‘Thinkers for Architects’ is a series of books that lays the groundwork for readers on the thinkers who have contributed to architectural theory and thinking related to the field of architecture. ‘Heidegger for Architects’ by Adam Sharr is one of the books in this series. Sharr provides an introductory framework of Martin Heidegger’s thoughts on spatial experiences, giving key elements from some of his essays, with references to further reading. 

Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) works are highly controversial due to his alliance with Nazis, and like many other modern philosophers of his time, his works are often disputable. Regardless of whether one considers his works and philosophies in terms of the literary criticism concept of “Death of the Author”, or condemns his work as being complicit with his fascist alliances, his works have influenced the works of numerous architects, theorists, artists and historians since the modernist era. 

Heidegger, the German thinker known for his rhetorics and circular mode of interpretation, who asked the question, ‘What is thinking?’ is one of many thinkers who explored phenomenology in architecture in some of his books like ‘Being and Time’ of 1927 (1962) and ‘Art and Space’ of 1971 (1973) and a few other such essays. The field of architecture is esoteric and so the author Adam Sharr urges the reader to indulge in the book and interpret it with scepticism and has written it as a guide to understanding Heidegger’s thoughts about architecture, extracting ideas from three of his works, ‘The Thing’ (1950), ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ (1951), and ‘…poetically, Man dwells…’ (1951). The three essays discussed here were written post-war and were concurrently influenced by its time.

Book in Focus: Heidegger for Architects by Adam Sharr - Sheet1
Martin Heidegger in the garden of his house in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany_©Ullstein Bild

On Being and Place

Existentialism is a central theme in Heidegger’s ideology and philosophy. He often questioned the state of ‘Being’, in Heideggerian terminology known as ‘Dasein’, also known as our “existence” or “presence” in the world. Heidegger believed that built spaces are the result of human activities, and in turn, the built environment influenced human activities and essentially dictates our sense of place in the world. 

For Heidegger, the places he lived in, influenced his thoughts, and in turn his notions and ideologies. His Catholic upbringing led to his works on hermeneutics and his life-long exploration of ‘being’. 

Sharr quotes that Heidegger often indulged in the cosmic presence of ‘being’ when he was away in his hut in Todtnauberg, by inditing analogies to nature and our sense of place in relation to it. “Nazism was larded with invocations which can be linked to the romantic, such as ‘Blut und Boden’ (‘blood and soil’). Many see Heidegger’s penchant for romanticism as one of the most dangerous aspects of his philosophy.” (Sharr, 2007) 

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Heidegger’s Hut from North West_©Mark Riley

The Thing

‘The Thing’ or ‘Das Ding’ (1950) was a paper written by Heidegger and explores the notions of ‘nearness’ and how humans interpret and understand it in relation to objects. His thinking often revolved around the notion of ‘being’ and how humans experience the tangible things around us by physically touching them, or by relating to their position, which in turn, gives us a sense of place; that the objects around us are “immediate and real”. 

“For Heidegger, conceiving of things as objects once again diminished the importance of being. To distinguish between the things of everyday life and some notional transcendent object-form was to set up an unhelpful distraction from immediate experience.” (Sharr, 2007) Heidegger conceived that the concept of ‘object’ is abstract and claims to be detached from the present experiences. He further applies this concept to our experience of ‘dwelling’, in how if one were to experience the place they stay at in terms of the ‘fourfold’ – a combination of Earth, sky, divinities and other mortals, is when they would feel at home; that this notion is the circumstance of ‘being’ or existence.  

Building Dwelling Thinking

In the essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ (1951), Heidegger avoided using commas in between the words to emphasize his idea of the correlation among the words. The paper revolved around two questions – “What is it to dwell?” and “How does building belong to dwelling?” He talked about the relation between building and the spatial experiences they create. He criticized that architects focus on the aesthetics of it all and hardly prioritize the experience of the inhabitants. 

He advanced his idiosyncrasies from ‘The Thing’ onto ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, stating that one feels ‘nearness’ as ‘dwelling’ – in feeling a sense of their place in the world. “For building isn’t merely a means and a way towards dwelling – to build is in itself already to dwell” (Heidegger, 1971). He talks about spaces, and how they’re born when we identify places in how we experience them.

…Poetically, Man Dwells…

Adam Sharr states that the essay ‘. . . poetically, Man dwells . . .’ (1951) is the most rhetoric of the three expressed in the book. The title of this essay extracted from German poet Friedrich Hölderlin’s poetry, “Full of merit, yet poetically, man dwells on this earth” (Hölderlin, 1971), and summarises Heidegger’s thoughts on how the mundanity of ‘dwelling’ itself is poetry. “Heidegger felt that building and dwelling were always involved with attempts to make sense of existence, and were thus poetic.” (Sharr, 2007) 

Theodore Adorno wrote ‘The Jargon of Authenticity’ (1964), a critique of Heidegger’s notion of ‘authenticity’. Heidegger talks about the transcendental experience of ‘dwelling’, written from the comfort of his faraway hut, essentially depicting an idealistic bourgeois existence and in spite of preaching the mundanity of ‘dwelling’, it’s about a “falsely comforting domesticity”. But in reality, our existence is and has always been materialistic and not idealistic, and Heidegger’s notions denigrate historical materialism and the socioeconomic struggle that comes with it. 

Influence on Architects

Heideggerian thinking has inspired the works of countless architects, and Adam Sharr discusses one such architect in this book – Peter Zumthor. Zumthor, in his architectural manifesto ‘Thinking Architecture’ (1998) writes extensively about the experiential aspect of spaces, inspired by Heidegger’s concept of phenomenology. Zumthor talks about his Therme Vals spa project in Therm, Switzerland, on its sensual qualities and in manifesting the materiality surrounding the experiences of the senses. 

Heidegger’s notion of ‘authenticity’ and his disregard for academia and professional training and instead, the embracement of ‘instinct’ in designing spaces, is present in Zumthor’s ideology of architectural practice. Sharr advances his view on this with the argument on the dichotomy of architectural phenomenology and critical theory, wherein the former is complacent while the latter prioritizes the political and ethical aspects surrounding the human experience in the built spaces. “The Heideggerian outlook which informs Zumthor’s architecture is all too passive for many commentators. It militates against political activism.” (Sharr, 2007)

Book in Focus: Heidegger for Architects by Adam Sharr - Sheet3
Therme Vals – Peter Zumthor_©Andrea Ceriani

With a Grain of Salt 

Heidegger is incredibly controversial, as aforementioned, due to his ties with Nazis, and much of the criticism condemns his thinking because of the seeping of those ideologies into the crevices of his works. However, the German thinker with his idiosyncratic rhetorics managed to leave behind a legacy of the meaning of “thinking” and “being”, and with his critique of modernism and his subsequent influence on modernist thinkers and architects, Heideggerian philosophy gave a great deal to the study of phenomenology. 

Adam Sharr has laid the groundwork for Heideggerian thinking on the aspects of space, time and being in this book. And what anyone can do is take things with a grain of salt and as Karl Marx says in his ‘Eleven Theses on Feuerbach’, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it”. (Marx, 1888)

References

Sharr, A. (2010). Heidegger for architects. London [Etc.] Routledge.

www.routledge.com. (n.d.). Thinkers for Architects – Book Series – Routledge & CRC Press. [online] Available at: https://www.routledge.com/Thinkers-for-Architects/book-series/THINKARCH?a=1&pg=2 [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

Routledge & CRC Press. (n.d.). Heidegger for Architects. [online] Available at: https://www.routledge.com/Heidegger-for-Architects/Sharr/p/book/9780415415170#:~:text=Informing%20the%20designs%20of%20architects [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

Davies, P. (2017). Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). [online] Architectural Review. Available at: https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/reputations/martin-heidegger-1889-1976  [Accessed 23 Apr. 2021].

Wikipedia. (2021). Theses on Feuerbach. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theses_on_Feuerbach#:~:text=The%20document%20is%20best%20remembered [Accessed 23 Apr. 2021].

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