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[Originally published as in Building and Dwelling [Bauen und Wohnen],
edited by Eduard Fhr. 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 ThiisEvensen 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 Heideggers dwelling
can be translated into more grounded architectural meaning. Thiis-Evensen
and Alexander's ideas, placed in a Heideggerian framework, point toward a

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way of thinking that might lead to the kind of dwellingbuilding


relationship suggested by Heidegger when he writes that "to build is
already to dwell" (ibid., p. 146).
DWELLING AND BUILDING
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 beingin-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

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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-theworld. 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. 154155). 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, subtlein many ways, ineffable. Thus a walk through a
welltended garden evokes a different state of being than a similar walk
through an uncaredfor 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
preservingi.e., allowing it to be and become. In this sense, a key to
dwelling is letting ourselves and the world be, and this lettingbe includes
the ways we build, see, understand, and think.

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It is this need for lettingbe 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.
A PHENOMENOLOGY OF ARCHITECTURAL FORM
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 archetypesthe 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).

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Thiis-Evensen demonstrates that a buildings relative degree of insideness


or outsideness in regard to floor, wall, and roof can be clarified through
motion, weight, and substancethe 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

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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).
THE WALL AND WINDOW AS EXAMPLES
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.

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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).
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Figures 1, 2 & 3

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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

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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.
CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER AND PATTERN LANGUAGE
This reconciliation between people and their built world is also a major aim

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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

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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

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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.
ASPECTS OF AN ARCHITECTURE OF DWELLING
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

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they do not contribute to the building's wider sense of place.


To understand more clearly this difference between Alexander and ThiisEvensen, 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

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becomes profound" (ibid., p. xli). A simple example of density is the


"window place" pattern, which, in terms of Thiis-Evensens 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-Evensens 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 Alexanders theories of architecture
and place are a major contribution to clarifying Heideggers cryptic
statement cited at the start of this articleOnly if we are capable of

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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
worldthe way that architecture can contribute to human being-in-theworld. 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.
NOTE
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 Heideggers
thinking and is another major contribution to grounding Heideggers notion
of dwelling practically. See Norberg-Schulz, 1971, 1980, 1985, 1988.

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