Monday, May 05, 2008

Heidegger for Architects

Adam Sharr, in his book "Heidegger for Architects", presents Heidegger within an architectural context; what Heidegger’s ontology means for architecture. Sharr operates within a loosely defined dichotomy that exists within architectural theory; phenomenology versus critical theory. On the phenomenological side, Sharr places Heidegger, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty and on the critical theory side he places all of the disparate thinkers whose work share a common thread; gender theorists, Marxists, and post-structuralists. In Sharrr’s words: “Critical theory, meanwhile, prioritises the political dimensions implicit or explicit in all human activities, and is opposed to monolithic claims of authenticity”. Sharr’s articulation of Heidegger operates within this dichotomy and shows itself when he characterises ontology as “experience”, or “human experience”. The implication of articulating Heidegger’s ontology as “experience” is to remove any claims of authenticity that may have existed. In this manner, does Sharr unintentionally operate under ‘critical theory’.

Adam Sharr does manage to tease out key points for architecture despite his hidden proclivities. The first is an exploration of the example of the jug used by Heidegger, and the second is the disjunction between contemporary construction practice and ‘dwelling’.

The example of the jug, in Adam Sharr’s words: “ Returning to the void at the centre of the jug, Heidegger argued that the jug’s empty state, suggesting its ability to pour, was the decisive aspect of its character. Although many such ‘outpourings’ were simply drinks for people, the philosopher was particularly interested in the sacred potential of the jug’s ‘poured gift’. A jug could pour water and wine in regular circumstances, but it could also pour for a consecration. He likened this special pouring, from the nothing at the centre of the jug, to a natural spring whose supply seemed to have a mysterious provenance. His thinking here may have revealed to the spring outside the study window of his mountain hut at Todtnauberg, to whose life-giving water supply he accorded reverential status. He suggested that the jug, like such a source, sustains: the marriage of Erde [earth] and Himmel [sky, but also heaven in German][...]the wine given by the fruit of the vine, the fruit in which the earth’s nourishment and the sky’s sun are betrothed to one another.

For Heidegger it was important that the jug, made from the earth, connected human experience of earth and sky. He developed this connection by analysing his notion of poured gift, considering in support the etymology of the German root ‘gub’ which is similar to the English ‘gush’. The German carries additional meanings to the English: the expression ‘aus eienem gub’ refers to formulating a unified whole; ‘das gieben’ is a casting; ‘gub-beton’ is cast concrete and ‘gub-eisen’ cast iron. Such connotations are vital to Heidegger’s point here, which is that the jug and its drink – linked to sky through the etymology of ‘geschenk’ – is a unified while, a little casting of heaven. When the jug is poured, for the philosopher, it gave for humans a drop of the mysterious source of life. He attributed sacred qualities to the jug’s ability to give.”

This first point of linking dwelling and sacredness within the jug will be explored at a later time, but it is important to note the implication of this manner of thinking about things has for construction. In the instance of contemporary construction, the division of labour into designers and structural, acoustic, mechanical engineers, and general contractors and labourers, renders the construction process as inappropriate for dwelling. The procedures of construction inhibit and intervene in the process of building as dwelling.

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