Time & Architecture: Part I (NOW and WAS NOW)

Hello! Continuing the cosmic theme of last week, let’s talk about Time and the ways buildings exist in this particular dimension we’re stuck with.

We need to do this because, even if we ever sorted out what Beauty was and how to create it in buildings, how could we be sure that it is always going to be beautiful? Just like you and me, buildings exist in the dimension of Time and can’t escape its effects. The colour of things changes. Bits flake and sag. Shape changes either because of additions over time or because pieces fall off. Even the position and alignment of buildings can change as portions of land are sold off to pay the bills or new development gets closer to overshadow once prominent or isolated buildings. Here’s what remains of the site of the Villa Savoye.

In 1929 it was possible to take this photograph. It’s not now. Time has moved on.

Time is important. It affects what we see as well as how we see it. It matters. The mindless pursuit of fleeting novelty – which, it must be granted, is all that’s required to satisfy the high churn ratio of contemporary architectural media – has done little to encourage our understanding of Time & Architecture.  So then, let’s begin to explore time. It’s always good to start from a strong premise. How about this?

“All building activity takes place in the present.”

Fine with that? Good – because it’s not possible to build in the past and it’s not possible to build in the future. The moment a building’s constructed, it has a unity with the present. It suddenly exists at this place in time called NOW. Here’s a pic I just downloaded from ArchDaily. The building was completed in 2012. It’s as NOW as we’re going to get, or need to get.

It may be a product of NOW now but, as it or any building ages we will, sooner or later, begin to think it’s from a time that is no longer the present. It will begin to look old – it will be old. It will have aged. It will, of course, continue to exist in the present but we see it is not a part of the NOW anymore – but a part of the WAS NOW.

“WAS NOW”

You don’t have to go as far back as The Pyramids to see that a WAS NOW building. Here’s Peter Eisenman’s “House III” in 1971 when it was NOW.

In 2000, it was already very WAS NOW.

“All built reality is either NOW or WAS NOW.”

Note: Don’t think of WAS NOW as “the past” and NOW as “the present” because doing that creates problems regarding “the future.” Only the present has any meaning for the construction of buildings and the present always becomes the past. Buildings show signs of changing from new to old, but never from newer to new. In our universe at least, Time goes in only one direction. We enjoy effects after their causes.

Another note: In this and the follow-on posts, I’ll only be concerned with ideas conveyed by buildings that actually exist. Drawings and models of buildings yet to be built are tangible objects that exist to market or otherwise convey ideas of something that may exist at some time in the future. There’s a rich history of ideas of buildings that were destined to never be NOW. Here’s one which regularly fills in a gap in the history books.

Here’s another.

This next one’s my favourite unbuilt building.

It’s El Lissitzky’s “Wolkenbugel” from 1923-1925. (The montage, however, is mine and, ever since it left home, seems to be having quite a nice life bouncing around the internet.) Buildings have to exist first as ideas or else nothing would ever get built but even buildings that don’t exist anymore can still have meaning as memories.

These and other ideas of buildings are stand-alone ideas that aren’t yet (or anymore) attached to real buildings.

Another note: Occasionally the opposite occurs, and a building that has been in our consciousness as a drawing or image is built well after it was designed. Frank Lloyd Wright deigned the Massaro House in 1949, reprising his greatest hit of 15 years earlier. It was finally completed in 2007, 49 years after it was designed and 39 years after the great man died.

Is the Massaro House new? Or old? Is it authentic? Does a long delay between design and construction matter that much? Along the same lines, is the Sagrada Familia new or old or both? It’s taking a very long time to construct but, compared to Chartres or a number of other cathedrals, they’re practically throwing it up overnight. So what’s new? What’s novel? What’s ‘ahead of its time’? What’s ‘avant-garde’? What does ‘timeless’ mean? In this next photo, the building, the car, the model’s dress, hat and hairdo were all modern once – in fact the very idea of women driving was modern.

Alas, the fact that everything but the building now looks a bit old fashioned might just mean that everything else have moved on apart from how buildings look.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT TIME.

So far, we have NOW and WAS NOW as the two ways a building can be placed in the dimension of Time. We can tell if a building is NOW or WAS NOW just by looking and it and seeing how it has physically aged.

Next time, I’ll talk about buildings that are conceptually NOW and WAS NOW. I’ll add these ideas to the two physical states of NOW and WAS NOW and we’ll see what happens. I’ll also talk about a new, third type of idea – NOT NOW – so look forward to that!

4 thoughts on “Time & Architecture: Part I (NOW and WAS NOW)

  1. Huda Abukhoti

    Although I find this post very interesting and thought provoking, I don’t get the association of
    beauty in the first paragraph with a building being new. Of course not taking care of the building is gonna make it look less beautiful because it distorts how the building is supposed to look like in the first place, but this is very short in term and can happen to any building 10 or even 5 years old ones if they’re not properly taken care of.

    Regarding the idea of how we can make a building have a larger time span of it still being called “new”, I think It’s best for the architect to focus on building something that harmonizes with its surroundings more with paying attention to details and think less about adding his/her signature. It might be silly but I think of it like wardrobe pieces.. For example, It’s often a perfectly tailored black dress that stays the longest in a woman’s closet, because it’s very easy to pair it with other ‘hip’ pieces that may be thrown away after a few months.

    Thank you for the interesting post, Sir.

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Huda, thank you for your comment. I’m glad you found the post interesting. Your black dress comparison is a good one. So many buildings are designed for the impression they make when they are new and little thought is given to what they are going to look like in the future. My main point was that, even if buildings are taken good care of so that they never change, the ideas or concepts they contain can still become “old fashioned”. If some idea or technique is simply replaced by another one that’s more hip and new, then it’s just an endless cycle of fashion in motion. Occasionally, an inefficient or ineffective way of doing something is replaced by a better way of doing it and that’s the kind of thing I like to see. I like to think we’ll be seeing more and better ways of doing things and thinking about things, even though the old ways will probably still continue for a while yet.

      Reply

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