ARCH. TIME

According to contemporary science, the “passage” of time is a psychological illusion related to entropy. To physicists, time is symmetricaland extends in both “directions” from the “present.” By contrast, the cultural view knows two times—an extended time and a local time, or the time of the canonand the time ofprogress. These are not simply different terms for “history” and the “future” though. The time of the canon relates to the complete, extended time of physics, while the time of progress is like the psychological time of consciousness. The future, like the past, belongs to complete, extended time, and requires a scope of consideration that is foreign to the very specific concerns of the present’s ownership of local time, and its concerns of up-to-the-minuteness.

In other words, the future also belongs to the canon. It takes memory to access time extended one way, and imagination to access it the other. Architecture is always there in the middle, a time machine.The sense of what architecture is, not to mention what it can do, is due in no small part to this fact. Architecture lives in the local time, but extends its reach from there into extended time; throughout architectural history the manner and interest of this extension varies from one example to the next, from one practice to the next. Two conscious approaches to architectural temporality have typically been taken: architecture either strives to be “timeless” or “timely.” That is, architecture either aims at extended time or at the determined specificity of its particular present.

The obviously “historicist” or “futuristic” building makes its temporal identity a feature, while the average building, built for its own time (that is, not yet “history”), does not. Those buildings that do make time an issue play a dangerous game, though, since time passes and what seemed like a good idea at the time can soon enough become disco or bell bottoms. This is particularly true of both the design that celebrates its own time, which history may eventually judge harshly, and the design that tries to predict the future, which almost always turns out to be different. While the overtly historicist building is not without its own risks, they are far more controllable. The historicist building will be judged by its appropriateness, and its accuracy, which is almost invariably a matter of budget and technology. For example, the embarrassing new construction on campus can be blamed on the client’s absurdly inappropriate judgment, as well as the overtly anachronistic construction technology determined by the budget, rather than the architect’s ability to simply copy a clear model.

The “test of time” is most exacting when the architect is challenged to produce an addition to an established historical building. In this case the architect is asked to “fit in” or “stand out” or redefine the terms of the engagement. Though the standards are clear in the first two cases—the project attempting to fit in has a direct model to work with, while the project that tries to stand out is measured simply by difference—the challenge to redefine the game itself enters new territory and for that reason is much more difficult. And the most refined version of this game uses that time machine, Architecture, to evolve the host forward to the present through the body of the new construction. In this version “fit” and “difference” come together as necessary innovation, redefining the perception of the original building while discovering something previously unsuspected but intrinsic to it that prompts the innovation embodied in the new construction.

 

The true test for an architect working at the highest level is how he deals with an unavoidable context that impinges on the project’s ideality. This is where skill and cleverness are most valuable, where the architect has to play the hand he has been dealt. Any fool can design a stand-alone gem, but it is not so easy to design something that can absorb and turn an alien presence to account. Architects who are otherwise well respected fail embarrassingly at this game: Denari, Gwathmey. Not surprisingly, pomo architects and those playing the pop culture games do a better job: venturi’s Sainsbury wing, graves benaceraff addition and whitney additions.

What might the conversation between the games be like? Here is one possibility: The game is to make the new thing comfortable with its surroundings, and the real prize is given to that project which can reframe that relationship to make itself the primary element without rendering the existing condition embarrassed. Sadly, though this game is usually forced on the architect, most decline to play, turning their back on the existing and pretending that it will eventually be able to be cropped out of the photo. More sadly, the actual existing condition cannot be ignored, so there it is when the project is visited, spoiling the effect the project was at such pains to create with its carefully cropped photos and photoshop wizardry.

As a gedanken experiment I imagined that I had been given the commission to replace the AA on Bedford Square with a new building. I imagined that I was being asked point blank by the building committee how I would fit the new structure into this strong Victorian context. The temptation here is to say that the new building, as the home of the AA, should not feel the responsibility to fit in; that it should instead seek to inspire its students with some outstandingly innovative design. Anticipating this response, the building committee asks me how I feel about Selfridges. This makes me realize that the answer is not obvious: Selfridges is holding up well, but already seems more anachronistic than daring.

So the answer is to recognize that time passes, NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO. And of course it is passing more quickly these days. So the issue becomes: how long is it going to take for a building’s innovativeness to wear out and become merely alien. Few buildings will ever change the world. Few will even change the architectural landscape, at least in the way that makes them the normal and everything else wrong. Since only buildings that history finally recognizes (sees as influential on some basis) may find that their initial alienness evolves into charm as a consolation for not actually changing the world, the rest are condemned to find their exciting strangeness become silly.

So the question is, punk, are you feeling lucky? Or is the better course to do something that actually welcomes the passage of time rather than betting against it. This is not to say that new work cannot be innovative or striking, cannot be of its time, and certainly this is not to recommend a historicist contextualism. Instead, it is to ask the work to find an approach to the question of time—timeliness that might become a timelessness—and context within its particular milieu, acknowledging them and turning them to positive allies. In other words, the issue should be how the building goes about fitting in, but this does not necessarily condemn the new work to abandoning its time. Rather it asks the new work to imagine its time as lasting longer than the moment, and to take inspiration from the survival of its neighbors rather than see their larger presence as either pathetic or challenging. The new building can make time work for it, expressing the intention to endure, ennobling the present with a fearless but respectful expectation of a future worth inhabiting.