2005-04-09 - United Kingdom - England - London - 30 St Mary Axe - Swiss Re (Erotic Gherkin)_1 - Miscellenaeous - 12x8

Why Time Is a Problem for Architects

Since the advent of Modernism, architects have become schizophrenic in dealing with the reality of time. This is a problem, because time and gravity are two universal forces. Architects are exquisitely good at dealing with gravity—it is present in everything we design. We study it and engineer its unrelenting requirements. Gravity does a symbiotic dance with structure. No matter how a design feigns weightlessness, its mass cannot be denied. Architects must deal with gravity, whether it’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s sagging balconies at Fallingwater or today’s steroidally enhanced parametric buildings. 

Architects are, however, in denial when it comes to time. While we can follow the rules of gravity, using them to control outcomes of form and space, all of our buildings are built in the moment and yet exist in the world, surrounded by the past and present, and will live on into a world they don’t know. Since architects cannot design time, they resort to either slavishly copying the past, or, perversely, pretending that time does not exist.

But time is a very different reality. Although we experience it as effortlessly as we live in gravity, it’s completely beyond anyone’s ability to understand, let alone manipulate. Time surrounds us, but our response to it is slippery and elusive. The great poet Emily Dickinson knew this:


They say that ‘time assuages’ —
Time never did assuage —
An actual suffering strengthens
As Sinews do, with age —

Time is a Test of Trouble —
But not a Remedy —
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no Malady.


The poet expresses the utter lack of control everyone has with regard to time. But, like gravity, architects have to deal with it. Our one ability to partially control time is the understanding we can have of history. We can assemble and cross-reference the immense data of our experience, the values and divine patterns. Despite our best efforts, history does not control time; history is just the understood memory of things we cannot control.

This desire to control the incomprehensible is not limited to architecture. We create religions to understand death and the spiritual realms beyond it. We invent astrology (and all manner of “self-help”) to attempt to understand who we are. We use politics to codify our values. In architecture, we copy history or pretend it does not exist. Those flailing efforts at control become the “styles” that substitute for religion, astrology, and politics. Both are attempts to deny time. For architects, it’s just easier that way.

It was the great philosopher Paul Weiss, who famously said, “Anyone worth remembering belongs to no school.” 


These attempts ultimately fail because we can’t freeze time or invent our own version of it. In her wonderful new book, Untimely Moderns, Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, assistant dean and professor at the Yale University School of Architecture, embraces the reality of time as a universal reality that defies the straitjacket of “one style fits all,” quoting a lecture given by philosopher Paul Weiss, who famously said, “Anyone worth remembering belongs to no school.” 

There are architects who include time in their design without attempting to copy it. Edwin Lutyens saw beauty in the world of the past, and yet manifested innovation and creativity. Diébédo Francis Kéré invents in the full context of his buildings, simultaneously serving his clients, their communities, and our collective art. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that profound wall of names sliced into the earth, is fully landscape, history, and art. 

Village Opera, courtesy of Diébédo Francis Kéré.


What we have in front of our culture now is a rush to suspend time, future or past, by dumbing down buildings to their lowest common aesthetic denominators. Convenient orthodoxy has resulted in this century’s increasing irrelevance of politics, religion, and, yes, architecture. All around us is a glut of Modernism Lite that can be seen in dozens of AIA competition winners. Alternatively, residential development is safely stuck in rote traditional or Midcentury Modernism mimicry. The results are metastasized in boxy parades of five-over-one buildings with traditional tack-on ornamental bits, or mod color triggers. 

Our nation decided a long time ago that “Separate But Equal” was an oxymoron. In architecture, the recent response has been to run away from creativity through buildings assembled to sell, like the search results on Amazon. As a result, architects have siloed themselves into self-reference. It’s time to embrace our complete inability to control time. Time just is. We cannot style it into submission, no matter how much we try. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown knew that. In Learning from Las Vegas, they wrote of that impossibility: “Naked children have never played in our fountains, and I.M. Pei will never be happy on Route 66.”

Featured image: London, via Wikimedia Commons.


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