A Philosopher's View
Mark Kingwell on Heidegger's hut
By Adam Sharr.
112 pp. $24.95
From 1922 until his death in 1976, the controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger often lived and worked in a three-room cabin in the Black Forest mountains. “Die Hütte” (the hut), as he called it, was a retreat as well as a source of inspiration. His influential writings on technology, poetry, place, and dwelling are rooted in this small house, which is backed by one mountain and looks across a valley at another. Anyone who has struggled to parse Heidegger’s dense reflections on “the fourfold” (earth, sky, divinities, and mortals) or the notion that “poetically man dwells” will surely find the task easier from this vantage.
Adam Sharr’s detailed study of the structure, the first of its kind, marries architectural precision with philosophical interest to create a handy guide to this famous, perhaps notorious, house. Was it here that Heidegger felt the tug of blood and earth that would underwrite his 1933 inaugural address as the rector of Freiburg University, a corrupt defense of National Socialism as the true destiny of the German universities? Was it the anti-cosmopolitan, premodern texture of this mountain region that sustained his critiques of liberalism and technology’s assimilation of the world into mere resource, or “standing reserve”? More generally, how does the site of any philosopher’s reflection affect the direction of thought?
Sharr, an architect and lecturer at Cardiff University, in Wales, does not attempt to answer such questions, though he raises them ably enough and provides a basis for further investigation. There can be little doubt that such investigation is needed, and not simply as a means of untangling Heidegger’s peculiar legacy. It is not merely academic to wonder how Michel de Montaigne’s spacious library affected his views on toleration, or whether René Descartes could have conceived the Meditations on First Philosophy anywhere but from within his study, for such questions embrace wider ethical and political concerns. We are, all of us, shaped by as well as shapers of our built environment—a landscape, as renowned architect Daniel Libeskind likes to remind us, that exists more in time than in space. Heidegger’s thoughts on dwelling are central to these issues, even if the role of his Nazi-leaning politics in his philosophy remains unsettled.
It has to be said that the hut itself, which still stands but is on private property and thus inaccessible to visitors, is of limited architectural interest. A simple country house, it was built anonymously and somewhat crudely. This fact renders the detailed middle sections of Sharr’s book, which dissect plan, site, and materials at extravagant length, a little precious, if not downright comical. (It is as if we had been invited to a solemn architectural charette on a prefab trailer home.)
But the book also offers nicely turned though all too brief contributions on the importance of place in architectural thought by Simon Sadler and Andrew Benjamin, two leading theoreticians of the built environment. Included as well is a series of photographs by the photojournalist Digne Meller-Marcovicz, showing Heidegger and his wife, both in their seventies, pottering around the hut, or the philosopher assuming various meditative attitudes in the field beyond. These images are at once goofy and profound, and add the human dimension to this most celebrated of minor dwellings.
Sharr does not so much challenge the prevailing Heidegger myths as presuppose them, and his book lacks the eerie intellectual richness of David Barison and Daniel Ross’s 2004 film The Ister, which covers some of the same territory, using Heidegger’s lectures on Friedrich Hölderlin as a basis. For all that, it is a valuable small volume that belongs in the collection of anyone interested in the relations between thought and place.