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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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 Heideggers tenets :
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.
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 architectures 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, architectures 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.
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 architectures problems.
16So, what is the answer? How can architecture overcome this seemingly
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.
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 Heideggers 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, Heideggers 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 architectures 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 architectures 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 its 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. Heideggers 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 Heideggers)