Riccardo Paradisi

Building, dwelling, thinking. Why places do not melt into air

A loss of the meaning of dwelling in city centres and suburbs is the most powerful driver behind the explosion of political and social chaos. A philosopher and essayist suggests the solution lies in a thought capable of looking, listening and caring.

“Whither are we going?” Henry of Ofterdingen asks the wayfarers: “Ever homewards.” is their reply. The bearer of original nostalgia is always focused on dwelling, just as a compass needle inevitably points to magnetic north. This is because “dwelling” essentially means being placed at peace. As Frye says, it means remaining within the protection of what is akin to us and delivers us from evil. It takes care of every thing in its essence.

In his reflection “Building Dwelling Thinking”, Martin Heidegger reverses sign and directrix to the hierarchical sequence constructing-dwelling that came about in the technical era. “Only if we are capable of dwelling, – and here lies the reversal – only then can we build.” These words probe those listening to them primarily because of the explosion, in our recent turbulent years, of the city suburbs where the issue at stake in the now viral, social contest is, indeed, the remaining within the protection, the search for what is akin and delivers us from evil. 

The bearer of original nostalgia is always focused on dwelling, just as a compass needle inevitably points to magnetic north. This is because “dwelling” essentially means being placed at peace

Whether it be the preserved memory of places or the possibility of dwelling in them as a home, of taming them or, conversely, of subtracting them from their non-animation and disguise as non-places, what feels at risk is one’s ability to dwell. The loss of the sense of dwelling, in city centres and suburbs alike, is most powerful driver behind the explosion of political and social chaos: the city ceases to be a place of identification and becomes the space where “All that is solid melts into air.” (Karl Marx), the end result of which is the risk of a perpetual war of all against all, conflict as the only way of being. It is not simply a case of the suburbs leaving the sphere of control or the losing, started decades ago, of an urban vision, the concept that replaced the original liturgical approach to the creation of the city. 

It is a deeper ontological collapse, the clouding over of the thought that grasps the essence of things. Dwelling – as Heidegger reminds us – is the stay of mortals on the earth: “But ‘on the earth’ – the German philosopher clarifies – already means ‘under the sky.’ Both of these also mean ‘remaining before the divinities’ (die Göttlichen) and include a ‘belonging to men’s being with one another.’” There is an original unity within which the Four – earth and sky, divinities and mortals – are just one thing. The mortals are in the Fourfold because they dwell. If the fundamental character of dwelling is looking after, it is a quadruple care that comprises saving the earth, receiving the sky, awaiting the divinities and escorting the mortals. It is a staying with things while letting them keep their essence. Dwelling is looking after your own space, being in a relation with space, filling the artificial gap between designing, constructing and eventually dwelling. “However hard and bitter, however hampering and threatening the lack of houses remains – writes Heidegger – the real plight of dwelling does not lie merely in a lack of houses. The real plight of dwelling is indeed older than the world wars with their destruction, also older than the increase of the earth’s population and the condition of the industrial workers. The real dwelling plight lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the nature of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell.”

Dwelling is looking after your own space, being in a relation with space, filling the artificial gap between designing, constructing and eventually dwelling

From this standpoint, the constructing-building becomes like farming in agriculture, a looking after the land and nature insomuch as it is transformed without subjugation. What prompts the bewilderment and, equally, nostalgia we mentioned at the start, is the loss of the place intended as a qualitative point in space and, conversely, the expansion of the shapeless, the uniform, the non-place, Calvino’s “continuous city”, where there are spaces and flows but no places. Landscapes that appear on the horizon of nihilism and that therefore entail – despite developing the most hyper vitalism – the radical anaesthesia of Being. Because “The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on earth, is Buan, dwelling.” 

Our distress today speaks of this which is, after all, the symptom and voice of our nostalgia. It will never find comfort in past contexts or regressive utopias but in a possible other present, in a thought capable of looking, listening and caring.

Riccardo Paradisi, a 47-year-old philosopher and essayist focuses on political and corporate communication. He directed, with Geminello Alvi, La confederazione italiana and has written for Il Sole 24 Ore and Panorama. A writer of cultural programmes for Radio Rai, his latest essay is Un’estate invincibile (Bietti Edizioni), an examination of youth in a society of perpetual adolescents. 

Sodales purus vel vero possimus temporibus venenatis

Sodales purus vel vero possimus temporibus venenatis

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