Building on a Slope: Defining the Origins of an Architecture

Introduction (Elements)

In “Building Dwelling Thinking”, Martin Heidegger discusses dwelling as the manner in which mortals exist “on the earth and under the sky”. Building, as both noun and verb, consummates dwelling by “gathering in” the earth and sky.

One of our basic presumptions about building is that it is rooted in the earth. Building grounds, it makes a place out of a location. In doing so, it allows us to orient ourselves in the world, and in relation to one another. Building also ‘shelters’ in the same sense that it ‘grounds’. A roof is the sky made concrete, brought down from above to within our reach; parallel or in specific relationship to the perceived flatness of the earth.

Ground and shelter are the first two coordinates of building. The third coordinate in this 3-dimensional construct is enclosure. Ground and shelter are limitless until given boundaries by enclosure. Ground, shelter and enclosure define space, and conversely, form.

But what distinguishes a building from the realm of mere objects? What is it that makes a building different from some other object such as a violin or a tree? Let’s consider the violin. Violins are made of wood. Buildings can also be made of wood. Like a building, a violin has an inside; a space where the vibrations of the strings resonate to produce sound. We cradle the violin under our chin and in our hands. A building is decidedly larger than a person– in this way, it holds us. Therefore we can say a building is different from other objects due to its size. But a tree can be as large as, or larger than, a building. Are some trees buildings? Like a building, a tree can provide shelter, and obviously, trees are wood. But while we can be under a tree or among its branches, we cannot be inside a tree as we would a building. So a building differentiates itself from other objects by being of a certain size to accommodate one or more people and has something we identify as an inside. If that was all that made a building, wouldn’t a telephone booth or a shipping container also be a building? These objects, the phone booth and container were made for specific purposes: to provide a semi-private environment in which to make a phone call, and to transport other objects, respectively. What differentiates a building from these objects is the intent of their makers. Phone booths and shipping containers are intended for a specific occupation and function. A building lacks this level of specificity. Buildings are imbued by their makers with what we can generally call meaning. The word ‘mean’ is derived from the Old English and Saxon words ‘maenan’ and ‘menian’, respectively. These words signify ‘to intend or to make known’. It is no coincidence then, that when we discuss ‘intention’ in building we are led to meaning. The relationship between a building and its occupants is a symbiotic one. The intent of the building’s makers reveals itself to the occupants through the occupants’ senses, perceptions and relationships to one another. The building ‘structures’ these perceptions and relationships while the occupants’ experience reinforces the existence of the building. Through this exchange, meaning is bestowed by the building to the occupants and the occupants return meaning to the building. In this way, building fosters inhabitation, not mere occupation. (We are all aware that such objects as shipping containers have been reused as dwellings. When this occurs, the object is reevaluated. It undergoes a transformation at the hands of its re-maker. The container is reconsidered and fashioned into a building with the same intention that fashions concrete, wood and steel.)

We can then say that a building is an object of a size large enough to accommodate one or more people; it has an inside, and lacks functional specificity. Buildings are objects that we inhabit.

And how do we inhabit buildings? We inhabit different buildings in a multitude of ways. But, the common denominator in how we inhabit all buildings and all built places is time. Recall that Heidegger discusses dwelling as the manner in which ‘mortals’ exist. His use of this word is a direct reference to this fact. All words that describe motion carry with them an implicit understanding of the passage of time. (This does not, however, suggest a universal measure or perception of time.) Conversely, we cannot talk about time without using words that indicate motion

The Slope (Origins)

We discussed earlier that building makes a place out of a location. How does building accomplish this? Heidegger offers a sublime example:

“The bridge swings over the stream ‘with ease and power’. It does not just connect the banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream. The bridge designedly causes them to lies across from each other. One side is set off against the other by the bridge. Nor do the banks stretch along the stream as indifferent border strips of dry land. With the banks, the bridge brings to the stream the one and the other expanse of the landscape lying behind them. It brings the stream and bank and land into each others’ neighborhood. The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream… Even where the bridge covers the stream, it holds its flow up to the sky by taking it for a moment under the vaulted gateway and setting it free once more.”

The bridge is more than a mere device. Insomuch as the bridge gives its location meaning, the bridge is a point of origin. Building on a slope is too more than a technical challenge.

We begin building on the slope by determining the building’s point of origin. The site, although sloped, can be considered flat in one way: It is flat along a line perpendicular to the slope. A line has no spatial dimension, though. The line is made inhabitable by employing excavation and extension, uphill and downhill respectively, to form a traversing path. The origin of the building lies somewhere along this path. If time is the common denominator of inhabitation, how could we inhabit the site as a precursor to building? John Hejduk once said, “speed fixes objects in space; makes them static. A lack of motion [or a lack of speed] makes objects flexible and opens them up.” If we apply this thought to the site, we can then say that the longest (and slowest, given a constant rate of speed) way through the site is on a diagonal. The diagonal minimizes the pitch of the slope. In these two ways, the diagonal ‘opens’ the site to inhabitation. The intersection of the diagonal and traversing paths marks the point of origin for the building.

The diagonal path is a stair. Entering the building occurs in more than one way. One first enters the building by beginning their ascent/descent on the stairs. In doing so, the inhabitant brings her/his self into an alignment with the building. Entering happens again when the inhabitant encounters the building’s enclosure. Now the person is ‘in’ the building to the extent that the person is within its form. The inhabitant enters the building, in a more conventional sense, where the stair crosses the traversing path. Therefore, the origin of the building is not just an origin of its object quality, but the origin of its inhabitation. One can enter the building at this point from either direction, above or below. In order to stay ‘in’ the building in the manner described, the occupant must turn along the traversing path.

The enclosure of the building is a continuous wall. The configuration of this enclosure is determined by the origin and the wall’s relationship with the stair and path. The wall intersects itself at the origin. These two wall segments are perpendicular to the angle of the slope along the wall’s run. The inhabitant moves through the building along these two wall segments, moving back and forth over the point of origin. The point of origin extends itself vertically through the building, following the ascent/descent of the inhabitant. This vertical axis, in the form of a light well, establishes a reference point for the inhabitant that extends through the building. The inhabitant experiences the slope of the walls in relationship to their proximity to the origin/ light well. These wall segments are also translucent and transparent allowing light to enter the interior. The wall also has an ‘in’ side and an ‘out’ side. This is evidence of the fact that the wall is continuous. As it turns, the side that was once facing in, becomes out facing.

The floors of the building occur where the wall turns against the slope, while allowing sufficient room for inhabitation. The roof is the final ‘floor’ molded by the slope of the walls, which are set in specific relation to the slope itself.