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Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

You wouldn’t think philosophy needed architecture, but with Heidegger it seemed to

Martin heidegger – ar shay colley

Martin heidegger – ar shay colley

As the dogmatic but obscure maxims of this German philosopher are enough to drag even the most dedicated down into the mire, it’s lucky anybody who has watched the movie Judgment Day gets at least one Heideggerian thesis; man cannot control his own technology, and that way lies apocalypse. 

What to do about this raises many deep questions Hollywood can’t be expected to answer, but Heidegger’s gist has captivated anxious architects since the early 1970s; as Modernist utopia folded, and our built environment became a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ monument to corporeality a nature disappeared. 

Adam Sharr has been diligent enough to attempt a useful decoding, publishing Heidegger for Architects in 2007. While this book is gentle on the reader, it is clearly the work of the fully baptised. Earlier Heideggerians were more couched: Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s Experiencing Architecture (1959) and Christian Norberg-Schulz’s Meaning in Western Architecture (1974) could have passed as straightforward. Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1958) just seemed a bit kooky. 

Couched, perhaps, because even if he was right, Heidegger was a card-carrying Nazi until 1945, implemented Nazi policy at the University of Freiburg, was born the same year as Hitler, grew a little Hitler moustache and was unapologetic about it. Reaction came from the Frankfurt School in the form of Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity, a fierce rebuke in 1964. But the ground is still murky; he certainly appeared a shifty-looking fella, but even student Hannah Arendt managed to fall for him.

Heidegger home and structure diagram

Heidegger home and structure diagram

Top: Heidegger’s structure of dwelling comprises the earth, sky, gods and mortals

Source: Adolf Singelmann

Bottom: Heidegger’s hut in Todtnauberg, Germany.

Source: Patrick Seeger/dpa/Alamy Live News

Csm lempertz 1060 832 contemporary art november 28 2015 eduardo chillida bauen wohnen denken ho 5b6225f427

Csm lempertz 1060 832 contemporary art november 28 2015 eduardo chillida bauen wohnen denken ho 5b6225f427

‘Bauen, Wohnen, Denken (Homenaje a Heidegger)’ by Eduardo Chillida, 1994

Today the Heideggerian legacy rules, Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin (1996) is required reading, and ‘phenomenology’ is even woven into the jaunty television scripts of Countryfile and Time Team

You wouldn’t think philosophy needed architecture, but with Heidegger it seemed to. A title such as ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ is very catchy even if, in Nietzschean terms, the language is a swamp, and Heidegger further provided us with a neat exemplar we might all crave: his own mountain hut. Commissioned by his wife and built by locals, Sharr has written a nice book on this hut also.

Carolyn butterworth licking mies' barcelona pavilion in 1992

Carolyn butterworth licking mies’ barcelona pavilion in 1992

Carolyn Butterworth licking Mies’ Barcelona pavilion in 1992.

Source: Emma Cheatle

Conveniently, the hut represents almost the precise opposite of Le Corbusier’s Citröhan, and is almost of the same moment. It is buried in the earth by a spring, rather damp, and bereft, originally, of facilities bar an earth closet. Le Corbusier was originally riled by the French practice of laying parquet on damp earth, so insisted on pilotis. Heidegger apparently did the opposite – ‘grounding’ in more ways than one. Sometimes, despite chosing a site close to a railway station, Heidegger would walk the 18km through the alpine lowlands for cosmic relief. 

Architecturally, Heidegger got to Hans Scharoun first hand, and wanted to meet Aalto, but distrusted L-C at even his most poetic (at Ronchamp). After Heidegger’s death in 1976, a consensus for this ‘other tradition’ was fostered on the one hand by Colin St John Wilson at Cambridge, and on the other throughout Peter Davey’s editorship of these pages and the scholarship of Peter Blundell Jones. 

Many latter-day enthusiasts, including Dalibor Vesely, Joseph Rykwert and Daniel Libeskind, were dissident occupants of the former Soviet Bloc, where merciless materialist thinking had sent resistance into church crypts for intellectual succour from an underground benevolent right. However, even Roger Scruton described Heidegger’s Being and Time as either remarkably difficult or laughably easy – nobody in his experience making any sense of it. Heidegger himself stated that for the philosopher to be intelligible would be professional suicide. 



Heidegger at a Nazi Party meeting held in Leipzig, 1933 

Source: Ullstein Bild / Roger-Viollet

But these days, it’s a more difficult game to name important architects who refute Heidegger than those who might evoke him. For as the millennium sped past and the Enlightenment project lay dead and buried, the future somewhat bifurcated into Heideggerian authenticity vs Baudrillardian simulation. Modern science offered little more than perpetual control and your destiny lying under a bridge wearing a charity-shop ‘suitaloon’ with goggles projecting paradise and fading batteries; ‘authenticity’, however, offered ‘home’ and a solid table and chair as you awaited the next profound sunbeam. It was, if you like, a no-brainer.

Martin Heidegger


Key works

Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), 1927

Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik (Kant and the Problems of Metaphysics), 1929

Einführung in die Metaphysik (Introduction to Metaphysics), 1935 Vorträge und Aufsätze (1936-53), which includes ‘Bauen Wohnen Denken’ (Building Dwelling Thinking), 1951

Spheres of influence

Phenomenology,  political theory, existentialism, hermeneutics, theology and psychology


‘The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking’

Life lessons

The study of being (Sein), through  the phenomenological analysis of human existence (Dasein), the being for whom Being is a temporal question

And the tendency may have flourished on the back of our comparative luxury. A mindfully sparse aesthetic is something architects stereotypically enjoy rather than endure; Heidegger was a neat man at his desk, his utensils carefully chosen. Within consumerism, Heidegger’s sparse living became ‘meaningful’ and ‘rich’ while L-C’s utopian version was (of course) not. Think ‘glamping’.

Gettyimages 541077491

Gettyimages 541077491

Martin Heidegger in the garden of his house in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

Source: Ullstein Bild. Getty

So it is tempting to see the rise of the Heideggerian tendency as not so much representation of its eternal truth, but as more of a circumstantial and compensatory longing that we have rather brought on ourselves. Phenomenology certainly mirrors today’s universal commitment to care, compassion and understanding when nobody can say boo to the ideological goose. 

Whatever the reason, the Heideggerians triumphed within architectural education, substituting the dry abstractions of materialism for the obscurantist faith healing of materiality. Students bored by the tiresome assault of external agencies found themselves wrapped in being, overwrought in the crisis of modern science and/or the problematic business of representation itself. Some of this would seem to mirror Heidegger’s Catholicism, since architectural drawings became perversely foggy in the quest for that healing feeling and sensual effect. Meanwhile Guarino Guarini became super hip.

While previously encounters with the tactile in architecture might, unless drunk, be limited to door furniture, our senses were now elevated. Carolyn Butterworth was certainly on the money when she was (presumably) the first to actually lick the reconstructed Barcelona Pavilion in 1992. But that’s not the half of it; since the business of architecture is such a hothouse of good intention, private vanity, intellectual pretension and cosmic soul-searching –or not building, not dwelling but acting – it’s also the case that Heidegger is always there to prop up profundity. He is perennially wheeled out whenever there are big, unanswerable, questions to be answered – on Kahn: ‘Heideggerian without knowing it’; on the silence of Mies: ‘the perfect representation of Heideggerian thought’.

Heidegger book

Heidegger book

Heidegger’s ‘Existence and Being’,  published in 1965 by Henry Regnery.

Alain Badiou has speculated that the seeds of fascism actually lie within this thinking. George Steiner suggested it ‘blended seamlessly’. That is to say, for some, there’s nothing stupid about Heidegger except the idiocy. Meaning, I suppose, that if you keep on asking the wrong questions, those of ‘meaning’ perhaps, you are bound to be ignoring the obvious ones. This would bring despair if we still harboured dreams of universal equity and social provision, and still enjoyed the notion that technology might help us provide such a thing. 

Certainly Heidegger’s appreciation of the world is congruent with thoroughly bourgeois values, enabling us to establish good taste in rugged boots, fine pens, expensive notebooks and secret hideaways. Meanwhile the sacred rooflight and such notions as ‘healing the city’ came to the practical aid of many an architect struggling with that awkward hinterland site in Clerkenwell. Either way, phenomenology and neoliberalism have proved effective bedfellows. 

Furious Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard memorably stated that German thought was ‘paralysed under the intolerable weight of language’, but for Heidegger this has, in the end, hardly proved a disadvantage. Advice from both fans and foes is still that if you are enjoying Heidegger you are undoubtedly getting it wrong.


Illustration by Shay Colley