Building as Being-With, by Katherine Melcher

From cathedrals to state capitals to lifestyle centers, the world is full of examples where architecture expresses the dominant socio-political ideologies within which it was built. But can the reverse happen as well? Can buildings propose alternative social and political formations? If we accept Richard Rorty’s suggestion that “social institutions can be viewed as experiments in cooperation rather than attempts to embody a universal and ahistorical order” (196), what role can building play in such experimentation? Can buildings experiment with and suggest alternative ways of being together?


This paper starts from the premise that politics and governance do not have to be conceived of as a given, unified order that oppresses individuals and denies singularity; but, instead, in their most basic forms, they can be conceived of as tentative rules and procedures for being together. Through Heidegger’s Being and Time and Jean-Luc Nancy’s Being Singular Plural, I consider how governance may be reconceived as “being with” rather than “being for”; governance can be re-thought as relations between people based on a “with,” which implies proximity and connection, rather than a “for,” which suggests sacrifice or service. Although I do not subscribe to their goal of developing an ontological foundation for all Being within being-with, I find Heidegger and Nancy’s proposition of “being-with” as an alternative conception of society worth pursuing. Being-with suggests that, at some levels at least, politics and governance can be based on connections between people rather than on the oppression of singularities or the development of common identities. As Nancy argues, the “imperial form” of coexistence, “forces power to emerge as a problem,” but “the ‘city’ is not primarily a form of political institution; it is primarily being-with as such” (31). Being-with operates with a different form of power, one that “is neither exterior to the members of the collective [college] nor interior to each one of them, but rather consists in the collectivity [collegialite] as such” (30).


For architecture to actively experiment with alternative modes of being together (such as being-with), a shift in thinking about building needs to occur: from building as a noun (an architectural object defined through form and function) to building as a verb (the culture of building). In The Culture of Building, Howard Davis argues, “improvements to the built world… depend largely on the gradual transformation of the building culture – the coordinated system of knowledge, rules, and procedures that is shared by people who participate in the building activity and that determines the form buildings and cities take” (3). It is in this building culture where the social and political norms get tested, adjusted, and reified. This suggests that, within certain constraints, we can develop alternative building processes that more closely-express how we ideally would like to be together. This rethinking of building also draws from the German concept of bildung, which suggests that the creation of a building is an ongoing process, where together people are solving problems and developing relationships between themselves, thus developing a society in small-scale. “Building” as a verb also draws from Heidegger’s exploration of building in “Building Dwelling Thinking,” suggesting that building implies not only cultivating and erecting but also dwelling, “the manner in which mortals are on the earth” (350).


Two current building cultures illustrate this idea of “building as being-with”: community-built practices in the United States and the commons movement in Europe. Community-built is a term used to describe architects, designers, and artists who work closely with local residents to design and build small-scale public and shared spaces (Delgado, Melcher et al.). Their projects typically include playgrounds, public murals and sculpture, gathering places, and community gardens.. The Commons movement in Europe is described by the Krytyka Polityczna and the European Cultural Foundation as “a powerful bottom-up movement led by citizens themselves, developing new participatory democratic practices that shape our cities and empower us to govern them in a different, collaborative way” (11). Projects range from city parks and market halls to new collaborative forms of city governance, such as the Bologna Regulation in Italy and the Participatory City in the UK. I view these examples not solely as acts of resistance, but as experiments in cooperation that can complement and critique dominant ideologies within which they function.


Works Cited

Davis, Howard. The Culture of Building. New York, Oxford University Press, 2006.

Delgado, Melvin. Community Social Work Practice in an Urban Context: the Potential of a Capacity Enhancement Perspective. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Albany, State University of New York Press, 2010.

Heidegger, Martin. “Building Dwelling Thinking” Basic Writings. Trans. David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.

Krytyka Polityczna and the European Cultural Foundation. Build the City: Perspectives on Commons and Culture. Krytyka Polityczna and the European Cultural Foundation, 2015. http://www.culturalfoundation.eu/library/build-the-city-book

Melcher, Katherine, et al, editors. Community-built: Art, Construction, Preservation, and Place. Routledge, 2017.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular Plural. Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press, 2000.

Rorty, Richard. “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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