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[Originally published as in Building and Dwelling [Bauen und Wohnen], edited by Eduard Führ. Munich, Germany: Waxmann Verlag GmbH; New York: Waxmann, 2000, pp. 189-202; to see other articles in this collection, which originally appeared on the Web, go to: http://www.theo.tu-cottbus.de/Wolke/eng/Subjects/982/Seamon/seamon_t.html



Concretizing Heidegger's Notion of Dwelling:

The Contributions of Thomas Thiis-Evensen And

Christopher Alexander


David Seamon


In “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 Alexander—indicates important but different ways in which Heidegger’s 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).



In “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.


In emphasizing this link to place, Heidegger suggests that building relates to dwelling, which therefore can be said to involve a sense of continuity, community, and at-homeness (Harries, 1983). The crux of dwelling, Heidegger argues, is sparing and preserving--the kindly concern for land, things, creatures, and people as they are and as they can become (ibid., p. 149; Zimmerman, 1983). As human beings, we cannot fail to dwell, for dwelling, ultimately, is the essential existential core of human being-in-the-world from which there is no escape.


At the same time, dwelling is just as much a means as an end. There will always be a certain tension, a kind of imperfection, between what we wish, do, and make. The significant questions are how do we dwell in our own particular situations and how can we shape the quality of our dwelling for better or worse? Heidegger links the quality of our dwelling to the quality of our building, since an effective building arises from a genuine sense of sparing and preserving (see Foltz, 1995, pp. 159-63).


Heidegger 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.


In other words, people are immersed in their world, and this immersion is qualitative, subtle—in many ways, ineffable. Thus a walk through a well‑tended garden evokes a different state of being than a similar walk through an uncared‑for garden or an unsightly vacant lot. Similarly, entering a church evokes a different human stance than entering a nightclub or a shopping mall or an empty street or a street filled with human activity. One aim for aim for architects is to become sensitive to these experiences and to become more aware of how specific qualities of the built environment enhance or stymie particular human experiences.


Heidegger 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.


It is this need for letting‑be in designing and understanding that marks the value of Thiis-Evensen and Alexander's work for a deeper, more grounded, understanding of dwelling. Both architects seek concrete means for identifying and describing built qualities that sustain and strengthen the quality of dwelling. Through evoking one style of sparing and preserving, Thiis-Evensen and Alexander provide ways to see and think more clearly, which, in turn, might lead to better designing and building.



Norwegian 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.


Using 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).


Thiis-Evensen demonstrates that a building’s relative degree of insideness or outsideness in regard to floor, wall, and roof can be clarified through motion, weight, and substance—the three “existential expressions of architecture” (ibid., p. 21). By motion, he means the architectural element's sense of dynamism or inertia--that is, whether the element seems to expand, to contract, or to rest in balance. Weight involves the sense of heaviness or lightness of the element and how it relates to gravity. Last, substance relates to the material sense of the element--whether it is soft or hard, coarse or fine, warm or cold, and so forth.


In 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.


Thiis-Evensen emphasizes that different architectural styles and cultural traditions may interpret the inside-outside dialectic through different degrees of openness and closure (for example, the medieval fortress's impenetrable walls versus the Renaissance palace's walls of many windows). Regardless of the particular stylistic or cultural expression, however, floors, walls, and roofs provide related results in that they shape an insideness in the midst of outsideness so that the individual and group can dwell. In addition, varying physical qualities of floors, walls, and roofs lead to different experiences of motion, weight, and substance. The result is an intricate set of tensions between architectural elements and architectural experience:


            What is it that the roof, the floor and the wall do? As a motion, the roof rises or falls. The walls stand up or sink, the floor spreads out, climbs or descends. In this way, weight is also implied. That which rises is light, that which falls is heavy. And if the roof is bright and soft as a sail, it is open. If it is dark and of stone, it is closed. If the openings in a wall are tall and narrow, they ascend, if they are short and wide, they sink. A soft and fine floor is warm and open, but if it is hard and coarse, it closes and is heavy ( ibid., 23).



In 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.


One example is Thiis-Evensen's explication of the wall, which, of the three archetypes, he shows to reconcile most potently the relationship between inside and outside, since it is by way of the wall that one "passes through" between exterior and interior, either physically or visually through doors and windows. The wall resolves the existential tension between inside and outside in two ways: either the wall draws exterior space inside, or the wall draws interior space outside. In turn, this degree of penetration from inside to outside or vice versa can vary: on one hand, there can be complete openness and invitation; on the other hand, there can be complete closure and rejection.


One way in which the wall expresses this dialectic between openness and closure is through its windows, which are said by Thiis-Evensen to contribute to a building's sense of inside and outside in that they announce the mode of life within the building. Windows are "always an expression of the interior to the world at large" (ibid., 251):


            While the door is determined by its relation to what is outside, the window is the symbol of what is inside. Just like the eye, it expresses the interior's outlook over exterior space.... (ibid.).


Thiis-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.


For example, the frame of a window is important because it makes a setting for the inside space and brings it toward the viewer on the outside. If the window has no frame, the outside forces its way in. The frame is important, therefore, because it leads the inside out. This "leading out" occurs in varying ways, depending on what parts of the frame‑-sill, lintel, and jambs‑-are emphasized or deemphasized (figure 1). If all its parts are emphasized (a in figure 1), then the entire interior space seems to reach outward. On the other hand, if only the lintel is highlighted, then an upward movement and roofs take precedence (b); or, if only the sill is highlighted, a sinking movement and floors take precedence (c). In addition, the sense of movement for a wall as a whole can be affected by the arrangement of window frames (figures 2 & 3).


Figures 1, 2 & 3




Another 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.


Figures 4 & 5




In 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).


Thiis-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.



This 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.


Like Thiis-Evensen, Alexander believes that architecture today often fails both practically and aesthetically. He also believes that many built environments of the past--for example, a city like Venice or Oxford, or a building like Chartres Cathedral or a Japanese farmhouse--generally had a sense of togetherness and harmony (Alexander, 1979). An important focus of Alexander's work is how architectural parts belong together in a larger environmental whole (Alexander, 1993). Alexander argues that, if an environmental whole is made rightly, it has a powerful sense of place, which may help people who live in and use that place to have more satisfactory, vibrant lives.


In 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).


The practical tool that Alexander develops to foster environmental wholes and healing is "pattern language"--a conceptual method whereby the layperson or designer can identify and visualize the underlying elements and relationships in a built environment that foster a sense of place (Alexander et al. 1977). In his master volume, Pattern Language (ibid.), Alexander and colleagues identify 253 of these elements, or patterns, as the are called. A pattern is both interpretive and prescriptive: first, it is a description of a particular element of the built environment that contributes to a sense of place (for example, "identifiable neighborhood" [no. 14], "degrees of publicness " [36], "main gateways" [53], "high places" [62], and "window place" [180]); second, it is a practical instruction that suggests how to design the particular element effectively (for example, in regard to "main gateways," "Mark every boundary in the city which has important human meaning‑-the boundary of a building cluster, a neighborhood, a precinct‑-by great gateways where the major entering paths cross the boundary" [Alexander et al. 1977, p. 278]).


Alexander 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:


1.      Patterns that describe larger-scale environments that cannot be designed or built all at once (e.g., "community of 7,000," [12], "shopping street" [32], "housing cluster" [37]);

2.      Patterns that describe buildings and groups of buildings (e.g., "main building" [99], "family of entrances" [102], "positive outdoor space" [106]);

3.      Patterns that describe individual building details (e.g., "structure follows social spaces” [205], “columns at the corners” [212], “front door bench” [242]).


Alexander 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,


            Design must be premised on a process that has the creation of wholeness as its overriding purpose, and in which every increment of construction, no matter how small, is devoted to this purpose.



Like 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 place.


To understand more clearly this difference between Alexander and Thiis-Evensen, we can consider one example‑-windows, to which both writers devote considerable attention but in different ways. In Pattern Language, Alexander includes several patterns dealing with windows and, in each, they work in such as way as to involve people more directly with their place. For example, the pattern "windows overlooking life" (no. 192) insists that the building, through its windows, have direct visual or physical relationship with the surroundings so that there will be a connection between inside and outside. Similarly, the pattern "window place" (no. 180) says that:


Everyone loves window seats, bay windows, and big windows with low sills and comfortable chairs drawn up to them....Therefore, in every room where you spend any length of time during the day, make at least one window into a "window place" (Alexander 1977, p. 834, p. 837).


This 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.


In pattern language, Alexander uses the term density to describe the multivalent meaning of the built environment. He explains that "many patterns overlap in the same physical space: the building is very dense; it has many meanings captured in a small space; and through this density it becomes profound" (ibid., p. xli). A simple example of density is the "window place" pattern, which, in terms of Thiis-Evensen’s motion, weight, and substance, could be said to gather and reconcile darkness-light and movement-rest. By incorporating a "lighted place to be comfortable," a room becomes more meaningful and dense than if it included either a "lighted place" or "place to rest" alone.


Unlike Alexander, Thiis-Evensen does not consider how windows work as a significant locus of activity. Instead, he speaks of the window largely in terms of its formal existential expression. In other words, how, by its specific size, shape, and physical arrangement, does a window allow the interior and exterior of a building to speak or not to speak to the world beyond?


Thiis-Evensen’s 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.


In this sense, both Thiis-Evensen and Alexander’s theories of architecture and place are a major contribution to clarifying Heidegger’s 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 world—the 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 Heidegger’s thinking and is another major contribution to grounding Heidegger’s notion of dwelling practically. See Norberg-Schulz, 1971, 1980, 1985, 1988.




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