The Metaphysics of Time, Space, Spacetime and Slow Space

Time, space and matter can fuse together in great architecture to allow for deep human experiences. In fact, time can literally and perceptually slow down under the right spatial conditions and this may provide an antidote to our instantaneous, speed-driven contemporary lives. 

Acceleration

 

Society has been evolving rapidly over the last 200 years with the pace growing exponentially. In the Industrial Revolution machines were invented to help us produce food and clothing more quickly to meet the needs of a growing population. Trains were invented to haul the large quantities of raw materials. Steel was produced to build bigger buildings to house the machines. Mechanical technology helped people overcome their inherent slowness and the speed was exhilarating. Machines got faster. Cars replaced horses and planes replaced boats and trains. Production of real goods became efficient, profitable and affordable. In Architecture the Modern Movement rejected handcraft, called houses “machines for living” and encouraged the use of industrial, ready-made products.

Mechanical technology helped people overcome their inherent slowness and the speed was exhilarating.

The Digital Revolution of the 20th century allowed us to move information instantaneously. Faster processing allowed for faster machines. Synthetic materials filled the gap in raw materials. Production became faster and cheaper, and market-driven policies encouraged consumption. Architecture continued its love-affair with technology. Computer-aided design, manufacturing and fabrication allowed architecture to overcome its inherent slowness and the speed was exhilarating. Computers replaced hand-drafting, digital models replaced physical models, and complex geometries, new forms and photorealistic 3D images were all suddenly possible. A prolific era of image-making and rapid building created “Starchitects” whose iconic buildings were consumed worldwide in magazines and social media.

The scarcity that exists today is time.

But maybe we have topped out? The flow of information is instantaneous. The market is glutted with products and we have reachedpeak stuff,” according to the CEO of IKEA. We are running out of natural resources. And everybody is stressed out. We have invented all of these time-saving technologies but we feel like we have less time than ever.  The scarcity that exists today in the developed world is not food, clothing or shelter, it is time.

 

Kairos – Quality Time Helps Us Feel Human

 

Time is necessary for those fundamentally human aspects of life – love, connection, meaning, inspiration, awe, wonder. Things like creativity, art and intimacy cannot be done faster without paying a steep price. Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness, writes, “All the things that bind us together and make life worth living – community, family, friendship – thrive on the one thing we never have enough of: time.”

But not all time is the same. Actually the Ancient Greeks had two different conceptions of time – chronos and kairos. Chronos refers to chronological or sequential time. Kairos refers to a moment of indeterminate length in which an event of significance happens. A good analogy for this is when the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Counting down – 10, 9, 8 –  is chronos time – it is specific and measurable. But when the ball gets to zero time switches to kairos. We cheer, toast, kiss one another and celebrate. No one is counting anymore. We are just living in the moment and enjoying the experience of being together.

Kairos also has a spatial element. For Aristotle, kairos was the time and space context for his proof to be delivered.  The Ancient Incas regarded time and space as a single concept. The Japanese concept of “ma” also relates time and space. Gunther Nitschke defines ma as “place,” in the following way, “place is the product of lived space and lived time, a reflection of our states of mind and heart.” “The dual relation of ma to space and time is not simply semantic. It reflects the fact that all experience of space is a time-structured process, and all experience of time is a space-structured process.” Furthermore Nitschke points out that the characters for time 時間 (literally: time-place) “is expressed in Japanese as “space in flow,” making time a dimension of space. Indeed, time is essential to human experience of place.” For more see this post.

“All experience of space is a time-structured process, and all experience of time is a space-structured process.”

These traditional notions of time and space contrasted with the Western definitions that were based on an assumption of universal time and three-dimensional Euclidean geometry. In this understanding space is considered a static backdrop for things happening in time. But in the early 20th century Einstein proved the Ancient Greeks, Incas and Japanese were right.

 

Spacetime

 

In 1905 Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity showed how measurements of space and time varied for observers in different reference frames and that time did in fact move slower under certain conditions. Special Relativity replaced the conventional notion of absolute time with the notion of a time that is dependent on reference frame and spatial position. Time is the fourth dimension of space. This continuum of time and space became known as “spacetime.” In modern physics things that happen in spacetime are called “events” with both spatial and durational qualities. This discovery was so revolutionary that the discipline of Architecture has still not figured out how to adapt this theory more than 100 years after it was proven.

Time is the fourth dimension of space.

Architecture has relied on Euclidean geometry and Cartesian coordinates since the beginning of its written history. It provides a fairly straightforward and static means of understanding space. It was measurable and finite. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is anything but. Everything is relative, mutable, experiential.

There have been some attempts. Sigfried Gideon in his book Space, Time and Architecture introduced the idea in 1941, but no one picked it up. Kinetic architecture tries to address the dimension of time in a literal way. The work of Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry employ some of the new geometry but are physically and experientially static. More recently, Art Theory has explored slowness as a condition of contemporaneity as in Lutz Koepnick’s analysis On Slowness: Toward an Aesthetic of the Contemporary.

Phenomenologists, like Architect and Philosopher Juhani Pallasmaa, have for some time understood the relationship between time and space and how they can fuse to create powerful architectural experiences. Phenomenology in Architecture is the philosophical study of the experience of built space, in contrast to the Cartesian method of analyzing the world as objects and sets of objects acting and reacting to one another, like Starchitecture.

In his book, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, first published in 1996, Juhani Pallasmaa writes,

“The incredible acceleration of speed during the last century has collapsed time into the flat screen of the present, upon which the simultaneity of the world is projected. As time looses its duration, and its echo in the primordial past, man loses his sense of self as a historical being, and is threatened by the ‘terror of time’. Architecture emancipates us from the embrace of the present and allows us to experience the slow, healing flow of time. […] The time of architecture is a detained time; in the greatest of buildings time stands firmly still. […] Time and space are eternally locked into each other in the silent spaces […]; matter, space and time fuse into one singular elemental experience, the sense of being.”

Slow Space – Creating the Conditions for Deep Experiences

 

The ideal conditions for slowing down, reflecting, be present and engaging our senses is in nature. And that is why so many people find nature rejuvenating. But great examples also exist in the built environment. One example is Grand Central Station in New York. Even though it was built for busy commuters when you enter the grand hall you can’t help but slow down (and maybe that is the point.) And if it is your first visit you have probably stopped in your tracks. The scale, proportion and light are comforting and awe-inspiring. In fact you will often see people just sitting on the floor in the middle of the space just to experience it.

Slow Space to describe a carefully crafted physical space that creates the right atmosphere and conditions for slowing time and fostering deep meaningful experiences.

We imagine the term Slow Space to describe a carefully crafted physical space that creates the right atmosphere and conditions for slowing time and fostering deep meaningful experiences. Slow Space can foster kairos, quality time, and provide the time and space for refuge in our busy lives. The clock may or may not literally beat slower but our experience of the place will be as if it had.

Again Pallasmaa writes,

“In memorable experiences of architecture, space, matter and time fuse into one singular dimension, into the basic substance of being, that penetrates our consciousness. We identify ourselves with this space, this place, this moment, and these dimensions become ingredients of our very existence. Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses.”

Architects used to know how to design Slow Space, and a few still do. Builders used to be able to build Slow Space, and a few still can. Our favorite architects from the past designed Slow Space – Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto. And today the architects designing Slow Space are Peter Zumthor, Glenn Murcutt and a few others.

But most of what we have around us is “junkspace” – bad buildings that are ugly, poorly designed, and unpleasant to be in, composed of cheap toxic materials that make people and the planet sick, and built by unskilled workers that are exploited, enslaved and endangered on the job. Starchitect Rem Koolhaas coined the term “junkspace” in 2001 in his ranting essay against shopping malls, casinos and suburban sprawl. In our opinion even much of the Starchitecture is junkspace because it is image-driven, trendy and poorly built.

Slow Space is an ideal that we strive for in our work. At Aamodt / Plumb Architects we have our own SLOW Principles. They are (S)pace Not Form, (L)ess But Better, (O)ffer Empathy, and (W)holistic Thinking. Space Not Form means  focusing on the design and experience of space not formal object buildings to be admired from a distance. Less But Better means focusing on quality over quantity. Offer Empathy means human-centered design and fair labor practices. Wholistic Thinking means focusing on the whole and its impact on people and the planet.

Slow Space and these SLOW principles are something we would like to see much more of in the world and we would like to inspire others to pursue them in their own ways. We can only do so much in our small practice but I know there are many architects out there that believe in these core values as well and are working toward a more positive built environment.

 

Slow Space Movement – Expanding Our Impact

 

We spend 90% of our lives indoors so the impact our field can have on people’s lives is enormous. That is why we have started the Slow Space Movement. Like Slow Food for the built environment, the Slow Space Movement hopes to create positive change in design and construction to benefit all people. Slow Space combines Slow Architecture and Slow Building into one movement for the entire AEC industry.

The Slow Space Movement has three broad pillars that define it – Good, Clean and Fair. For a building to be Good it must beautiful, human-centered, and last 100 years. For it to be Clean it must be healthy for people and the planet. To be Fair its supply chain must be fair trade and workers must have fair labor.  

All of these pillars are severely lacking in architecture, design and construction and the opportunities for improvement are enormous. Any effort to move the needle in just one of these areas will have a profoundly positive impact on people’s lives.

You do not have to be designing hospitals in Africa to have an ethical practice. We all know how much our work impacts people’s lives. But our reach is getting smaller and smaller and market pressures are making it almost impossible to design and build high quality buildings. The media is peddling all these sexy images (#architectureporn) making architecture a commodity. A whole generation of young architects have no idea about scale and proportion. But there is power in numbers and it has never been easier to build a virtual community. Right now that is what we are trying to do. Initiate the conversation, band together, educate the public and eventually move the needle.

The media is just peddling #architectureporn.

This is a long-term project. Slow Food has been very successful in changing minds and attitudes about food. The fact the Whole Foods, craft beers and artisanal cheese is everywhere is a testament to that movement. But they started in 1986 – 30 years ago. But Architecture is slow so a slow movement is fitting. We have a lot of minds to change. And we need to get started.

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