Heidegger: A Critique on the Reductive in Architecture

A trend in architectural design practice has been mounting since the idea of specialization and industrialization have dominated our society, this trend is reductionism in architecture. Where we don’t worry about the architect’s “caprice of self-centered individualism but [the perceived ‘rationality’] of impersonal regimentation (Mumford). Reductive efficiencies and stark separations often define our ways of life, even if we don’t recognize it as such, because we are deep in the trenches of liberal capitalistic rationality–which relies on logics of efficiencies, not in the physical and mental well-being of humans and the refined sensiblity of sustainability.

History is Bunk.

Throughout time our society has been changing the world we live in, and now it is hard to say how much we have changed, mutated, destroyed or have cultivated the world around us and our world, it all depends how you look at it. “From the 1750-1850 the Industrial revolution caused a lasting shift from an agricultural and commercial society relying on animals and simple tools to an industrial society based on machinery and factories” (Edwards). The use of electricity, the gasoline engine and factory-based production methods was rapidly adopted by our cultures, creating the urban centers that we have today (Edwards). These icons (cities) of technology have propagated a division of city and nature, or technology and nature. However I think one of Heidegger’s main points was to “avoid exclusive focus on idealized notions of preserving the distant wilderness” (Shannin) and rather “be one with nature.”


“In the mid-Thirties, Heidegger began articulating a view that emphasized the ancient Greek sense of a natural emergence of meaning, in contrast to the [Modern] view that meaning is imposed on the world by human subjects (Sheehan). This idea that modern project brought about the representation of a dichotomy with nature and humans has been prevalent in our culture. However, new ideas generated from the environmentalism debate have challenged this way of thinking, just as Heidegger challenged it. The recent environmental rhetoric of Civic Environmentalism denounces technocratic approaches toward environmental problems which have produced a dichotomy of nature – “worthy” wilderness vs. “unworthy” urban environment, and vice versa. This strong tradition of a “dichotomy in western intellectualism takes its roots in Greek philosophy, which affirmed a dualism of mortal body and eternal soul” (Shannin).


“Such dualism has become quite commonplace and it has permeated the world of politics, science and culture. Western society, in general, became trapped in these notions of polarity, which have been used to justify inequality, domination, neglect and oppression. For many centuries humankind has seen its destiny shaped by a system of socially constructed relationships – humans vs. nature” (Shannin). Putting technology and nature in separate categories allows for a hierarchy (anthropocentric worldview), where a challenging dialogue can unfold, rather than viewing nature, technology, architecture, culture, habits as profoundly tangled if not one and the same (biocentric worldview).


Heidegger recognized this dichotomy as a changing of the guard in the way humans live their lives and who they become when they embrace these ideas of human vs. nature—as challenging nature. Here Heidegger attempts to assign a better way of living or dwelling, a more conscious situated experience. Heidegger wanted people to have a situated experience with the land, in a poetic sense. To quote Heidegger “in contrast, a tract of land is challenged into the putting out of coal or ore. The earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit. The field that the peasant formerly cultivated and set in order [bestellte] appears differently that it did when to set in order still meant to take care of and to maintain. The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field. In the sowing of the grain it places the seed in the keeping of the forces of growth and watches over its increase. But meanwhile even the cultivation of the field has come under the grip of another kind of setting-in-order, which sets upon [stellt] nature. It sets upon it in the sense of challenging it. Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry with new technology like the one at www.cir.net/agriculture-harvester-products/ surfacing every da . Air is now set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium, for example; uranium is set upon to yield atomic energy, which can be released either for destruction or for peaceful use.” I think Heidegger is seeing some disharmony issues in things, where nature is not allowed to just “be.” Heidegger saw it, “the revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging [Herausfordern], which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such” (Heidegger). Modern technology sets-upon nature and challenges-forth its energies, in contrast to techne which was always a bringing-forth in harmony with nature.



A Revolution with Sustenance.

“Techne … reveals whatever does not bring itself forth and does not yet lie here before us, whatever can look and turn out now one way and now another… Thus what is decisive in techne does not lie at all in making or manipulating nor in the using of means, but rather in the aforementioned revealing. It is as revealing, and not as manufacturing, that techne is a bringing-forth” (Heidegger) This harmony of techne has a similar vision to sustainability, not merely replicating itself but reproducing, i.e. ‘organically’ growing out of a place (reproducing), rather than being implanted or “set-upon” (replicated/manufacturing) in space or a ‘nowhere’ as Kenneth Framton would say. The differencing between replicating and reproducing is an idea that implies evolution, often times an evolving method or principle or strategy is more responsive, adaptive and less intrusive. I think that Heidegger’s ideas lend themselves to this evolution principle with the general notion of this bringing-forth, in a co-responsible manner.


Sustainability is oriented toward solutions that do not doom future generations, the earth, living humans, and developing countries to a permanently secondary place in the world economy under the rubric of “environmental protection” (Edwards). Sustainability also has the broader goal of not pitting the interests of competing interests (conservationists and ‘convienience-ist’ for example) but creating a harmony, creating something in the world that stems from all walks of life, made of many parts to make a synergistic whole—finding tolerance through plurism of ideas and ways of doing things, instead of cut throat competition and narrow vision. The sustainability revolution has emerged as a mainstream phenomenon at a global scale to deal with the ever present environmental changes, social injustices, and changing global economic patterns (Edwards). This to me seems to assimilate with Heidegger’s poetic thinking but at a world scale and an evolving living pattern that is generated from the earth: a situated experience.


To quote a goal of civic environmentalism: “the utilization of local institutions over which we (people) have some control, our homes, schools, churches, farms, and locally controlled businesses, as pilot projects of ecological living”, this expresses great strides in the vision of Heidegger’s dwelling (Shannin). I feel there are several scales to ‘poetic thinking’—one scale that I feel Heidegger did not engage in, was on a world scale—I see it as a worldwide awareness of issues such as climate change, pollution, ozone depletion and habitat destruction that will require an international scope to resolve. Possibly Heidegger confronted this issue with his “new-age” four fold, like a connected meta-physical rhizome of humans or a collective consciousness of the world all building, dwelling, and thinking.


The wrong kind of discipline.

On the scale of the building or how humans dwell, we find the scale architecture, where technology can be most blinding. Recently sustainability employed in architectural practice has been a very practical, singular venue via energy efficiency: a science of Btu’s—where design moves are proved only by statistics that may have more statistical weight than substantial effect, meaning the more effective thing to do does not always look good to the economist. In William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s (Cradle to Cradle authors) differencing between eco-effectiveness and eco-efficiency; they describe efficiency as being “less bad” and effectiveness as a strategy that not just avoids environment harm but increases ecological health. Steven Kellert in his book Building for Life offers this critique, “though admirable, McDonough and Braungart’s concept of ecological health needs to be extended to include a greater emphasis on human experience, incorporating the recognition of how much people’s physical and mental well-being depends on their contact with nature.” The idea that technology can solve all our problems (environmental, social, economic) without a deeper questioning of our daily practices, habits and perceptions does not lead us down a path of mental and physical well-being, for we might end up with a hermetically sealed biosphere, sterile, perfect and predictable. For the ideas of eco-effectiveness still have us sitting in rush hour traffic, only we aren’t polluting the air anymore, producing water and oxygen in hybrid cars. The importance of a human contact with nature is overlooked in McDonough and Braungart’s perspective, and is representative of most ‘sustainable design practice’ in north america today–based on hyper-efficiencies.


When you reduce it down to Btu’s you lose the “essence.”


The issues of greater ecological health versus hermetically sealed boxes, seems like a simple choice. However more and more of our built environments are becoming hermetically sealed boxes rather than integrating connections between people and the natural environment. Most of these choices are guided by standards to avoid sick building syndrome and create boxes that are energy efficient. Kenneth Framton agrees on such reductionism on our non-place cities/suburbs, where we make spaces and not places, “outside the ‘mass’ engineered somnambulism of the television, we still indulge in the proliferation of roadside kitsch—in the fabricated mirage of ‘somewhere’ made out of billboard facades and token theatrical paraphernalia the fantasmagoria of an escape clause from the landscape of alienation…with ‘newspeak’ overtones, they testify to a fundamental break in our rapport with nature (including our own), they speak of a laying waste that can only find its ultimate end in ourselves.”


As an architectural example of efficiency over effectiveness: many suburban developments today are positioned to carry out production; their formulas are set up for economic imperative for profits which negate some more meaningful processes of consensus and generation of place that potentially could unfold. Counter-active to the suburbs, new urbanist communities offer a mitigated version of this development process. This mitigated process has more ‘poetic thinking’ in it than the suburbs, and is focused more on people rather mere housing to fill housing needs: a means to an end.


To be one with nature.
In regard to our natural world, which we humans are conditioned to feel separated from and yet we humans have innate proclivity toward everything in the biosphere. This concept of the “instinctive bond between humans beings and other living systems” is called biophilia (Wilson). One of the greatest proponents of connection to nature through an experience-based and educational standpoint is David Orr, in an interview he describes the value of nature and how reductionism limits our appreciation for nature.

When we speak of the human relationship to our environment, I think we need to draw a distinction between complexity on one hand and complicatedness on the other. A cornfield, for example, is a complicated contrivance tied to futures prices on the Chicago Board of Trade, manufacturers of chemicals and expensive equipment, balance of payments, Saudi Arabian oil, and seed companies.

A forest, by contrast is complex beyond our capacity to fully comprehend. Natural systems are incredibly complex; they have a kind of a layered complexity. We can’t comprehend how complex they are. Complexity I think is an ecological and perhaps spiritual measure.

In contrast, complicatedness is an industrial thing. We understand complicated things somewhat because we made them. Cities, for example, are merely complicated.

The industrial mind, which is born of this complicatedness, sees the world as something to be manipulated. Essentially, this mindset holds that we can make end runs around the natural world and have it all, and of course we can’t.

What the industrial world has done in this transition from complex to complicated is to draw down natural wealth, biotic potential, species diversity, fossil fuels, and fossil water. The result is a short-run bonanza. Wes Jackson points out better than anybody else I know that the price of this transition is the loss of cultural information. So the extractive economy destroys both ecological and human potentials (van Gelder).

The concept of complexity verses complicatedness brings to mind the things we choose to ignore and devalue in the name of efficiency and reductionism.

In Artificial Love, Paul Shepheard defines architecture as the rearranging of the world for human purposes. Shepheard’s version of the history of humans is a technological one, in which machines become sculpture and sculpture becomes architecture. For Shepheard, our machines do not separate us from nature. Rather, our technology is our nature, and we cannot but be in harmony with nature. The change that we have wrought in the world, he says, is a wonderful and powerful thing, a cultivation of it. I don’t think Shepheard knows it but he is in the same camp as the Industrial Ecologist of Natural Capitalism fame, a technological fix, although Shepheard merely does not address environmental issues, but he does address our collective consciousness through our human created wonders on earth. For Shepheard there is no challenging to nature as Heidegger would view it, yet the mounting evidence of the environmental crisis begs to differ. The idea that we are all one large socio-technological-nature rings true for me, thus this means all the more reason for the amazement of Shepheard and the technological drive of the Industrial Ecologists to fix our problems and the reverence of nature via biophilia of Orr. These things combined and applied all together might start to make a framework for sustainability through plurism, recognizing the our cultivation of the world affects the world and that we are affected by the world—valuing not just human made things but the biosphere and its processes.



Our buildings look like casualties of causality.

If modern technology is viewed as a mere means to an ends based on a sociological framework/boundaries, and not as a process of co-responsibility and co-creating then causality reigns. “The four causes are the ways, all belonging at once to each other, of being responsible for something else” (Heidegger). I think a process of co-responsibility is imperative, for we have the ability to design. This ability allows us to make meaningful instances of “coming into presence.” Design is our ability to our potential to affect the world with poetic thinking and sometimes looking for restraint as the best option does not rely on efficiency and quantity. Specifically in regards to our tendency toward “production considered solely as an economy of method…inhibiting rather than facilitating the creation of receptive places” (Frampton).

An extreme example of this co-responsibility and restraint is often found in the Amish culture as told in an interview with David Orr:

David Klein, an old- order Amish man living in Holmes County, Ohio, has explained to my students on several occasions why he uses relatively advanced technology to bring in hay but not to get in grain. The old order Amish refuse to buy combines because threshing parties are a community affair. They refuse to let technology intrude in certain activities because to do so would damage the community and limit their chances to help their neighbors and work together. They make that choice with full knowledge that individually they could be wealthier if they got grain in faster and increased the scale of farming. But they would be wealthier at the expense of community” (van Gelder).

Heidegger was concerned with co-responsibility and the bringing forth of techne through questioning of technology and habits. The Author of Lullaby, Chuck Palahniuk, points out how our mediated culture can hide ideas in things and limit questioning; “Experts in ancient Greek culture say that people back then didn’t see their thoughts as belonging to them. When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy, but now they call this free will. At least the ancient Greeks were being honest.” The culture of making has been hidden from our eyes, and co-responsibility is lost. So as the silversmith might have crafted the challis, the consumer now selects his products, I ask is this the same?

If instead we took a stance and worldview where there is more to life than reductive efficiencies and stark separations, that we are part of nature and nature a part of us, we might be more open to holistic, long-term, fair solutions to environmental degradation issues and conservation, environmental and social justice, affordable and fair housing and access to economic loans and subsidies. Being more deliberate about our physical and mental well-being is entirely in our control, and we can achieve this deliberateness without being a technophobe or a technocrat. The ability to question our world is our greatest asset as a species, underlining a mental capability for tolerance and multiplicity—standing outside the fire while being in frying pan—may be our greatest humanness. This stance requires some restraint on our part as to avoid power grabs over nature, and remember that our consciousness comes first. We can not afford to impoverish our relationship with nature any longer. The increased separation from the land has created so much impoverishment. We see fewer and fewer options before us.





Dreyfus, Hubert L. “Heidegger on Gaining a Free Relation to Technology,” in Technology and the Politics of Knowledge,” Andrew Feenberg and Alastair Hannay, Eds., (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995), pp., 97-107.


Edwards, Andres. The Sustainability Revolution: portrait of a paradigm shift. Gabriola, BC: New Society Publishers, 2005, pp. 3,4,21


Frampton, Kenneth. “On Reading Heidegger,” in Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory, 1965-1995, Kate Nesbitt, ed., (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), pp. 440-446.


Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology” in, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, Harper and Row: New York.1977, pp. 3-35.


Kellert, Steven. Building for Life: designing and understanding the human nature connection. Washington,DC: Island Press. 2005, p. 96


Mumford, Lewis. From the Ground Up: Observations on contemporary architecture, housing, highway building, and civic design. Harvest Books: New York. 1956, pp 110-111.


Shannin, Dimitri A. On Civic Environmentalism. 2003. www.drake.edu/artsci/PolSci/ssjrnl/2003/Shanin.pdf


Sheehan, Thomas. “A Normal Nazi” New York Review of Books, XL, nos. 1-2 (January 14, 1993) 30-35. Thomas Sheehan, “A Normal Nazi,” in The New York Review (January 14,1993), pp. 30:35.


Shepheard, Paul. Artificial Love: A story of machines and architecture. The MIT Press: Cambridge Massachusetts. 2003, p79


van Gelder, Sarah. “Human Agriculture: What it will take to foster strong rural communities, nutritious foods, humane cities, and ecological wisdom” An interview with David Orr in A Good Harvest (IC#42) Fall 1995, p 14


Wilson, Edward O. and Steven Kellert. The Biophilia hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press 1993.



Replicate to repeat or copy; Analyzing the same sample twice; should yield very similar results.

Reproduce make a copy or equivalent of; “reproduce the painting”; have offspring or young; implies evolution.

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