A revolutionary new paradigm is under way(1)

"Living essentially means dwelling."

"The world is a nest."


Our modern world, whatever it says and does, always is essentially based on the idea of a homogenously extended space, which expands from where we are to the endless infinity of the universe. This extension is so immense that it may take years for the light of a newly born star to reach us. This consciousness of an enormous universe in which our considerably large globe is just a miniature small sphere evidently influences our modern everyday feelings about space in various respects. However, this conceptualization of space is not ancient. It is a result of numerous discoveries only made possible by modern instruments. But to us nowadays this notion has become so self–evident, it is impossible to imagine that it ever was otherwise.

However, this kind of collective 'oblivion' becomes highly problematic when it comes to translating texts handed down from ancient societies to our times. The same problem arises in ethnology, when we communicate with peoples living on the edges of our modern world and who probably have very little understanding of this modern interpretation of space. In most cases, scientists are not even aware of the problem. As historians, they translate ancient texts (or, in the case of ethnologists, interpret questionnaires) as if these populations living in much smaller worlds had the same perception of space as someone living in our modern industrialized world. If such translations were made for the pure fun of it, this might be acceptable. Yet in various disciplines, these translations form the basis of specific theories essentially contributing to the definition our social existence, for instance in religion, when we talk about creation, in philosophy, when we discuss metaphysics. The same applies to art with regard to aesthetics, when we talk of beauty, or in architecture, when houses, settlements, or cities are planned. In all these domains, space is an absolutely primary component. It makes a tremendous difference whether ancient myths and stories of creation are seen from a perspective of modern concepts of the universe or whether they are related to environmental, or settlement conditions of early history. Likewise, whether one discusses metaphysics within a framework of idealistic philosophy, which - naturally based on similarly interpreted ancient texts! - allows its ideas stream into the infinite cosmic spaces, or whether one seeks for environmental and anthropological 'circumstances' for the origins of metaphysics. It also makes a tremendous difference whether one evaluates objects of art according to a historically supported aesthetic concept of the Platonic-cosmological kind, or whether one strives to understand the notion of beauty anthropologically within the concrete human tradition. In architecture, the situation is even worse:maybe architects force men - on a worldwide level - into a wrong spatial corset.

O.F. Bollnow's book 'Man and Space' provides this new standpoint by confronting the physical–mathematical conception of space with the anthropological dimensions of space. If this anthropological theory of space were used on a broad basis, that is to say in prehistory, history, and ethnology, or generally in the humanities, then, most of what our 'intellectual sciences' (humanities) had accumulated over centuries would have to be written anew.

Crucial, in a scientifically methodological sense, is that if, with Bollnow, space, in its primary conception can no longer be conceived as an infinite void but as a human and ecological implant into what we nowadays consider homogenous space in physical terms, then space essentially becomes pluralistic and qualitatively bound to human environments. From an anthropological perspective, its structure can now be researched inductively, as closely related to human experience and behaviour. Basic and 'universal' metaphysical terms are now down–to–earth, entering the human domain, their concrete cultural tradition. Bollnow thus represents not only individually, but also scientifically, a revolution. In Thomas Kuhn’s sense, he has introduced a new paradigm, which will, however, not manifest itself in this or that branch of this or that discipline alone. Rather, in this case of Bollnow's anthropological concept of space, we are dealing with a paradigm that will revolutionize our modern scientific 'tree of knowledge' from top to bottom.


Space still is one of the primary aspects of man's culture and is basic to any architectural discussion, whether in the domain of practical architectural design or in architectural research. In 1971, Christian Norberg-Schulz ('Existence Space and Architecture') proposed his concept of 'existential space', which was based on Jean Piaget's studies of a child's concept of space ('ontogenetical aspects of space conception') and, in its socio-cultural aspects ('philogenetic problem of space conception'), was inspired by many previous studies. Evidently, most important as stimulating precursors were the well-known historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, the art historian Dagobert Frey, and the philosophical phenomenologist Otto Friedrich Bollnow.

Norberg-Schulz's existential alternative to the Euclidian concept of space had no real influence on architectural design, mainly for the following reasons:he used the results of these works rather arbitrarily to support his own concept of architectural space and, secondly, the discussion was obscured by postmodern rhetoric.

In this context, Bollnow's book 'Mensch und Raum' (Man and Space, 1963) is most important. His work can be considered the first to deal with the 'anthropology of space' in a comprehensive manner in ontological and intercultural terms. The book clearly assigns a secondary position to cosmologically or metaphysically extended space and a primary position to the ordering of space as developed in human settlements. Further, Bollnow put man and his complementary need for movement and rest at the centre of his spatial concept. Space in this sense becomes heterogenous, which is expressed in many observations closely related to building. "The anthropological significance of the house has to be rediscovered today" (:137). The fundamental and far–reaching significance of this approach for architectural research is evident.

Surprisingly however, Bollnow is hardly known, particularly among architectural researchers. In comparison to Heidegger's widely and intensively discussed studies related to building and space, he is rarely quoted. His systematic research has not been given the attention it deserves. In some cases, he is not even mentioned in thematically related research and studies where his immediate influence is evident. Most often, however, his revolutionary contribution to the discussion of space is simply overlooked. Unfortunately, the book has not been translated into English or French.

To clarify this situation and to contribute to a wider diffusion of Bollnow's fundamental thoughts, the present paper reviews Bollnow's important approach, trying to give an idea of his most important and, to some extent, quite ingenious and epoch-making achievements. 2 In general, we follow the structure of his book.


Bollnow justifies the choice of his philosophical ontology of space on the basis of the philosophy of his time. Bergson, Simmel, Heidegger, Sartre, Merlau-Ponty, and Minkowsky all had discussed the temporality of human existence as the central and basic philosophical problem. Spatial conditions of human existence remained in the background. Some studies had been done in the thirties focusing on space as it is experienced in the frame of psychopathology and psychology. Thus, philosophically, Bollnow places his studies in a wider framework, related to Heidegger, Graf Dürckheim, Minkowsky, Straus, Binswanger, Lassen, Beutendyk, Bachelard and - in other ways - to Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms.

Bollnow's methodology is closely related to that of phenomenology. Norberg-Schulz considers his book to be speculative and nonscientific, but he obviously did not understand that phenomenology does not construct its theories by systematic, logical calculation, but rather cultivates its clear view in a philosophical sense. As expressed in the term 'phenomenology', it is concerned with the description of phenomena, being convinced that, with well-founded reflections, the studied object will reveal its pure essence. And, in fact, Bollnow, by describing space in close relation to human behaviour and environmental conditions, seems to have discovered the essential structure of space. Obviously, this can also be valuable in an anthropological sense.

In a stark contrast to Norberg Schulz's concept, which is to some extent still anchored in conventional architectural rationalism, Bollnow's outlook is deeply humanistic in that it places man and his immediate environment at the centre of everything he describes. He thus manages to present an enormous variety of new insights which contrast greatly with the poverty of the spatial concepts of present architectural design. In fact, one is tempted to imagine how much different architecture would be today, if, instead of postmodernism, Bollnow's concept of anthropological space had become the basis for architectural reasoning of the last three decades.

Bollnow's method is also reflected in the contents of the book, which presents a rich catalogue of approaches and themes. But this complexity should not be a source of confusion. On the contrary, the phenomenological method defines its subject through the greatest possible number of perspectives and, thus, Bollnow manages to respond to the factual complexity of space.

Obviously, Bollnow has received great impulses from the structure of the German language. In contrast to the more rationalistic traditions, e.g. those of the Romance languages - in particular French - the German language has not lost many of its primitive roots. Thus, it has preserved many terms related to original conditions of space, words which imply meanings very different from their Romance counterparts (e.g. 'Platz' (place) versus 'Ort', 'Stelle', 'Heim' etc.). Consequently, important parts of Bollnow's discussions are based on the history of words, language, and thought as expressed in literature. In this sense particularly, etymology could become an important source for research into human space concepts and architecture. 3

Further, Bollnow deals extensively with the philosophical discussions of his time in so far as they relate to his theme. In a wider context, he also uses cultural history, mainly European, but partly non-European, and ethnology. Mircea Eliade's structural history of religion plays a considerable part but Bollnow remains sceptical of his metaphysical interpretation, which contrasts sharply with Bollnow's own humanistic approach.

The book is divided into five main chapters entitled:'The Elementary Articulation of Space' / 'The Wide World' / 'The House and the Feeling of Security' /' Aspects of Space' / 'The Spatiality of Human Life'. Trying to preserve the basic structure of Bollnow's book, we will, in the following, outline in short his most important thoughts - as far as this is possible, after all, his book is of more than three hundred pages.


In his first main chapter, Bollnow usesvarious sources to show that, in its origins, space was not a boundless concept, but on the contrary, was more or less clearly limited, defined, rather environmental and closely related to the history of human settlements.


Space is not homogeneous, but articulated. There is a suggestion of this in Aristotle's puzzling discussion in the fourth book of his 'Physics', the first treatise on spatial problems in the occidental tradition of thought. Relating it to the four elements (fire, air, water, earth), he teaches the "natural articulation" of space, that each of these elements show a natural directionality, e.g., upwards in the case of fire and light things, and downwards with regard to earth or heavy things. Bollnow emphasizes that this concept differs essentially from our modern view of space. There is another puzzling aspect in the Aristotelian notion of space:what we would consider as "place" (topos, 'Ort' in German) somehow appears to be hierarchically projected from a local to a cosmic dimension and thus shows extension, which Bollnow compares to a container. Conclusion:Aristotle's view is never one of endless mathematical space but is limited in its utmost extension to "the void delimited by the heaven's vault."(:30)


That space was originally delimited is also suggested by the etymology of the German word "Raum". Grimm derived it from the corresponding verbal form "räumen", to clear a part of the wilderness with the intention of settling down, to establish a dwelling. Bollnow elaborates on this point, giving many examples of everyday use of related terms, demonstrating that the roots of the word are closely related to dwelling, to the orderly human environment. Thus "Raum" used with a definite or indefinite article always relates, e.g., as generic term for the rooms of a house, to buildings. Its use is not compatible with open-air locations (e.g. meeting place). Without the article, it is also related to the human environment, meaning space for movement between things or objects. Only in a second stage does the concept of "Raum" appear with extended meanings ("raume" [= offene] See, "Weltraum", etc.). Similarly related terms are always applied to objects of the human environment, e.g., "Ort" (punctated localization originally alluding to pointed things like spears (used as place markers?), pointed landforms like cape, etc.) or "Stelle" (basically related to some building construction, furniture) or "Fleck" (horizontal extension of land, marketplace, etc.).

This extremely convincing emphasis on the environmental origins of the notion of space has far–reaching consequences, not only for architectural research and architectural theory, but also for our whole concept of man, in so far as our ontology, our metaphysics are based on primary cosmologies. In other words, Bollnow advocates a dramatic reversion, an "implosion" of our modern space concepts, an implosion which, by the way, is already well established in ecology and animal behaviour studies (Uexküll), but not at all in architecture and urbanism.

Directional elements and axiality

Bollnow's following sections deal with directional elements of space. Here too, he ingeniously "deconstructs" established systems, e.g., axiality. The pairs suggested already by Aristotle (above - below, in front - behind, right - left) are contraindications of homogeneity, particularly if they are not merely interpreted in terms of abstract linear axial systems, but are related to objective reality. Bollnow maintains that ground and air are two entirely different "half-spaces", necessarily complementary to human life. If the ground loses its quality of support, human existence is threatened. He refers here to Kierkegaard and his concept of anxiety. In their intrinsic relation with ideology and moral values, the two pairs, 'front and back' and 'right and left', clearly show their close relation to cultural history, but obviously not in the anthropomorphous sense, as generally thought, but rather in relation to the spatial organization of the environment.

Second part