Placing the Fourfold: Topology as Environmental Design

Randall Teal


In his later writing, Martin Heidegger outlines an existential structure called the fourfold, which is composed of earth, sky, mortals, and divinities. Gathering the fourfold is the ‘thing’, which, by its ‘thinging’ makes manifest a world. This is the happening of ‘place’, and Heidegger’s descriptions of this happening offer a certain lyrical beauty, but are not particularly illuminating if left undigested. In order to get to the real wealth one must examine the phenomena suggested, moving beyond the intellect into the experiences themselves. In light of such reading, considering environmental issues – particularly the way we build– might suggest directions toward more responsive and attuned practices that both acknowledge and activate the nuances of place. Although Heidegger says at the beginning of his essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” that he is not trying to ‘discover architectural ideas’ or develop ‘rules for building’, I still believe it is important to delve into this work with an eye toward architecture, as he lays out some beautiful and insightful ideas by which we might better assess our place in the environment. If we read Heidegger with the phenomena in mind, a richness emerges from the poetic quality of his writing that reflects the imbrication of time, culture, growth, human responsibility, and those things of significance within our world. My hope is that through such reading and thinking, possibilities might surface for designers to develop deeper phenomenological connections between building and place. In this way, Heidegger’s poetic descriptions of the thing and the fourfold can be a catalyst in shedding new light on the way we think about building with environments. This approach seeks to question the often myopic view of sustainability as technological upgrade and instrumental efficiency; for example, solar panels on a sweatshop would not demonstrate the depth of attunement that Heidegger’s writings endorse. In order to move beyond simply limiting ecological damage and maximising natural resources, it becomes important for mortals to create things that bring us together with the earth, sky, and divinities; and in so doing gather a place for a sustainable future.

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