallmark quality
transforming space into place and sustaining the deepest sense of dwelling. One of
Thiis-Evensen's contributions is to illustrate ways in which architecture contributes to
insideness and outsideness and therefore grounds a sense of dwelling.
THE WALL AND WINDOW AS EXAMPLES
9In the three main sections of Archetypes, Thiis-Evensen
examines the ways through motion, weight, and substance that floors, walls, and roofs
express insideness and outsideness. This work marks the start toward a descriptive
language delineating the invariant elements of the built environment that have
significance for human experience and dwelling.
11Thiis-Evensen points out that a window is much more than a wall
opening: a window that is only a gaping hole makes the wall "a lifeless skin around a
dead and empty interior" (ibid., 259). In clarifying how windows actually give life
to a building, he examines the parts of a window--the opening, the face in
the opening, and the frame around the opening. He then considers how each of these
components contributes to a sense of insideness and outsideness.
12Another important quality that relates to the window's sense of insideness and outsideness is the shape of its opening for which Thiis-Evensen identifies three variations--vertical (a in figure 4), horizontal (b), and central (c). These different forms lead to different inside-outside relationships, thus both vertical (a in figure 5) and central (b) windows suggest a movement coming from inside out, while a horizontal window (c) suggests an inside lateral movement that is separate from the person outside.
13In his explication of the floor, wall, and roof, Thiis-Evensen assumes that there are various shared existential qualities -- insideness-outsideness, gravity-levity, coldness-warmth, and so forth -- that mark the foundation of architecture. Thus, a wall with windows whose lintels are emphasized suggests a sense of upward movement and levity, just as a wall with windows whose sills are emphasized will feel heavier and in relationship to the ground. Or, if one studies the experienced qualities of stairs, one realizes that narrow stairs typically relate to privacy and a faster ascent, whereas wide stairs often relate to publicness, ceremony, and a slower pace. Similarly, steep stairs express struggle and strength, isolation and survival--experienced qualities that frequently lead to steep stairs' use as a sacred symbol, as in Mayan temples or Rome's Scala Santa. On the other hand, shallow stairs encourage a calm, comfortable pace and typically involve secular use, as, for example, Michelangelo's steps leading up to the Campidoglio of Rome's Capitoline Hill (ibid., 89-103).
14Thiis-Evensen argues that his work has direct design implications. He claims, that, too often, an architect's aesthetic sense is subjective because he or she has not thoughtfully considered how architectural forms arise from and translate themselves back into shared existential qualities like motion, weight, substance, insideness, outsideness, permeability, closure, and so forth. Thiis-Evensen believes that understanding the archetypes "and their expressive potentialities is essential when [a design] vision is to be turned into a realization" (ibid., 387). The result might be a building whose formal qualities resonate with its practical needs. The possibility becomes greater that human beings and their built world are reconciled and the quality of dwelling strengthened.
CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER AND PATTERN LANGUAGE
15This reconciliation between people and their built world is also a
major aim in the research and design of American architect Christopher Alexander, though
he works at a different experiential scale than Thiis-Evensen, who largely emphasizes
lived qualities of individual buildings. Alexander is more concerned with
architecture in its larger environmental context. In other words, how can activities,
buildings, spaces, and landscapes be designed in an integrated, coherent way to create
places that are coherent, beautiful, and alive for their residents and users? In short,
the aim is place making that sustains dwelling.
16In his work, Alexander seeks a way to return a sense of wholeness to
the buildings and environments of modern Western society. He emphasizes that the crucial
process is healing. Every new construction, whether building or square or street
furniture or window detail, must be made in such a way as to heal the environment, where
"heal" especially means "make whole." The obligation is that the thing
built must work "to create a continuous structure of wholes around itself"
(Alexander 1987, p. 22).
17Alexander emphasizes, however, that successful places are always composed of many interrelated patterns that work synergistically to create a whole greater than the individual parts. To incorporate this wholeness in pattern language, Alexander organizes the 253 patterns from larger to smaller in three groups:
18Alexander argues that, for any new design problem, it is important to write a pattern language that begins with larger patterns and then incorporates smaller patterns. In this way, the larger qualities of environmental wholeness are held in sight as smaller qualities are fitted around them. He also emphasizes that the 253 patterns in Pattern Language are illustrative and far from complete. New design problems and environments may require revised patterns or even entirely new patterns that the architect will need to create from scratch (e.g., Coates and Seamon, 1993). In the end, pattern language is not a finished product but an on-going process of dialogue among architect, client, user, builder, and site. Pattern language is not a master list of unchangeable design principles that must be incorporated in all buildings and places. Instead, it is a way of looking at and thinking about buildings and environments so that one can better understand how their parts might work together to create a whole. As Alexander (1987, p. 16) explains,
ASPECTS OF AN ARCHITECTURE OF DWELLING
20Like Heidegger, both Thiis-Evensen and Alexander believe that the
built world can help illuminate and sustain essential qualities of human understanding,
life, and experience, though the two architects thinking is somewhat different as to
what these essential qualities are. Alexander would no doubt appreciate Thiis-Evensen's
effort to understand architectural elements existentially, but he might ask that
Thiis-Evensen give more attention to how individual archetypes join together into a larger
sense of human meaning, environment, and place. For example, Alexander would probably
accept Thiis-Evensen's interpretation of the way that architectural qualities support a
sense of insideness and outsideness, but he would also emphasize that these architectural
qualities are of little use if they do not contribute to the building's wider sense of
22This pattern particularly well illustrates Alexander's emphasis on
how buildings work as networks of behaviors and experiences. When people enter a room with
a window, Alexander argues, they typically experience two forces: first, they are drawn
toward the light; second, they want to rest and be comfortable. A window seat
automatically resolves these two forces, and a space is transformed into a place where one
can both sit comfortably and enjoy the light.
23Thiis-Evensens emphasis on how formal architectural qualities are experienced does not mean that Alexander is more complete in his existential understanding of architecture than Thiis-Evensen. Rather, these differences in approach and scale point toward the considerable variety of ways in which the built environment can contribute order and pattern to human life. One can imagine a continuum of architectural and environmental meaning that runs, on one end, from the pure architectural element to, on the other end, complex aggregations of buildings, spaces and environments that evoke a powerful sense of place. A thorough architectural and environmental phenomenology would delineates this full range of architectural and environmental experience and considers how qualities of the natural, built, and human worlds contribute to a sense of place and environmental wholeness.
24In this sense, both Thiis-Evensen and Alexanders theories of architecture and place are a major contribution to clarifying Heideggers cryptic statement cited at the start of this article"Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build." The work of both architects helps us better to dwell because they help us better to see one part of our worldthe way that architecture can contribute to human being-in-the-world. In different ways, both architects seek a virtuous circle in which people and world, thinking and designing, designing and building are all mutually supportive. In this sense, Heidegger would no doubt cheer these works, seeing them as a pragmatic complement to the larger philosophical questions that he reopens in his own writings.
1. Thiis-Evensen's book is a rewritten version of his 1982 doctoral dissertation done under the direction of Norwegian architect and architectural theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz, one of the major figures in developing a phenomenology of architecture and environment. Though not discussed here, Norberg-Schulz's work also draws centrally on Heideggers thinking and is another major contribution to grounding Heideggers notion of dwelling practically. See Norberg-Schulz, 1971, 1980, 1985, 1988.