Equipment as Art, Art as Equipment: Notes on Film, Architecture, and Martin Heidegger’s Philosophy of Culture

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Equipment as Art, Art as Equipment:

Notes on Film, Architecture, and Martin Heidegger’s Philosophy of Culture

Max Ryynänen
Petteri Kummala


Equipment (das Zeug) and the work of art are key concepts in Martin Heidegger’s philosophy of art. In The Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger contrasts equipment, sometimes translated as ‘tool,’ with art. The term could, however, be useful for discussing art and culture. The “readiness-at-hand” of a hammer (part of the network of equipment) makes it transparent. We notice it only when it is broken. Heidegger posits this function as opposite to the way works of art push (Stoss) us out of our comfort zone to deal with our existential abyss. However, since they have a constitutive role in culture at the same time, we think that the description of equipment could shed light on the nature of our use of art and popular culture. For example, in our everyday life we rely as much on architecture and TV series as we do on hammers when we need them. (Most of us use fewer hammers than TV series, though.) Some cultural products could also be seen as both equipment and works of art in the sense that Heidegger attaches to them; this might offer interesting insights for aesthetics and cultural philosophy. To think of both the quality of art and equipment in relation to a good film or a playful building could be a new way to apply and rethink Heidegger’s legacy, which we hope to make visible in this paper. We argue that the usual dichotomous approach to distinguishing art and equipment should be reformulated to show that the equipment in our everyday life can provide existential moments often offered by art.

Key Words
architecture; art; equipment; film; Martin Heidegger; popular culture; tool; work of art


1. Introducing the Problematics

The less we just stare at the hammer-thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is—as equipment. The hammering itself uncovers the specific ‘manipulability’ of the hammer. The kind of Being which equipment possesses—in which it manifests itself in its own right—we call ‘readiness-to-hand.’[1]

In this passage from Being and Time, Martin Heidegger writes that equipment disappears into its reliability. According to him, while focused on our use of the tool we are manifestly conscious on some level of both the tool as an independent object and of our place in the context of relations to which the tool belongs. One could say that the hammer becomes phenomenologically transparent. We notice its role/meaning when it is broken. Or, to be more precise, when a use-object fails for some reason to serve its intended purpose, the normally invisible qualities that render it serviceable become raised to the level of explicit visibility, thus disclosing them in atypical ways.

Although Heidegger does not present any examples of the use of the hammer, he seemed not to have an urban worker in mind when he took up the hammer as an example of the role of equipment in culture, as his examples of authentic life seem to only portray rural Germany. Also, the urban worker enters his writing in Discourse on Thinking, where Heidegger laments for those who have “been driven from their native soil,” the ones who “have been caught up in the turmoil of the big cities, and have resettled in the wastelands of industrial districts.”[2] Of course, in urban life, not everyone needs hammers these days, which differs from traditional rural life where nearly everything was self-made. In the same text, Heidegger also discusses TV and media as not being able to constitute a “world,” which in his case means that they cannot have a constitutive role in culture.

Also, contemporary urban lifestyle, where a safety net of professionals supports our practical everyday needs, does not often entail encounters with hammers, saws, and needles (unless one has a hobby that requires them or a strictly professional interest), but anyone can probably connect to Heidegger’s list of objects of equipmentality, which includes “equipment for writing, sewing, working, transportation, measurement.”[3]

In 1959, twenty-three years after finishing The Origin of the Work of Art (1935-1936), he writes in Discourse on Thinking:

What we know now as the technology of film and television, of transportation and especially air transportation, of news reporting, and as medical and nutritional technology, is presumably only a crude start. No one can foresee the radical changes to come.[4]

Although one can read this as an invitation to boldly think about the new, there is reason to believe that Heidegger intended his concept of equipment to deal with objects that still at least transmit historicity, as his philosophy of culture is an attempt to see beyond forms and functions into the invisible layers of language and culture that we stand on and where we have our cultural destiny and roots.

Could there be anything better than a hammer to think with, in this respect, if we aim to understand culture and its deep layers of historicity? People have used hammers for thousands of years. We have built our lives and practices with and around them. Primitive hammers existed 3.3 million years ago;[5] the Romans created the nailing hammer nearly 3,000 years ago, and the tool took on symbolical weight through the Late Medieval Arma Christi (the weapons of Christ) and, to turn our gaze toward art, Albrecht Dürer’s claw hammer in Melencolia I (1514). Today’s hammers bring forth the history of this tool in some sense and give depth to our use of them, but the materials and the design and even ways of use have, of course, developed. Today we have many different types of hammers for different needs, designed differently, and even sold in different colors.

This also holds true for artistic products. Fairy tales are not so much about something that we would refer to today as art; they also have ethical, normative, and religious functions. The same applies to church frescoes and sculptures in urban open spaces. Like films and TV series today, they had many functions, from transmitting knowledge to building community. And, if one thinks about it, although the materials and methods of conveying stories and building symbols have changed, at least in some respect we face the same needs, like transmitting knowledge, building community, and providing aesthetic experiences.

Modernists in Heidegger’s time narrowed down the meaning of the concept of art to technical, minimalist works in galleries, museums, and concert halls. In The Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger presents an imaginative interpretation of van Gogh’s painting of shoes,[6] which for him exemplifies the “equipmental being of equipment.” He also discusses the central, constitutive role of the Greek Temple of Athena in ancient Athens and stressed that art depends “upon its roots in native soil.”[7] Although the first piece portrayed equipment (he did not mean that we’d look at the painting itself as equipment), through both examples he pays attention to the culturally constitutive character of art for a people – a historical people, as he calls it[8] – that ultimately, of course, also meant a dangerous Germanic connection to his thinking. Heidegger also accentuates how, while watching van Gogh’s painting, we are suddenly in another place from where we were used to being and that it transforms the manner of our seeing. This is where one could read him also as a philosopher who opens up the possibility that an experience of art could offer a transitional path from one culture to understanding another culture.

While the tenet in The Origin of the Work of Art sketches out a nearly monolithic, hermetically closed idea of “a culture” (‘the Greeks’, ‘the Germans’), van Gogh, as a Flemish painter, must have felt close enough; it was conventional at the time to over-emphasize both the broader German heritage (Großdeutschland) and the historical connection to the Greeks (for example, the Greek temple that Heidegger uses as an example of a work of art).

On the other hand, the more universal cultural phenomenon – equipment – did not in itself receive much further analysis after its introduction in Being and Time or the thoughts presented in The Origin of the Work of Art, although one must bear in mind that equipment breakdown is not the only way that serviceability can be explicitly disclosed to conscious thought; art can do it too, and perhaps more clearly, according to Heidegger. Serviceability is, however, antithetical to the essence of artwork. What Heidegger calls artworks are impractical but truthful.[9] And while works of art are discussed in their relationship to “a culture,” equipment is portrayed as universally human.

When we think about films and TV series, we find that they fill our everyday lives and we build our lives around them, trusting them by relying on them and accompanying their consumption with food and drink. Sometimes we notice them only when they fail us. We might feel not entertained, unamused, disgusted in the wrong way – or, when listening to popular music, it might not create the atmosphere we want. These cultural traditions transmit historicity. Although today surrogate singers sing for us on the radio, for thousands of years people have sung when they worked (for example, with hammers) and hunted.

Could not these practices be both “art” and “equipment” in the sense Heidegger gives to these concepts? These cultural modes of being could be thought of as existing in various degrees in the work. An old song or a TV program today could be something our everyday life leans on, safely, but it could also be constitutive for culture and, to some degree, even challenging, pulling us into an existentially challenging position.

The rest of this paper explores the possibility of equipmentality of popular culture. Part 1, “Sketching the Roadmap,” will provide basic thoughts on the issue, comment on film, TV and architecture, and question the nature of cultural products as equipment. Why didn’t Heidegger discuss TV and media as equipment; did he want to accentuate that they were not able to constitute a world, the way art does? What can we learn from Heidegger’s idea of equipment aesthetically speaking? Part 2, “About Equipment and Its Reliabilityand Entertainment,” takes a deeper look at the nature of equipment and how it can be a useful way to look at films, but it also discusses the relationship of art and equipment in Heidegger’s thinking. We will discuss whether art and equipment, as two different cultural modes mentioned by Heidegger, can oscillate in the same work, and if so, why and how, and what there is to learn from this thought experiment. Part 3, “Heideggerian Approach of Architecture,” lays a foundation for Part 4, “Is Yes More?,” which focuses on architecture and its multifaceted Heideggerian potential, in particular, the Bjarke Ingels Group’s (BIG) buildings, which entertain, build community, and function as works of art. Could these buildings pose questions about Heidegger’s work? We wrap up the major themes of our discourse in “End Words.”

2. Sketching the Roadmap

Some films hit people deeply, but at the same time they pose little challenge and fail to dominantly push us toward our existential abyss. Charlie Chaplin’s films are a good example of this. Although Chaplin’s work was entertainment and provoked laughter, many of his films also include moments that do not just creep under the skin of the audience. They also push the viewers to encounter not just societal problems but also, from time to time, reminders of existential margins. In The Kid (1921), a lonely proletarian man takes care of an orphan; besides the class differences and the deep and dreadful poverty that the film emphatically portrays, it shows the horrors of losing friends and family and the threat of starvation, death, and loneliness. At the same time, it is so sentimental that we could easily label it as kitsch. It is not a film to turn to in order to experience authenticity. It’s entertainment, but it has many layers.

Our dwelling in a building or film might be phenomenologically transparent, but moments or details might push us out from our comfort zone. As opposed to what Heidegger calls the “presence-at-hand” (“Vorhandenheit”) of phenomena in consciousness, which science and philosophy usually use as their starting point, he called the being of equipment “readiness-to-hand” (“Zuhandenheit”).

Presence-at-hand” refers to our comportment toward objects as bearers of objective properties such as color and extension in space. Their presence-at-hand can be grasped, but our readiness-to-hand cannot. Our mashing-up with objects in the latter way connects us to our cultural destiny, the network of material culture we have inherited and which we live in. Heidegger writes, “Taken strictly, there ‘is’ no such thing as an equipment. To the Being of any equipment there always belongs a totality of equipment, in which it can be this equipment that it is.”[10]

Art is narrowed down here and expanded to fit Heidegger’s ethno-nationalist thinking. Perhaps he felt a strong need to build an alternative to the formalist, surface-driven tenets of the thinking of his time by discussing the cultural boundaries dictated by destiny, by being thrown (Geworfenheit) into a certain cultural situation and position. In The Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger denies the idea that the experience of art could be just Erlebnis (ephemeral, surface experience). One reason might be that the philosophy of art (always modern art) in Heidegger’s time followed bourgeois aspirations so rooted in the lifeworld of the urban (Western) Central/Continental European upper class that Heidegger felt he had to violently work himself out from this enframing (Gestell).

Television culture was something Heidegger simply sees as a threat to Paul Klee’s work, whose art Heidegger planned to highlight in the never-finished second part of The Origin of the Work of Art.[11] In his time, TV rarely produced artistically bold material. Today the issue might be more complicated, but could the idea of equipment still make sense to him when discussing TV programs? Nowadays, people’s everyday life strongly relies on the use of TV and other audiovisual material. Tired after a long day of work, one does not necessarily feel like engaging with challenging artistic products. When one’s mind feels fragile, during a life crisis, watching a Disney film might feel safe. We are sure that it also applied in Heidegger’s time.

Related to Heidegger’s work are John Dewey’s method of centralizing living experience (against formalism and museum order) in his 1934 Art as Experience[12] and Walter Benjamin’s 1936 attempt, in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” to work on the historical change from Ehrfahrung (lived experience with more depth) to Erlebnis (which accentuates the ephemeral, lighter side of human experience[13]) – two inquiries from the years when Heidegger was working on The Origin of the Work of Art. Dewey and Benjamin worked on the dichotomies of art vs. life and art vs. mass culture, relying on their intuition that something had gone wrong with “art,” but Heidegger pushes aside an even stronger and larger part of our ordinary conception of art. He focuses on art that he thought of as constitutive for (a) culture. Think of the role of the Temple of Athena for the inhabitants of Athens, whose life and death were religiously connected to it, or the way Vincent van Gogh’s paintings changed our way of seeing.

The equipment side in Heidegger’s thinking is the opposite of Dewey’s and Benjamin’s work. It was analyzed in Being and Time, which still embodied a more universalist approach, but philosophically also speaks for all humanity. But one could have brought it into The Origin of the Work of Art in Heidegger’s discourse on the Greek temple, for example. The Temple of Athena, full of archetypical and symbolic power, somehow unified a people living in Athens. But for some, it was perhaps simply a building for passing through or finding shade or, for the urban lower classes, a place one could climb to on important days of celebration to sell honey cakes.

We feel that the art vs. equipment dichotomy Heidegger created, perhaps inadvertently, should be rethought. In particular, Heideggerian discussions on architecture have the tendency to polarize these two concepts.

Without going into an in-depth and exegetic discussion of what Heidegger thought of these notions, we propose that the conceptual scheme he worked out could be adapted less dichotomously. We could think that, at times, a work is more “art” in the sense he reserved for the concept or, at other times, more “equipment.” Sometimes its role can oscillate from one side to the other , for example, a film might first work as safe and unchallenging “equipment” and then turn into “art,” pushing the viewer to encounter existential questions.

Art’s role as a main agent in constructing cultural reality and pushing us to encounter our cultural fundaments and limits is a great way of philosophically describing what art at its best can do. But much of what we call art does not match Heidegger’s narrow use of the word; even less so for popular culture. Many things we consider to be everyday art or popular culture are reliability driven and are used like equipment typically is, without risks or challenges. The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss) covered by Betty Everett in 1964 and Cher in 1990, among others, is great for dancing, background music, and easy listening, but there are no challenges or existential threats lurking in its musical or lyrical texture, and one can hardly think it contains a constructive role in any culture or any sense of deeper human truth. (But it is easy to love.) But Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979) is a different story. It might serve as pure surface entertainment, but it hides other depths too. One can listen to David Gilmour’s guitar solos – they are very much appreciated classics – and find depth in its lyrics. One can also listen to the whole as a work of art. It has become quintessential for not just popular music but for Western culture more broadly. Listening to The Wall one also faces existential questions.[14] As a whole, it is a great example of a work that somehow embodies aspects of both art and equipment.

Ted Cohen talks about “bilateral works of art” in his article, “High and Low Art, and High and Low Audiences,” and uses the example of Hitchcock’s movies. They can be the highlight of the week for a group of film art enthusiasts in a film club, but also, paraphrasing Cohen’s thinking, just something that is nice to turn to after work with a beer in hand.[15] While Cohen’s perspective is different and works more to reconceptualize the art vs. popular culture dichotomy, the main idea that dichotomies are too stale in aesthetics, art theory, and cultural studies is the same idea that drives us to attempt to rethink Heidegger’s work. And, in our case, we want to embrace the concept of equipment, as it is somewhat still fresh for cultural analysis.

In the middle of the chasm and destinal disclosure of the Greek of Athena, and the somewhat indifferent pop TV shows we watch while eating our microwave dinners, we could think of endless examples of culture that extend to both sides. There are works that do not totally rip us out from our Das Man (the one/the they) mode, our mass cultured Being, although they work in the fashion that Heidegger ascribes to equipment. We do not really notice their existence unless they somehow fail us, although from time to time, at their peak as something that could be called art in Heideggerian terms, they can also push us toward our existential limits and grounds.

3. About Equipment and Its Reliability – and Entertainment

Martin Heidegger is famous for his early analysis of tools, and equally famous for his later reflections on technology. […] When he speaks of ‘tools’, his analysis holds for trees and monkeys no less than for hammers; when he speaks of ‘technology’, he has little to tell us about specific high-tech instruments. In both cases he is more concerned with a general ontology than with a theory of tools or technology.[16]

Graham Harman’s description of tools (that is, equipment) hits Heidegger’s intentions on the head. The tool exists in order for us to do something with it. In everyday life we are not attentive to it as it fulfills its function. The more the equipment does this, the more it is transparent. Equipment is also part of a broader network of equipment (plural). To break it down in simple terms: A doorknob is equipment for opening a door, the door is equipment for stepping into a room or out of a house, and the room is equipment for living/dwelling. Heidegger writes:

In our dealings we come across equipment for writing, sewing, working, transportation, measurement. (…) (T)here is no such thing as an equipment. To the Being of any equipment there always belongs a totality of equipment, in which it can be this equipment that it is. (…) A totality of equipment is constituted by various ways of the ‘in-order-to’, such as serviceability, conduciveness, usability, manipulability.[17]

The network of equipment is so intense and our human lifeworld is so essentially built on the functionality and transparency of this network that we neither question it nor take note of it. Here we could ask: Do we notice our magnified use of visual culture, music, and architecture in daily life? To some extent, yes; we talk about them more than many other more visibly equipment-like equipment. But, in part, when we think of their functional and equipment-like roles, something we handle to relax, amuse or just to pass time, and engage by losing ourselves in them – though we are not talking here about immersion – we do not, perhaps, think of it much.

We might sometimes become aware of equipment, Heidegger holds, when there is a power cut (affecting both the TV set and TV series that it was broadcasting). Candace R. Craig and James D. Reid’s Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch takes up the main audience of David Lynch’s Elephant Man (1980) as a typical superficial Das Man network of people.[18] But when talking about some of Lynch’s films or series as aesthetic or artistic objects, they are both reliable entertainment and, from time to time or at the same time, art, in Heidegger’s sense. Lynch’s Twin Peaks is supposed to take viewers out of their comfort zones. A good example of this is the dreadful character Bob, who gives coherence to the series Lynch creates, and the way Twin Peaks is a “work-of-art-equipment” (we have to invent a neologism here), something very smooth and reliable but still, from time to time, existentially challenging. Watching Lynch is not just a laid-back pastime, as his films and TV series always challenge the viewer’s habits of interpretation;  the thematic is always somewhat existential, touching upon issues like anxiety and paranoia. Mostly the series develops its plot in a Heideggerian, everyday mood, where modes like Das Man mix and take turns with the more existentially scary sides of the work.[19]

Charlie Chaplin’s films were supposed to spread happiness and trigger sentimental feelings and definitely had a role in our extended way of thinking about equipment, whose reliability was important for a worker investing a dime on a screening. If all of The Kid had been existentialism and symbols of death, Chaplin would not be central in Western culture but territorialized as “art” alone. At the same time, one can imagine that these films had some kind of a constitutive role for thinking about technology and modern culture in the Western world. They were central and shared visions about factory work among others. In Modern Times (1936), a film that depicts the horrors of fast-paced mechanical working conditions, there is even an eating machine that most of us who have seen the film remember well.

One already-classic article on Heidegger discusses a very popular event, the Woodstock rock festival, and asks whether it included constitutive cultural potential and communal engagement in the way Heidegger envisioned key cultural works once did. In Hubert L. Dreyfus’s “Heidegger on the Connection Between Nihilism, Art, Technology, and Politics,” Woodstock becomes one form of “truth setting itself to work” through:

enjoyment of nature, dancing, and Dionysian ecstasy, along with neglected Christian concerns with peace, tolerance, and nonexclusive love of one’s neighbor. Technology was not smashed or denigrated, rather, all the power of electronic communications was put at the service of the music, which focused the above concerns.[20]

Equipment stays marginal, if not totally external here, and maybe for a reason: What happened at the time was somehow a cultural breaking point and far from safe consumption. Still, the thought of equipment could also have been part of some of the musical pleasure. It was certainly not a cultural revolution for everyone. Some simply danced and got stoned, or were there to follow a trend or to find a companion.

Still, there are works that push (Stoss) us off our safe position while anchoring us to our culturally primordial characteristic (Grundzug). There are also works that are just entertainment, but somehow challenge us existentially. Jimi Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock could be one event of this type: entertaining but containing potential for something that Heidegger calls art. It was probably this, together with the community aspect, that drove Dreyfus, we think rightly, to write about Woodstock.

Besides the early Dasein analytics and the later thoughts on the work of art, one could awaken the third period of Heidegger’s philosophy, the philosopher-poet’s work, that at least according to late interpretations became somewhat dominated by the tenet stated in Building Dwelling Thinking (1951). There, architecture has a role that actually looks a little like the role of equipment in Being and Time.

When writing about common buildings and dwellings, Heidegger’s thoughts on architecture contain centralized ideas of safety and reliability, without further mention of equipment; however, there are echoes of his thinking about art there, too. A kind of philosophical blend of equipment and work of art takes place.

Entertainment does not share the same destiny in Heidegger’s late work. For example, in Discourse on Thinking, Heidegger writes that TV and radio are not able to constitute a world. He could, though, have written about TV, including the TV set as an object (Heidegger here seems to focus only on programs), as equipment. Once again: nothing in Heidegger’s texts says that equipment could not be a cultural product. Why are TV programs compared only with art and not with equipment?

It is not hard to imagine that we would not find a paradoxical echo of the so-called “mass culture debate” here (1920–1930s), which was often steered by thinkers unfavorable to Heidegger’s thinking, such as Theodor W. Adorno. Typical for this debate, mass culture was always compared to art and deemed worse.[21]

Should Heidegger have given the same role to popular culture that he gave to architecture in his late years? Why couldn’t popular culture be a “place” for dwelling? Entertainment could be like a cottage or a small house, functional, protecting against the cold and giving shelter. After a long, unpleasant meeting at work, we might put Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew on (vinyl or CD, also equipment), as we wrap ourselves in a blanket or step inside a warm cottage in the Black Forest on a rainy day. At the same time, Bitches Brew, not a classic by coincidence, has taken part in constituting what music is and certainly drives us to meet our human boundaries as listeners.

Some key buildings, both the old and venerated in addition to the new and cherished, shepherd us in cities. They knit us together community-wise. They somehow build worlds. If the Eiffel Tower would have represented sheer banality for Heidegger, we are sure that the role of the Notre-Dame for France could satisfy Heidegger’s criteria and be something like the Temple of Athena; the fire that tore through in its ancient structures perhaps showed this sign of shared destiny, a shared cultural plane. At the same time, through its reproductions and the fact that some people living close to it have used it just for organ concerts and bourgeois religious rituals, the Notre-Dame has been at the heart of everydayness; it could marginally be seen as equipment, a tool for everyday life – one that broke from its fire. But, then again, popular music can also work this way; think again about The Wall.

Heidegger wanted to think that the people could wake up and inquire about their own roots, their shared cultural potential. He wanted to think that they could get rid of what he calls “calculative thinking,” which for him meant the world of taxonomies, classifications, and simplified thinking, and stand against the globalizing tendency of thinking that everything could or should be shared across cultural and linguistic borders.

We have already mentioned how not just film and popular music but also architecture can be like a hammer: equipment. This is seen by how we regard buildings and reflect on them only when they do not work properly or when the network of equipment has a problem or lacks something. At the same time, architecture can open a view into the abyss of Being and so, like the Temple in the Origin of the Work of Art, constitute (a whole) cultural reality, though for more than just the “locals.” Sacral buildings have had this role throughout history. The Gothic Cathedral was high-level artistic activity, building technique, and what we’d later call art in the Middle Ages, without forgetting its role as a sacred site, a multi-channelled pathway to transcendence. In the secular world, a building of the type of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, by Daniel Libeskind (2001), or the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington DC, by Maya Lin (1982), could perhaps catch an echo of something similar and foster anchoring to a place and cultural reality.

4. Heideggerian Approach to Architecture

Heideggerian architectural theory is dominated by the idea of the already mentioned Greek Temple (The Origin of the Work of Art), and his essay, “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Of these, the latter represents Heidegger’s only direct address to the architectural audience and has become a cornerstone of phenomenological architectural theory.[22]

This late Heidegger text has often been read in close relation to “What is a Thing?” (1949) and “… Poetically Man Dwells…” (1951), essays that are thematically related to “Building Dwelling Thinking.”[23] Often this troika has been read together with the later analysis of technique, which finds its clearest expression in The Question Concerning Technology.[24]

Heidegger’s central thought in “Building Dwelling Thinking,” which probably explains its overtly positive resonance in architectural communities,[25] is the idea that we should raise dwelling and its qualities in the raison d’être of building: “We do not dwell because we have built, but we build and have built because we dwell, that is, because we are dwellers.”[26] Building is not primarily technically structured or a quantitative problem, but an existential one, something that has to do with people’s lives and their everyday life and how all this is experienced and made meaningful. According to Heidegger, this is to hypostasize in a country house in Schwarzwald, which exemplifies how dwelling has guided building in a certain regional tradition.[27]

Heidegger sets safety and reliability in the center of his analysis and pulls together two ways of thinking: unsafety and safety and also the work of art and the equipment. He stretches the view to the liminal, but the opening remains ambivalent, as for Heidegger it is homelessness that is the only condition for living (dwelling) for the mortal. And to this call it is only possible to answer, by building so that it is based on dwelling.[28]

This ambivalence and Heidegger’s mystifying talk about covering the fourfold, the “thinking of things,” that is, the gathering of earth, sky, mortals, and divinities, in our opinion has been one central reason for the fact that Heideggerian architecture discourse has been so dichotomic. It is true that in some instances Heidegger himself has given a reason to think about architecture in a dichotomous manner. Heidegger writes:

…our dwelling today is harassed by work, made insecure by the hunt for gain and success, bewitched by the entertainment and recreation industry. But when there is still room left in today’s dwelling for the poetic, and time is still set aside, what comes to pass is at best a preoccupation with aestheticizing, whether in writing or on the air.[29]

He also writes:

Authentic building occurs so far as there are poets, such poets as take the measure for architecture, the structure of dwelling.[30]


Thus it might be that our unpoetic dwelling, its incapacity to take the measure, derives from a curious excess of frantic measuring and calculating.[31]

Among the studies based on Heidegger, Karsten Harries’s The Ethical Function of Architecture works on the distinction between ethical and aesthetic architecture. Christian Norberg-Schulz, who acknowledges his debt to Heidegger, is not as obviously categorical in his dualism, in his classic work, Genius Loci. Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. However, his approach is thoroughly based on a distinction between architecture – which is the construction honoring the site – and other construction.

Moreover, all of these studies are implicitly based on the notion of architecture as an art form and the architect as an artist. This already limits the range of building designs and different approaches to the work of the architect outside architecture. In other words, the initial assumption of these studies and thus the analytical tools they provide automatically exclude actors of this millennium, such as BIG, who do not seek to operate within the narrowly understood parameters of architecture. Rather, their approach could be characterized as a carefully branded design service production that provides its customers with buildings and urban design, but also includes much more, such as books, exhibitions, websites, and interviews.[32]

We do not criticize the dichotomous layout per se. There are certainly examples that represent “authentic” and “inauthentic” or “ethical” in addition to “aesthetic” architectural thinking. But, in the analysis of works of art and cultural phenomena, a richer and more nuanced view is desirable. We think that in architecture and culture there is an immense amount of more or less authentic phenomena, not just two compartments of authenticity and inauthenticity. If we do not want to approach Heidegger’s thinking in a dualistic way, it is reasonable to think that between the Greek Temple, which is important to Heidegger, and the consumption of a light entertainment program there are many degrees and ways of answering his ideas on art.

5. Is Yes More?

In our opinion, the architecture of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), led by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels (b. 1974), opens an excellent showcase for the connection between entertainment and contemporary architecture. Yes is More is the name of the first catalogue of BIG’s work.[33] Unlike the conventional way of building star architect myths, the whole book was drawn as a comics album or graphic novel, as Ingels’s original passion was to become a comic artist. However, as it was not possible to get an education in comics, he applied to The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts to study architecture.

Famous BIG projects include Denmark’s World Exhibition Pavilion in Shanghai (2010); the Maritime Museum in Helsingör (2013); the Via 57 West skyscraper in New York (2016); the Lego House in Billund (2017); the Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant in Copenhagen (2019); the Kistefos Museum, The Twist, in Norway (2020); and the Google HQ in Mountain View, USA (2022).[34]

BIG uses the most contemporary technological innovations in its planning and architecture; one typically finds technical avant-garde, polymorphism, and a multifaceted appearance, without forgetting new materials and building techniques. BIG insightfully uses pictoriality, symbols, and narrative as elements of its projects. Like Eero Saarinen’s work, every BIG building is an individual;  there is no clearly recognized BIG style. Their buildings are photogenetic and have managed to create public enthusiasm and interest outside of architectural circles. To use an already dated term, BIG does “wow” architecture.

This all stems from the yes is more ethos, which is not just a witty take on the old Ludwig Mies van der Rohe maxim, “less is more.” BIG strives to be radical by accepting different ideas as the starting point for its design and current projects, rather than narrowing them down as convinced followers of Mies van der Rohe. Radicalism means, for example, bringing together ideas which on the surface look dichotomous, such as a pyramid-shaped skyscraper and a courtyard park in New York (VIA 57 West), combining a waste incineration plant, a year-round ski slope, and a public park in Copenhagen (Amager Bakke) and creating a museum building which turns around itself as sculpture and is also a bridge (Kistefos). According to the office, this “radical inclusion” is a way to nurture the constant evolution of architecture and thus ever-changing modern life into an inspiring challenge.[35]

We think BIG’s architecture is interesting in many ways, not least as it could be something productive to think about in the framework of Heideggerian analysis of equipment. In addition, the mainstream of Heideggerian architectural thinking appears to be toothless in front of its accomplishments.

Entertainment value is a special feature in BIG’s projects. Their buildings are expected to have a visual impact, usually combined with a clever and surprising solution to the architectural problem at hand. This is the horizon of expectations that we connect with BIG’s architecture and their brand and through which we are attuned to approach their buildings as entertainment. In other words, the reliability of BIG’s architecture as a tool is based above all on its entertainment value; it offers immediate and easy-to-access enjoyment to the eye combined with architectural intelligence and manifest-like playfulness.

But BIG takes the entertainment value of architecture even more seriously. This is where the concept of “hedonistic sustainability” created by the office comes into play. According to Ingels, the Protestant idea that good is created only through pain must be rejected. Therefore, urban planning and architecture must strive for environmentally sustainable solutions that also increase human enjoyment and thus the quality of life. In this way, BIG strives to refine the notion of entertainment to be folded into coziness and comfort.

BIG architecture does not aspire to be poetic in the Heideggerian sense, nor does it push anyone to ponder their fundamental homelessness. But it still creates interesting, lively, exhilarating, innovative, happy, positive, and most likely also livable architecture. In short, BIG’s architecture does not fit into Heidegger’s notion of architecture that encourages us to reflect on our status in the world, but it can still offer authentic experiences in a more light-hearted way. Therefore, there is an obvious parallel between popular culture items, such as the TV shows and films discussed above, and BIG’s buildings.

Although they have grown into a global, multinational company and their buildings do not necessarily constitute Danish culture, their projects seem to manifest and perform Danish hygge and roliganism (coziness and playful rule-breaking) or a certain type of careless, positive, playful attitude and a relationship to the world that from the outside looks very Danish. In addition, they insightfully use very Danish symbols for this, such as city bikes and LEGO blocks.

When Bjarke Ingels declares, “Yes is more,” he hails contemporary technology without inhibition. And when he calls for hedonistic sustainability, the goal is to create environments that produce pleasurable experiences for the experiencer. Building on this philosophy, BIG has repeatedly succeeded in creating an architecture that is characterized by entertainment refined into comfort.

Therefore, it would be misleading to claim that BIG’s architecture is simply inauthentic or that it consists of calculative thinking or that it is based on a technical world picture. To continue to distinguish between the technical and poetic architectural ethos according to Heidegger’s thinking does not find resonance in contemporary phenomena like BIG. Its architecture is neither ethical, in the sense that Karsten Harries has reserved for his Heideggerian interpretation of architecture,[36] nor poetic. It is not technical, nor is it inauthentic. It creates experiential and meaningful spaces and places to be environments for our everyday life.

The entertainment aspect is emphasized in BIG’s buildings. But at the same time, they raise questions about what constitutes a quality living environment, whether comfort and entertainment are key elements of a quality living environment, and whether they are also the starting point for a sustainable environment. Thus, BIG’s architecture is a good example of the intertwining presence of a medium and a work of art.

6. Concluding Remarks

We think that Heidegger offers potential for philosophical thinking that we have not yet explored as open-mindedly as we could. We can find sensitive, nuanced, and multifaceted ways of coping with cultural reality, as long as we do not hold fast to Heidegger’s original, narrow way of applying them. We hope to break with the often surprisingly typical dualistic reading of our key terms: ‘equipment’ and ‘work of art.’ We’d like to apply ‘equipmentness’ broadly, also to works of art and cultural products.

Equipment is a concept that we have not really thought about in aesthetics, art theory, or cultural studies. Not just as a counterpart for Heidegger’s own views about art, it offers interesting potential for cultural analysis. It is important to take up the challenge to think of the network of equipment that Heidegger originally discussed. We hope that we can now see more clearly the potential of films, for example, and their ability to bring closer materials, in the Heideggerian sense, to disclose and to unmask something about ourselves, although their nature as equipment does not disappear. We need to understand that there are different types of equipment, such as the TV set and the program that it broadcasts, the latter being something that Heidegger does not take up – intangible equipment – but that does not contradict his philosophy. The broader way to think of equipment seems to be full of potential. We might have to rethink the dichotomy between the work of art and the equipment as more of a scale, or a rhizomatic phenomenon, growing or deceasing, more dynamic, clashing in many works of art and equipment, or, to use a Heideggerian neologism here, “works-of-art-equipment.”

It is incredible that we have missed not just the fact that there are “bilateral works of art,” in Cohen’s sense (Hitchcock’s films, or, why not, The Wall), but also the fact that equipment can tell us something interesting about cultural products – the way we use them as tools, their safeness, and so on – and that products of culture can be equipment and art at the same time, accentuate both at the same time, or turn from accentuating one to accentuating the other. Taking a look at Heidegger’s thinking can make us more sensitive to the phenomena in the world. This is possible especially if we can continue to explore his concepts as they are, openly, defying the matrixes and jargons of both science and everyday life. It is even more possible if we can continue to think of unsafe examples that oscillate between today’s safe notions on art that philosophers make through Heidegger and the safety-driven, philosophically open notion of equipment.[37]


Max Ryynänen

Max Ryynänen is Senior Lecturer of Theory of Visual Culture at Aalto University in Finland. He currently focuses on film theory, philosophy of heritage, and Indian medieval philosophy.


Petteri Kummala

Petteri Kummala is Head of Research at the Museum of Finnish Architecture. His main interests are urban aesthetics and modern architecture. He currently focuses on 1970s architecture in Finland.

Published on March 12, 2023.

Cite this article: Max Ryynänen & Petteri Kummala, “Equipment as Art, Art as Equipment: Notes on Film, Architecture, and Martin Heidegger’s Philosophy of Culture,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.



[1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), 98. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson.

[2] Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1966), 48. Trans. J. M. Anderson and E. H. Freud.

[3] Heidegger, Being and Time, 97.

[4] Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, 51.

[5] Sonya Harmand and Jason Lewis, “3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya,” Nature 521 (7552): 310-315.

[6] Meyer Schapiro, “The Still Life as a Personal Object – A Note on Heidegger and van Gogh,” in Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society (New York: George Braziller, 1994), 135-151. Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art, in Off the Beaten Track, edited and translated by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 3.

[7] Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, 47.

[8] Heidegger, The Origins of the Work of Art, 21.

[9] We are aware that Heidegger’s thinking has been interpreted to be an early way of departing from modernity, that is, in a way thus sharing the starting point with postmodernism. Iain Thomson, in Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), offers this reading. Julian Young’s book, Heidegger’s Philosophy of Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), also supports a holistic reading of contemporary culture by discussing Heidegger as a thinker who declares that great artworks bring entire cultures together. The affirmative celebration of foundational “truth” overshadows in Heidegger’s work art’s proclaimed role in modernity.

[10] Heidegger, Being and Time, 97.

[11] See Heinrich Wiegand Petzet, Encounter & Dialogues with Martin Heidegger 1929-1976 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), 149-150; Otto Pöggeler, The Paths of Heidegger’s Life and Thought (New York: Humanity Books, 1998), 115, 208-209.

[12] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigree Books, 1980).

[13] See the essay and other writings connected to the topic in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: Vol 4, 1938-1940 (Cambridge: The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, 2003).

[14] See Jérôme Melancon & Alexander Carpenter “Is Progressive Rock Progressive? YES and Pink Floyd as Counterpoint to Adorno,” Rock Music Studies 2:2 (2015), 125-147.

[15] Ted Cohen, “High and Low Art: High and Low Audiences,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60, 1 (1999), 137-143.

[16] Graham Harman, “Technology, objects and things in Heidegger,” Cambridge Journal of Economics (2010): 17.

[17] Heidegger, Being and Time, 97.

[18] James D. Reid & Candance R. Craig, Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019), 84.

[19] Tony Fry, ed., R U A TV? Heidegger and the Televisual (Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts, 1993), does not pose any openings towards this kind of thinking.

[20] Hubert L. Dreyfus, “Heidegger on the Connection Between Nihilism, Art, Technology, and Politics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, edited by Charles Guignon, 289-316 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[21] See Eugene Lunn, “The Frankfurt School in the Development of the Mass Culture Debate,” in Ronald Roblin, ed., The Aesthetics of the Critical Theorists: Studies on Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990).

[22] Adam Sharr, Heidegger for Architects (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 1.

[23] See Christian Norberg-Schultz, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1980); Adam Sharr, Heidegger of Architects (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).

[24] See Karsten Harris, The Ethical Function of Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).

[25] For example, Alvar Aalto knew Heidegger’s text, and he kept it on his desk. Petzet, Encounter and Dialogues, 183.

[26] Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking” (Bauen Wohnen Denken, 1951) in Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 148.

[27] Ibid., 160.

[28] Ibid., 161.

[29] Martin Heidegger, “… Poetically Man Dwells…” (… dichterist, wohnet Der Mench…, 1951) in Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 213, 227, 228.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Lægring, Kasper, “Bjarke Ingels and the Return of Representation: A Challenge to the Post-Critical,” Architecture and Culture. Vol. 5, No. 2, 2017, 315–340.

[33] Yes is More. An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution (Köln: Taschen, 2010).

[34] See: Accessed February 10, 2023.

[35] Yes is More, passim.

[36] Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture.

[37] We would like to thank our anonymous reviewer for their absolutely great comments and suggestions on our manuscript. They were maybe the most constructive we ever received!