Thinking Outside the Box: Walter Benjamin’s Critique of ‘Dwelling’

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This post takes off from reflections on two notebook entries in Walter Benjamin’s long, uncompleted research into the space and culture of 19th-century Paris, The Arcades Project or Passagenwerk, notes that he dedicated to the problem of dwelling (Wohnen).   I’ll come back to these soon. But first a few preliminaries to set up the broader context for where I’ll be heading, which is Benjamin’s rich meditations and criticism about “interiors,” which embraces in his writings a complex set of topics and interconnections between them, including modern cities and their reconfigurations of inside and outsides through enclosures and the use of glass in architecture, the culture of the bourgeois household of the 19th century and of Benjamin’s own childhood, and the psychological interiority so intensively elaborated by modern culture from lyric poetry, stream-of-consciousness narrative, and modern art to psychoanalysis and new-age spirituality.

Dwelling was a problem that had long occupied Benjamin, not least because of its immediacy in his own uncertain, transient life as an expatriate and exiled writer, a life which he conducted largely out of cheap hotels, rented apartments, and borrowed rooms of friends in cities throughout Europe, until his suicide in 1940. As a passage from his 1928 book of aphoristic writings, One-Way Street, indicates–


–Benjamin connected the contemporary forms of dwelling with the increasing economic, political, and social compulsions that weighed on the individual’s freedom of residence and movement. Alluding to the economic and political crises of the early Weimar Republic after World War I, Benjamin writes:

“Any human movement, whether it springs from an intellectual or even a natural impulse, is impeded in its unfolding by the boundless resistance of the outside world. A shortage of houses and the rising cost of travel are in the process of annihilating the elementary symbol of European freedom, which existed in certain forms even in the Middle Ages: freedom of domicile. And if medieval coercion bound men to natural associations, they are now chained together in unnatural community. Few things will further the ominous spread of the cult of rambling as much as the strangulation of the freedom of residence, and never has freedom of movement stood in greater disproportion to the abundance of means of travel.”

As we know, the problem of dwelling has played an enormous role in the discourse of modern architecture and urbanism, but also in philosophy, where Martin Heidegger offered extensive treatment in late essays and lectures such as “Building Dwelling Thinking” and “Poetically Man Dwells. . .” and especially in his idiosyncratic writings on the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Georg Trakl. In these various writings, Heidegger suggested that dwelling—meaning the various historically differentiated forms in which human being’s inhabit the earth–and Being, the origination and passing away of all that is in time, stand in a complex, intertwined relationship to one another that should itself become the occasion for thinking. In turn, he argues, the human practice of building for habitation is not merely a matter of bodily shelter and survival, but rather a primordial component of the way we feel, speak, think, and occupy our finite historical worlds. At the conclusion of “Building Dwelling Thinking,” like Benjamin he too evokes a crisis-situation in dwelling, which, however, Heidegger sees as not having really been given sufficiently radical questioning and thought:

“What is the state of dwelling in our precarious age? On all sides we hear talk about the housing shortage, and with good reason. … However hard and bitter, however hampering and threatening the lack of houses remains, the proper plight of dwelling does not lie merely in a lack of houses. The proper plight of dwelling is indeed older than the world wars with their destruction, older also than the increase of the earth’s populartion and the condition of the industrial workers. The proper plight of dwelling lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the essence of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell. What if man’s homelessness consisted in this, that man still does not even think of the proper plight of dwelling as the plight? Yet as soon as man gives thought to his homelessness, it is a misery no longer. Rightly considered and kept well in mind, it is the sole summons that calls mortals into their dwelling.”

Here, Heidegger suggests that the plight of dwelling is not just a modern problem, but rather that human being’s habitation of the earth is that of never being “at home,” never being fully at peace and at one with the earth, but that of being always in strife with and uncanny to itself, out of place. Thrown into the spaces of the earth, human beings make places by building, which means that their placement, their dwelling, their habitation can never be taken for granted. Looked at in this light, Heidegger suggests that human beings always dwell historically, that is, in time-bound, poetically made, and linguistically and architecturally disclosed relations to the earth that can never be definitively settled, which hence are always subject to crisis, destruction, change, and renewal. The contemporary situation of the destruction and rebuilding of large cities, housing shortages, and mass displacement and influx to the city from the countryside are, perhaps, particularly dramatic and dangerous manifestations of this historicity of dwelling. But the greatest danger, he suggests, may be to fail to recognize in this historicity the most important spur to thought, the most important clue to what the contemporary crisis of dwelling means, and hence the only hope to find our way to historical renewal. Such thinking about the plight of dwelling, Heidegger suggests, would have to encounter even the most devastating phenomena of the present day as part of humankind’s long, defining confrontation with our lack of a fixed abode on earth and our need to pay constant heed to dwelling’s question and offer new historical, cultural, and architectonic answers to it.

Similar in this regard to Heidegger, Benjamin saw his own crisis-ridden time between the two world wars in relation to fundamental changes in the nature of dwelling, which also meant dramatic changes in the ways that modern people gave shape to dwelling by building, reflected on their habitation of spaces such as metropolitan cities, and interacted in new ways within modern built environments. Although of course Walter Benjamin, having died in 1940, would know nothing of the later Heidegger and was in many respect, most obviously politically, antithetical to Heidegger, I would suggest that in his focus on the question of dwelling and the various historical forms and forces that structure it, Benjamin too shared this holistic conception of the architectural realm. Perhaps even more strongly than for Heidegger, for Benjamin dwelling was a richly determined form of thinking and experiencing—and, moreover, a form of thinking and feeling in which the philosophical question of the “subject,” the individual subject of “lived experience” that was so much the focus of late 19th-century neo-Kantian thought, hermeneutics, and modern psychology, was profoundly implicated. At the heart of the issue of dwelling for Benjamin was the problematic status of its association with the “interior,” with “interiority”—whether that inner space implied the privacy of the bourgeois household or the inner depths and memorial folds of the bourgeois self. Indeed, what was at issue most forcefully for Benjamin was the dramatically altered relations between the psychic and architectonic manifestations of interiority that were being experienced as rifts and crises across the array of cultural, political, and personal life in his day.

Benjamin’s conjunction of a changing metropolitan space with new modes of psychic experience, mediated and expressed through various sorts of modern social behaviors and cultural artifacts, has a genealogical precursor in the writings of Georg Simmel and later, under the influence of Simmel, the early Georg Lukács. The most explicit development of this reading of Simmel can be found in the Italian philosopher `Massimo Cacciari’s consideration of late 19th– and early 20th-century German social thought, in his book Metropolis, where he discusses Simmel’s essayistically deploying the city itself as the real solution to long-standing Kantian and neo-Kantian antinomies of thought. Cacciari writes:

“In Simmel, the city is called upon to concretize Kantian teleological judgment. Here, the themes and key problems of neo-Kantian philosophy all reappear.”

And he goes on to argue:

“As long as the value of the city is simply the synthesis of form and function in the original apperception of its totality, the temporal dimension will remain absent. . . . Time, as well, [however], must be reconciled. And for time, there must be a form. Not for Kantian time. . .But for the time of Erleben [lived inner experience], the time of the actual products of history. And the form of this time must be the city.”

Putting this in somewhat more vernacular terms, the city comes to stand as a set of experiential forms—shapes of time, dynamized spaces—that give literally concrete dimension to the articulations of the inner-subjective and outer-objective realms. This is true both for the actually-existing capitalist city, in which reification (Lukács) or “objective culture” (Simmel) predominate both outer and inner experience, or for the utopian-future city virtually latent in its bricks, streets, hoardings, and walls. In this sense, too, we can understand the continuity of the products of artistic modernism with the broader domain of urban modernity, insofar as both involve the invention and / or reappropriation of cultural forms to project new modes of experience, new ways of configuring the spatial and temporal schema of modern experiential “worlds.” As Jon Goodbun has written:

“For Simmel. . . the metropolis provided the particular conditions in which the ‘space’ of concrete experience (super-individual ‘society’) and the ‘space’ of inner experience (individual subject) are translated (almost in the mathematical sense, that is to say, ‘mapped’) onto each other. And this is one of the senses in which we can begin to understand the object of this other modernist genealogy: as a store of transformation matrices between inner and concrete experience.”

In his own writings, Benjamin, in fact, makes explicit reference to Heidegger in an early note to the Passagenwerk, in which he writes: “[It is] of vital interest to recognize, at a particular point of development, currents of thought at the crossroads—namely, the new view on the historical world at the point where a decision is forthcoming as to its reactionary or revolutionary application. In this sense, one and the same phenomenon is at work in the Surrealists and in Heidegger.” Both the Surrealist exploration of Paris as a kind of exteriorized space of dreams, forbidden connections, and unacknowledged desires, he suggests, and Heidegger’s angst-ridden existential individual Dasein suffering the inauthentic chatter of das Man, are important diagnostic symptoms of the present-day crisis of dwelling, despite their manifest differences of idiom, intention, and political ideology. Another passage from One-Way Street, entitled “Minister of the Interior,” punningly plays off several connotations of “interior” to suggest more what Benjamin means: that there is a single crisis of dwelling, a disturbance in and drastic reconfiguration of previously stable relations between public and private life, conducted in exterior and interior spaces, that are susceptible to polarized political interpretations and uses. The full passage of “Minister of the Interior” reads:

The more antagonistic a person is toward the traditional order, the more inexorably he will subject his private life to the norms that he wishes to elevate as legislators of a future society. It is as if these laws, nowhere yet realized, place him under obligation to enact them in advance, at least in the confines of his own existence. In contrast, the man who knows himself to be in accord with the most ancient heritage of his class or nation will sometimes bring his private life into ostentatious contrast to the maxims that he unrelentingly asserts in public, secretly approving his own behavior, without the slightest qualms, as the most conclusive proof of the unshakeable authority of the principles he puts on display. Thus are distinguished the types of the anarcho-socialist and the conservative politician.”

Although there is an element of satire of the conservative politician’s hypocrisy as he publically espouses values that he then blatantly ignores in his private life, Benjamin’s point here is not primarily a moral criticism. It is rather that the questions of inside and outside spaces, private and public orders, have taken on increasingly consequential social and political dimensions, thus elevating them to a historically decisive importance in the coming general crisis (recall that this was written in the early 1920s and published in 1929, amidst the rise of Nazism and the economic collapse of 1929).

Now, at last, I return to Benjamin’s Passagenwerk notes on dwelling, where he explicitly addresses this term and concept. These two entries on dwelling appear in Notebook I [“The Interior, the Trace”] where, associating dwelling with the interior and domestic space, Benjamin adopts a resolutely critical note towards this theme. The first reads:

“The difficulty in reflecting on dwelling: on the one hand, there is something  age-old—perhaps eternal—to be recognized here, the image of that abode of the human being in the maternal womb; on the other hand, this motif of primal history notwithstanding, we must understand dwelling in its most extreme form as a condition of nineteenth-century existence. The original form of dwelling is existence not in the house but in the shell. The shell bears the impression of its occupant. In the most extreme instance, the dwelling becomes a shell. The nineteenth century, like no other century, was addicted to dwelling. It conceived the residence as a receptacle for the person, and it encased him with all his appurtances so deeply in the dwelling’s interior that one might be reminded of the inside of a compass case. . . . The twentieth century, with its porosity and transparency, its tendency toward the well-lit and airy, has put an end to dwelling in the old sense. Set off against the doll house in the residence of the master builder Solness are the “homes for human beings.” Jugendstil unsettled the world of the shell in a radical way. Today this world has disappeared entirely, and dwelling has diminished: for the living, through hotel rooms; for the dead, through crematoriums.”


The second, shorter note follows up the thought of the shell, while offering a grammatical observation that invites being contrasted to Martin Heidegger’s etymologizing approach:

“‘To dwell’ as a transitive verb—as in the notion of ‘indwelt spaces’; herewith an indication of the frenetic topicality concealed in habitual behavior. It has to do with fashioning a shell for ourselves.”

As such, these notes appear in relative isolation: Benjamin did not take up the theme of dwelling as directly in the rest of the Arcades Project, although clearly dwelling is indirectly at issue in the numerous notes on interiors, the house, and figures such as the collector and the flâneur. Yet these two specific notes remain significant for several reasons.

First, the theme of dwelling appears with a much more positive accent in one of Benjamin’s key sources of information and theoretical concepts about architecture: the historian Siegfried Giedion’s book Bauen in Frankreich (Building in France), which Benjamin admired and noted extensively. Giedion was a fervent follower of the architect Corbusier, functioning as the chief propagandist for the modernist architectural movement in Corbusier’s mold. Although Corbusier’s work embraces a vast range of projects, Giedion especially celebrates Corbusier’s modernization of the house in his innovative family villas of the 1920s.


Giedion had written of 19th-century architecture as a kind of psychic structure, in which the technological and industrial character of materials like iron and glass were being repressed into a subconscious dreamlike interior existence:

“Architecture, which has certainly abused the name of art in many ways, has for a century led us in a circle from one failure to another. Aside from a certain haut-goût charm the artistic drapery of the past century has become musty. What remains unfaded of the architecture is those rare instances when construction breaks through. Construction based entirely on provisional purposes, service, and change is the only part of the building that shows an unerringly consistent development. Construction in the nineteenth century plays the role of the subconscious.   Outwardly, construction still boasts the old pathos; underneath, concealed behind facades, the basis of our present existence is taking shape.

It was especially in industrial buildings such as train stations, depots, gasometers, silos, and so on that the new architectural “construction” openly showed its face in the 19th-century; it was most effectively repressed in the nostalgic, decorative, velvet-lined, and thing-stuffed spaces of the bourgeois house. Corbusier, Giedion thought, had brought the industrial age to the house at last. Thus one might indeed argue that dwelling, reinvented in a modernist mode, is the positive, utopian telos of Giedion’s whole account of modern architecture. As he writes in the introduction of Building in France: “The task of this generation is: to translate into a HOUSING FORM what the nineteenth century could say only in abstract and, for us, internally homogeneous constructions.” And returning to this point in his conclusion, he asserts: “our age has one primary demand: the creation of a humane and unconfined human dwelling that meets minimum standards.” It is, he suggests, only when the technological materials and practices evolved earlier in industrial contexts like train stations and factories begin to transform the foundations of human dwelling that architecture may be truly completed / overcome in modern urbanism.

Benjamin, in contrast, does not, like Giedion, embrace modern architecture for its utopian potential to solve the problem of dwelling by reinventing it under modernistic, technological forms. Rather, for him, modernist architecture is to be celebrated precisely for its negative, nihilistic aspect towards dwelling and its anticipation of new life forms beyond dwelling. Modern architecture, in his view, is not a means to restructure dwelling, harmonizing it with technology and urban collectivism, but definitively to abolish the already residual existence of dwelling in the twentieth century. Although it is true that Benjamin’s work as a whole may exhibit a more ambivalent attitude to the question of dwelling than I am describing here with reference to the Arcades Project, I believe the basic direction he adumbrates is the liquidation of dwelling, an active project of necessary destruction. I thus have to disagree respectively with Hilde Heyden’s otherwise excellent account of Benjamin, when she concludes: “The most striking feature in all this is Benjamin’s strategic attempt to understand modernity and dwelling as things that are not in opposition to each other.” I will return to this point in my concluding discussion.


Secondly, Benjamin’s notes reveal that he occupies an extreme position in a wide spectrum of positions among German sociologists, philosophers, cultural critics, and literary-artistic intellectuals from Nietzsche and Tönnies to Weber and Simmel to Spengler and Heidegger about the problem of dwelling. Alongside this catalogue of German thinkers, the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen also merits special mention for his interrogation of the bourgeois household as a space of modern tragedy in plays such as A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, Little Eyolf, and The Master Builder. For Ibsen’s late play The Master Builder (1892), from which Benjamin cites the modernist leitmotif phrase “homes for human beings,” represents one of the profoundest literary echoes of the problem of dwelling at this time. For example, Ibsen clearly articulates the connection between building and renunciation that would become so essential for the functionalist aesthetic of modern architecture. In Act Two, the master builder Solness tells Hilde: “To be able to build homes for other people, I have had to renounce. . . for ever renounce. . . any hope of having a home of my own. I mean a home with children. Or even with a father and mother.” In passages like this, Benjamin detected Ibsen’s nostalgic lament about the social “homelessness” of the builder (notably, Solness rejects the title “architect” in favor the Heideggerian “builder”) who, because of the profession’s embrace of technological means and a competitive ethos, increasingly has had to subordinate his personal “art” to the utilitarian, impersonal function of providing “homes for human beings.”


For these cultural intellectuals, the concept of dwelling became the intersecting point of reflections on such various issues as the problem of community, the nature of metropolitan experience, the relation to tradition, the question of technology and technical knowledge, and even, as Nietzsche’s and Ibsen’s examples suggest, the death of God and the potential nihilism of the individual will. Especially insofar as dwelling was seen by these intellectuals as threatened or obsolete in the modern metropolis, it became the focus of various melancholic diagnoses of decline, nostalgic wishes for return, and utopian desires to reinvent dwelling in the womb of technology and metropolitan life.   Architectural modernism and the avant-garde were touched by each of these attitudes, often in contradictory and incoherent amalgams. In contrast to his predecessors, Benjamin—like Emmanuel Levinas and in fact even the late Heidegger, in Francesco Dal Co’s view—accepts the irreversible dissolution of the sphere of dwelling as a given and even desirable outcome of metropolitan development. He thus implicitly renders equally obsolete cultural discourses that mourn dwelling’s loss, those that yearn for its retrieval from the ruins of history, and those that strive for its utopian reinvention in the coming age.


Finally, Benjamin’s references to “addiction,” “habit,” and “shell” suggest that his notes on dwelling and interiority should be connected to the more central problematic of the affective and cognitive dimensions of urban “shock” experience. Drawing upon the metaphorics of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Benjamin implied that the interiorized shell of dwelling—the dream house of the collective—was first and foremost a sheath of rigid, deadened matter to defend a vulnerable interior subjectivity against the shock of urban experience. The breaching and disintegration of this shell—which Benjamin believed was happening under the pressures of modern technology and collective life—is traumatic, and new forms of experience will not be mastered without various regressions, conservative retrenchments, and false reconciliations in the face of the danger of awakening from the protective dream. If the final, tragic fall of Master Builder Solness in Ibsen’s play represents at once the culmination of the dream of dwelling and a catastrophic awakening from it in the moment of death, the task that Benjamin sets for future constructors is yet more daunting.   Neither to reinvent the sacral roots of dwelling with sublime chuch-like houses (the fatal project of Ibsen’s Solness) nor construct utopian “castles in the air” (as the young Hilde Wangel wants Solness to do), but rather to survive and master the interminable fall into secularized space. (In a strange anticipation of Ibsen’s fiction, the arcade architect Giuseppe Mengoni, designer of Milan’s famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, whose allegorical features were intended as a secular counterpoint to the cathedral in the adjoining piazza, fell to his death from the triumphal arch shortly before the opening ceremonies in 1876.) In this sobering air outside dwelling, which surrounds the destruction-construction sites of the metropolis, architecture must seek the authentic spur to radical creation.



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