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Disclosing the Ontological Depth of Place: Heidegger’s Topology  by Jeff Malpas

Edward Relph

Relph is a geographer who teaches in the Division of Social Sciences at Scarborough College, the University of Toronto. His writings have been instrumental in demonstrating the value of a phenomenological approach for environmental and architectural concerns. His books include Place and Placelessness (1976), one of the earliest and most accessible phenomenologies of place; Rational Landscapes and Humanistic Geography (1981), a powerful explication of the Heideggerian notion of appropriation as a potential vehicle for a lived environmental ethic grounded in respect and care for the Other—what Relph calls “environmental humility”; and The Modern Urban Landscape (1987), an exploration of why cities of our time look the way they do. relph@scar.utoronto.ca. © 2008 Edward Relph. Originally published in vol. 19, no. 1 (winter 2008), pp. 5-8.

A few years ago in the Tate Modern Gallery in London, there was an installation of the reconstruction of an explosion of an ordinary garden shed. The room was filled with fragments of wood, tools, equipment and gardening stuff, some recognizable, others not—suspended from the ceiling to recreate a three-dimensional, frozen moment of the explosion that visitors could walk through. Something ordinary and everyday, all in pieces, disconnected except by point of origin.

I recently began a comprehensive review of what has been written about place in the last 20 years and it was like walking into the aftermath of an academic explosion. What had once been a reasonably coherent body of thought, grounded in phenomenology and mostly the concern of humanistic geographers and environmental psychologists, seems to have flown off in all directions.

For example, Doreen Massey flatly rejects the idea of places as sites of nostalgia and proposes instead that they are nodes in networks of social relations. Altman and Low define place as settings to which individuals are emotionally and culturally attached. For David Harvey “[p]lace, in whatever guise, is like space and time, a social construct.” GIS scientist Pragya Agarwal claims that “[p]laces are proximal spaces,” while artist Lucy Lippard writes that “[p]lace for me is the locus of desire.” Neuroscientist John Zeisel uses MRI to locate where in the brain our sense of place resides.

What I think has happened is that, because place is an everyday phenomenon with no precise definition, it can be bent to fit any methodological or disciplinary bias. For me, the only way to make some sense of this confusion is to get back to what preceded the big bang, to return to place as a phenomenon of experience and seek clarification there. For this, Jeff Malpas has become a valuable guide, including his most recent work, Heidegger’s Topology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006).

Over the last decade, Malpas and other philosophers—most notably Ed Casey, Ingrid Stefanovic and Robert Mugerauer—have established that place has been an important philosophical concept since the origins of Western philosophy, that it is best understood phenomenologically, and that Heideggers writings are crucial in this understanding.

In Heidegger’s Topology, Malpas takes this interest in place one step further by arguing that Heidegger’s thought is not just helpful in elucidating place, but that place is at the root of Heideggers philosophy of being. Being and place are inextricably bound together in that being emerges only through place; and place, through being.


Text Box: From Heidegger’s Topology
 [Heideggerian topology is] essentially a meditative concern with the way in which a particular environing “world” comes forth around a particular mode of “emplacement” in that world. Heideggerian topology can thus be understood as an attempt to evoke and illuminate that placed abode. In this respect, topology is an attempt to illuminate a place in which we already find ourselves and in which other things are also disclosed to us (p. 34).
T]he place … in which philosophical questioning first arises is the place in which we first find ourselves—that place is not an abstract world of ideas, not a world of sense-data or “impressions,” not a world of theoretical “objects” nor of mere causal relata
In finding ourselves “in” the world, we find ourselves already “in” a place, already given over to and involved with things, with persons, with our lives. On this basis the central questions of philosophy, questions of being and existence, as well as of ethics and virtue, must themselves take their determination and their starting point from this same place (p. 40).

Though Heidegger’s Topology will no doubt be contested by some Heidegger scholars, I find the work original and immediately compelling. Now that Malpas has brought the point to light, it is clear to me that the idea of place is indeed powerfully latent in all phases of Heidegger’s writing. It is manifest in the language of Dasein (“a da, a there, a topos,” p. 14) and in the metaphors of “clearing,” “way,” “dwelling,” and “homecoming” that comprise what Malpas calls Heidegger’s “topology,” a word Malpas uses not in its mathematical sense but in the sense of “a saying of place”—an attempt to illuminate the place in which we always and already find ourselves (p. 33).

This effort, Malpas suggests, is not unlike the work of a traditional topographer attempting to inscribe a place from within through survey, triangulation, and traverse. Topology is thus a variant of phenomenology, which Heidegger described in 1919 as “the investigation of life itself.”

For non-philosophers or readers not reasonably familiar with Heidegger’s philosophy or obscure language, this will not be an easy book. Heidegger’s thought deals with what is near to us—with being, existence and the everyday, immediate encounter with a world that is already differentiated and connected, a world that is obvious but so rich and complex it is extremely difficult to write about.

But whether you like Heidegger’s writing or not, whether you find his contact with Nazism abhorrent or not, there is very little doubt among philosophers about the originality and depth of his thinking. Malpas covers the fifty-year span of Heidegger’s writing and teaching, including many of his lectures available only in archives. The general approach is chronological, and about a third of the book discusses Heidegger’s earlier thought, especially in Being and Time; another third is about the middle period of the 1930s and 1940s, including the matter of Heidegger’s brief infatuation with National Socialism; and the last third is about Heidegger’s later thought that embraced poetry, dwelling, and the questioning of technology.

It is this last phase that is most interesting for many architects and other non-philosophers reading Heidegger because it speaks most directly to the world we experience in the present age.


Malpas’ aim is to establish that the foundation of Heidegger’s philosophy is the recognition that, in finding ourselves in the world, we find ourselves already in place. Place is not just a bit of space or a function of affectivity and is certainly more than a node in social networks. Place is neither something subjective and claimed by feelings, nor is it objective location. In fact, it precedes all notions of subjectivity and objectivity. It is a complex unity, integral to being, and encountered experientially as simultaneously unified, differentiated from yet connected with other places, and gathering together things, people, and our own lives.

Heidegger, of course, wrote and thought in German and used a number of words that can be translated into English as place—“Platz,” “Stelle,” “Gegend,” “Statte,” “Ort,” and “Ortschaft.” Though they have different shades of meaning, these words can all be translated as “place” in English. “Platz” and “Stelle,” which Heidegger used mostly in his earlier works, mean something like “position.” “Ort” and “Ortschaft” (the latter literally translates as “placescape”) he used mostly in his later writings, and the terms mean something like ‘settled locality  with the sense of things belonging together.

Since in English the word “place” itself has a variety of meanings, such as location, setting, position, situation, social role, and context, there are many possibilities for slippage in translation. Heidegger’s thought, however, seems to be an attempt to delve through and behind language to reflect upon what it is to experience being in the world.

Malpas argues that this originary experience of being is an experience of place: “The question of being is the question of how beings can emerge in their interrelatedness and their distinctiveness from one another” (p. 14). Beings and things in their concrete manifestations are always gathered together in a place; we experience them as simultaneously similar to and different from other things with which they are related, and we experience a particular place as simultaneously distinct from yet similar to and interrelated with other places.

At any given moment we see, hear, and touch a specific assemblage of chairs, windows, buildings, cars, people, plants, and so on; the world is always and inevitably encountered in its rich particularity, unity, and connectedness. For example, hearing as an everyday experience involves the sound of some specific thing, situation, or event—in Being and Time, Heidegger points to the examples of hearing a motorcycle or the North wind and says that “[i]t requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to ‘hear a ‘pure noise.”

The idea of “world” is central to Heidegger’s thought. For him “is” did not mean everything that is but Umwelt—an environing world of self, others, and things that has a certain order and orientation. So a return to the things themselves, the watchword of phenomenology, means a return to the world itself—the one experienced prior to the onset of an artificial frame of mind. In this return, truth consists not of agreement about the state of things but of disclosure—letting beings be seen as they are in themselves. Malpas writes that because beings already exist in places, “the thinking of truth… also brings with it a thinking of place” (p. 192).


While Malpas demonstrates that the topological aspects of Heidegger’s thinking can be traced in all phases of his writing, they are most explicit in the later works in which Heidegger became increasingly concerned with ideas of event, dwelling, and gathering. Malpas suggests that, for Heidegger, “event” and “place” often mean the same; they are both the starting point for thinking and both offer possibilities for disclosure, appropriation, appearing, and gathering.

Place, therefore, loses any sense of located entities and comes to mean “that open, cleared yet bounded region in which we find ourselves gathered together with other persons and things, and in which we are opened up to the world and the world to us” (p. 221). A place is where being happens—an event that is continually changing and open to question.

The idea of dwelling that is so prominent in Heidegger’s later writings is clearly topological. Dwelling embraces a number of meanings, including cherishing, protecting, caring for, and looking after. To build involves a productive relationship to one place, but to dwell means to be in a certain relation to place. Dwelling involves an ontological sense of place that illuminates and is illuminated by the place-specific processes of building, yet also includes a grasp of mortality and the aspects of the world that go beyond human being.

The latter are referred to figuratively by Heidegger as the earth, the sky, and the gods—terms open to wide interpretation but which can respectively be taken to mean non-human nature, openness, and the ineffable. It is through these aspects of world that human beings are able “to grasp their own being as implicated in being that goes beyond a human life” (p. 275). Dwelling might therefore be described as an enlightened understanding of being-in-place. In turn, building that is informed by dwelling will tread lightly and be responsive to the context of a specific place.

Dwelling stands in opposition to what Heidegger called “the oblivion of being” in the modern world and which Malpas suggests is “perhaps the most important theme” in his later work (p. 279). A consequence of the framework of rationalistic technology is a forgetfulness of being in which instrumental notions of efficiency, measurement, and reserves of resources come to treat the world as an object and a source of raw materials.

Similarly, new technologies of communication shrink distances. “Yet,” Heidegger wrote, “the frantic abolition of all distance brings us no nearness. Short distance is not nearness. Nor is great distance remoteness.” Place is reduced to spatial position and being is forgotten.


While I find this later part of Heideggers work appealing because it reinforces my own doubts about modern placelessness, I also think it is his most superficial thinking. It is almost as though Heidegger looked up, noticed that the world he lived in didn’t have much resemblance to the one he was thinking about, didn’t like it much and felt obliged to comment.

He seems to have shifted from rigorous phenomenological description to a selective historical judgment that implies that the quality of dwelling in classical Greece, as manifest in a few archeological sites, was somehow better than that manifest in power stations along the Rhine in the 1950s. I know of no way to distinguish between the quality of dwelling of, for example, a peasant living in a squalid hut on the fringes of the Black Forest in the 13th century and worried about surviving next winter, and that of a single mother living in social housing in South Chicago and worried about whether the food bank can get her family through next month.

Malpas mirrors Heidegger’s critique of modern technology. He writes that one of its obvious consequences is a disruption of our sense of place, which he discusses in terms of loss of nearness, forgetfulness of being, and an inability to grasp limits to human activity. As a way to escape this disruption, he refers to Heidegger’s idea of “composure toward technology”—in other words, a way of being that involves acceptance but not submission to technology. He suggests that achieving such composure depends on poetic dwelling that involves “a return to the openness and indeterminacy of the world and to the experience of wonder” (p. 310).

Given the forcefulness of his argument that place and being are inextricably linked, this conclusion seems insubstantial. But Heidegger seems to have been unable to suggest what to do next. His final essay was titled, “Only a god can save us”—a phrasing that was disingenuous and evasive. The essential point I take from Heidegger is not historical. The fact is that, in every age and in every individual and in every place, there are tendencies to “the oblivion of being,” and it is always necessary to find appropriate ways of being, dwelling, and building that will challenge these tendencies.


Heidegger’s works can be read not only as an account of the links between place and being but also as a sustained, albeit largely implicit, critique of rationalism. There are many indications that industrial technologies have changed the relationships between human beings and the world, and that this shift is related to the rise of rationalism in the last 400 years. Foucault and others have documented this rise and have pointed to indications that it has overstayed its welcome and begun to decline. Indeed, there is evidence of this decline in the very revival of interest in place as a phenomenon of experience (rather than as spatial location) that has occurred in the last 30 years and to which Heidegger’s Topology is a substantial contribution.

I am predisposed toward place in all its “iridescent, multiple, shifting character” (p. 37) and, in Heidegger’s Topology and his other work, Malpas discloses the ontological source for the fragments of the academic explosion of recent research on place and reset the grounds for future research. The result is a strong foundation for shifting the balance away from the rationalistic, calculative approach, in all its bureaucratic, corporate and climate-changing manifestations, to a view of the world that is responsible toward being and place.


Agarwal, P., 2005. “Operationalising Sense of Place as a Cognitive Operator for Semantics in Place-Based Ontologies,” in Cohn A.G. & Mark D.M., eds. Spatial Information Theory. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Altman, I. & Low, S., 1992. Place Attachment. NY: Plenum.

Casey, 1993. Getting Back into Place. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

Harvey, D., 1996. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lippard, L., 1997. The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multi-Centered Society. NY: Norton.

Malpas, J., 1999. The Experience of Place: A Philosophical Topography, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Massey, D., 2005 [1994]. Space, Place and Gender, Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Mugerauer, R., 1994. Interpretations on Behalf of Place. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Relph, E., 1976. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion.

Stefanovic, I., 2000. Safeguarding Our Common Future. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Zeisel, J, 2006. “A Sense of Place,” New Scientist, 4: 50-51 (March).