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Building, thinking, dwelling: all of these things are tied into the human mode of existence on earth. To be human is to think or reflect upon one’s situation in the world and to establish one’s project therein. To be human is to die, and to be capable of dying as dying. In other words, we are capable of dying in that we see it as the touchstone for life choices and possibilities on earth. Martin Heidegger sees dwelling as an engagement of thought (as well as action); it is the primary way in which we, as humans, relate to our environments. It is, in other words, the way that we are on the earth. Building, in the every day sense of the word, is simply to construct edifices in, on, around, and through which we go about our affairs. To look a little deeper at what it is to build, though, we see that it belongs (in Heidegger’s words) to dwelling; it is a form or manifestation of dwelling: “we attain to dwelling, so it seems, only by means of building. The latter, building, has the former, dwelling, as its goal.”1 We build by inserting our constructed buildings into our world, and we dwell where we build: “dwelling and building are related as end and means.”2 Thinking is how we become aware of ourselves and our space, building mediates our relationship between thought and space, and the relationship itself is dwelling.

Heidegger looks to language to explain this relationship. First, he examines the meaning of bauen, which is the verb “to build” in German. Its roots can be traced to buan, which is an Old High German word that means “to dwell”. In this context, “to dwell” means “to remain, to stay in a place.”3 We get a sense of dwelling as infusing our being into a particular space. For example, we may picture a farm in which the farmer spends his life, grows his crops and constructs buildings for the farm (although this does not mean that arcane, agrarian modes of life are the only method of dwelling!). Furthermore, both bauen and buan are linked to the German bin, which is the verb “to be”:

where the word bauen still speaks in its original sense it also says how far the essence of dwelling reaches. That is, bauen, buan . . . are our word in in the versions: ich bin, I am, du bist, you are, the imperative form bis, be. What then does ich bin mean? The old word bauen, to which the bin belongs, answers: ich bin, du bist mean I dwell, you dwell.4
In other words, our very being is dwelling. Our humanity is inherently tied to dwelling.

Heidegger posits four elements, called the fourfold, as being essential to our Being or dwelling: “earth, sky, divinities and mortals”.5 The earth includes all that grows, lives, or contributes to life, such as plants, animals, water or soil. The sky is related to the light of the sun, the passage of time, and the weather. The divinities are “the beckoning messages of the godhead.”6 They are a Heideggerian throwback to ancient Greek philosophy, which saw the divinities as unseen beings inherent in the world around us. The god, or Being, has retreated into the things around us and we can observe its presence in those things. In dwelling, we call the divinities forth by cultivating and building. The mortals are human beings. Our humanity is our ability to think, to reflect. Our mortality is to be able to die and to know that we will die: “to die means to be capable of death as death.”7 Only humans can truly be as humans whose existence is entailed by building, dwelling, thinking and dying; therefore, only humans can truly dwell. Only we can build, place ourselves in relation to the earth and sky, and only we can search and await the essence of the divinities revealing themselves to us through their presencing in the world.

The fourfold has presence in dwelling. All four elements are unified through humans being on the earth as human beings (mortals, dwellers, builders, thinkers). We bring the earth into its own essence because of its presence to us. We see the earth as the earth, and its essence can be arrived at by our presence in it as we build and dwell. The sky is something which we accept into our lives. The passage of time, the movements of the sun, moon and stars, and the conditions brought upon us by the weather are a part of our lives and in accepting them, we “receive the sky as sky.”8 The divinities are Heidegger’s throwback to ancient Greek ontology; they are the eternal entities as presenced in the world through our methods of dwelling. One may think, for example, of a thriving field of crops or the sun shining through the rose window in the Notre Dame Cathedral when one is considering the nature of the divinities. As humans, we await signs of the divinities’ arrival, which brings with it the truth of Being. Finally, the mortals take part in the fourfold because they die, because they await the coming of the divinities, and because they tend to the entities which they meet in their dwelling upon earth. These entities in their unity are the fourfold, which is Heidegger’s basic ontological structure.

What, then, is the relation between dwelling and thinking? There is a certain thoughtfulness necessary in dwelling, according to Heidegger. Our everyday lexicon can and does direct our minds away from the true meaning of what it is to dwell and to build. When building becomes associated with mere construction of houses, offices or shops, it becomes habitual and we tend to forget what we mean by building (as dwelling). For Heidegger, this is a very meaningful semantic shift: “something decisive is concealed in it, namely, dwelling is not experienced as man’s Being; dwelling is never thought of as the basic character of human being.”9 It is precisely our everydayness that dulls our understanding of dwelling, which thus makes it harder for us to dwell as mortals. The truth of dwelling does not die; rather, becomes atrophied and hushed. Getting back to the linguistic truths of words such as bauen will help save them from our own forgetfulness: “as long as we do not bear in mind that all building is in itself a dwelling, we cannot even adequately ask, let alone properly decide, what the building of buildings might be in its essence.”10

It has been, however, the nature of human beings to forget the true essences of things in our space. Indeed, we even forget our essence as humans in space. We think of it as either an empirical object, or something experienced in our minds. Space and spaces, says Heidegger “open up by the fact that they are let into the dwelling of man.”11 They are a clearing away and a taking note of; space is that which man pervades and has access to in his dwelling. It is also a measure of thought:

If all of us now think, from where we are right here, of the old bridge in Heidelburg, this thinking toward that location is not a mere experience inside the persons present here; rather, it belongs to the essence of our thinking of that bridge that in itself thinking gets through, persists through, the distance to that location. From this spot right here, we are there at the bridge, we are at the bridge- we are by no means at some representational content in our consciousness.12

When we pay attention to our spaces, such as the aforementioned bridge, or to the place where the bridge will be built (when we envision it as it will be after the construction), we notice the essence of those spaces as those spaces, as entities (as places for the fourfold to meet). Moreover, we dwell by thinking of spaces (and space as such), and we dwell by building. Building is relating to space, by casting our project as mortals onto spaces, by making them into locations. When we are mindful of bauen as bauen in its essence (to build and to dwell), we work with the earth, which holds all spaces to which we have access. We are mindful of the fourfold in our stay on earth. Through building, we transform spaces into locations. At these locations, we have a “space and a site for the fourfold.”13 Not all forms of construction treat space and locations properly, though. Clear cutting forests to make way for a parking lot, for instance, is not dwelling properly. This is because it does not give thought to the space which it is subjugating to itself. There is no work done with the land; there is only the construction of edifices for human purposes. Being recedes behind this masking of spaces; even linguistically, the meaning of “to build” becomes bastardized, accordingly stunting the meaningfulness of building to nothing more than a human endeavour of economics and ephemeral aesthetics.

It seems that building (which belongs to dwelling as a means to it) and dwelling (as the way we are on the earth) are made possible and meaningful by our thoughtful attendance to them, mainly through language. We understand building and dwelling by understanding the true essence of their linguistic meanings. It hinders our understanding when we get bogged down in scientific jargon like the terminology of architecture, physics or mathematics. A sense of wonder must be properly retained; when we look at a river, meadow or forest as a place for building and dwelling, we should see them as such. In other words, we should look at them pre scientifically, or have a phenomenological experience when we see them. Poetry is a good example of understanding the spaces in which we dwell. It is an enchanted expression of our relation to our places. It circumvents complications of language that mask Being in our world. Dwelling pre scientifically and poetically has “power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things”.14

Heidegger’s ideas on this matter are more complex then they appear at first. Ironically, to understand them, we must understand the importance of simplicity, poetry, and even passion. To dwell properly, we have to realize that building more houses, bridges, stadiums or shopping malls will not enable us to dwell. “Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build.”15 To be capable of dwelling, we must be mindful of meaning in terms of space and location. Attentive thought is therefore essential to dwelling; we attend to space with regards to the possibility of dwelling: “when we think . . . about the relation between location and space, but also about the relation of man and space, a light falls on the essence of the things that are locations and that we call buildings.”16 Dwelling cannot properly happen if we are forgetful of our relation to our world. Construction of edifices alone cannot suffice; we must take into consideration the spaces in which we build: “the relationship between man and space is none other than dwelling, thought essentially.”17 Dwelling is our thought about our relation to space, and about our stay on earth among things.


1 Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking”, as it appeared in Poetry, Language, Thought trans. Alfred Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971) 323.
2Heidegger, 324.
3Heidegger, 324.
4Heidegger, 325.
5Heidegger, 327.
6Heidegger, 327.
7Heidegger, 328.
8Heidegger, 328.
9Heidegger, 326.
10Heidegger, 326.
11Heidegger, 339.
12Heidegger, 334-35.
13Heidegger, 336.
14Heidegger, 338.
15Heidegger, 338.
16Heidegger, 335-36.
17Heidegger, 335.