Otto Friedrich Bollnow - Human Space

Biba Dow, ‘Otto Friedrich Bollnow - Human Space ’, in: Own Writings (December 2011)


The newly translated edition of Otto Friedrich Bollnow’s 1963 book‘Human Space’(‘Mensch und Raum’) is aptly titled. Developing the theory of his fellow student and teacher Heidegger that the first task of being is to dwell, Bollnow explores ideas around “true dwelling in space: through an understanding of the significance of human experience”. This is a study of the character of space, exploring its “emotional, human quality” to describe our meaningful encounter with space which “by no means signifies the three-dimensional endless, all-embracing continuum. But rather it refers to a life that unfolds within it”. 

Bollnow systematically documents linguistic history, philosophy, fictional writing and personal experience, laying academic research alongside poetry, to put together a tool book of defined spatial experiences. “What is repeatedly important here is reciprocity”, he writes, “Space has its particular mood, both as an interior space and also as a landscape….One speaks of a mood of the human temperament as well as of the mood of a landscape or a closed interior space, and both are, strictly speaking, only two aspects of the same phenomenon”.

Bollnow was a prolific writer, and this is the first of his books to be translated into English. His early training as a physicist is I think evident in the construction of the book, with its clear path towards a defining ‘kit of parts’ of spatial experiences. As a student however he became more interested in philosophy, and devoted the rest of his life to teaching and writing about a more existential and phenomenological understanding of life.

He makes linguistic connections between words and practices to describe spatial ideas, delineating a structure of spaces as a connected totality, a continuum of experience. The book travels through ideas of nearness and foreignness, and the differences between walking, wandering and returning. He explores building elements – doors, windows, thresholds - and furniture – bed, table, hearth - as well as states of being – waking, sleeping, dreaming, and times of day.

This is a study of dwelling, of having a meaningful connection to the world, “to have a fixed place in space, to belong to this place and be rooted in it”: to have a Bachelardian place to dream. He explores the idea of dwelling as the essential conflict between uprightness and lying down, where uprightness “determines and permeates the whole relationship of man with his world”, expressing a sense of self and otherness, where “posture always presupposes self-awareness and thus the distance, the tension in relation to the world”. Describing the experience of being in the Pantheon in Rome, with its one large occulus lighting the vast darkness, he alludes to this tension between self and the cosmos: “man must feel entirely collected within himself, because the view of the world is forbidden to him, and nevertheless a piece of infinity remains present”. 

Throughout the book, Bollnow returns to the central idea of conflicting opposites as a central existential experience. The understanding of a horizon as a point of location (“The horizon prevents one from getting lost, and gives one the means to determine one’s situation and to work out the path of one’s intellect”) is understood in contrast to the security of the home and hearth. “Homesickness and longing for distance are so close to each other”, he writes, “that one must ask oneself if the two things are not basically the same. It is part of the innermost nature of mankind that we seek so far beyond ourselves in the distance”.

As its editor Joseph Kohlmaier describes, the book explores the space between thinking and doing: “it also represents the permanent concurrence of two things we tend to force apart: action and observation (or theory and practice) – and illuminates the space in which this book operates.”

‘Human Space’has never been out of print in Germany. Arriving here to a new generation of readers, it forms a timely reminder of the essential role of human experience in defining spatial character.  It explores the nuance of the human realm often excluded by modernism, giving place – Proust’s ‘mental soil’- to significance and phenomenology, and reminding us of why and how we are rooted in the world. 

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