• Sverre Fehn: Between Earth & Sky

    I have visited Sverre Fehn’s Architecture Museum (National Museum – Architecture) and Grosch Bistro in Oslo many times as a good friend is one of the curators and worked with Fehn on the renovation and addition. The place is calm, soothing, comforting and timeless. There is no wow factor for the architectural tourist other than the sheer contrast of the classical building and the modern pavilion. The cafe feels like it has always been there, and always will. A narrow door leads to the pavilion where you immediately enter the generous, bright, open and protected space. My words can’t do it justice I am afraid, nor will my pictures. Unfortunately, the day of this visit the exhibition on display in the pavilion obscured the experience of the space by putting a massive solid structure in the middle and overlaying drawings and text on the glass walls.

    I wanted to write about this Slow Space because of the wonderful experiences I have had there and the esteem I hold for the late Sverre Fehn and his work. But as I researched this article I discovered that my intuition about Fehn’s work was confirmed by his philosophies and writings that touch on meaning, authenticity, human existence, sensual experience, and the search for place. These are the fundamental principles of Slow Space and Fehn’s work is our guide.

    Existence and Authenticity

    Throughout his career the Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn (1924-2009) sought to understand human existence and define one’s place in this world. With every project he explored different ways of creating “a place to be” (Norwegian: et sted å være) defining, architecturally, “the space between” (Norwegian: mellomrom) the earth and sky.

    “A place to be” can be a philosophical or spiritual place if you are a philosopher or theologian. Fehn was influenced by the Existentialists at the time, who were primarily concerned with concrete human experience and living life authentically, in contrast to the increasing meaningless and absurd world they saw around them. But for Fehn the architect, “a place to be” was a physical space that mediates between the deep earth and the vast sky. It is a space of comfort that can be touched, felt and experienced, built with simple, true means and materials.

    The Space Between

    Working primarily in the open Norwegian landscape, Fehn defined mellomrom architecturally as the space between the roof and the ground planes. The dialectic between these two planes shows up in all of his projects, although the solutions are always different, and the vertical elements of wall and roof are de-emphasized, often to create a greater connection to the landscape. In some cases, the roof form is strong and imposing, providing true shelter from the elements, as in the Glacier Museum in Fjæreland (1991).

    But sometimes the roof acts more like the clouds above, filtering light, as in the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1959-1962). Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion is composed of a level ground plane cut into the hillside and a roof composed of two layers of slender concrete beams set at 90 degrees to one another. The only vertical elements are a few existing trees that pierce through the roof structure, let in rain and provide the scale of nature in an urban context. Two walls retain the hill and provide the space for hanging art and the other two are completely open with only massive sliding glass doors.

    Gennaro Postiglione describes the light and atmosphere of the Nordic Pavilion: “Penetrating the double framework of the ceiling beams, the intense light of the lagoon undergoes a magical metamorphosis and is transformed into a gentle homogenous light void of shadows, like Nordic light.” The unique quality of light, along with the deep rectangular plan, create a contemplative space inside the gardens of the Biennale, perfect for the appreciation of art and architecture.

    nordic-pavilion-sverre-fehn-ake-e:son-lindman

    Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Photo: Åke E:son Lindman

    Nordic Pavilion for the Venice Biennale

    Nordic Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, Section Drawings by Sverre Fehn

    Introspection

    The National Museum – Architecture in Oslo (2008) is one of Fehn’s last projects. He was commissioned for the restoration of the original bank building (Christian Heinrich Grosch, 1830) as well as the new addition. The vaulted lower level of the original structure is where he placed the lobby, bookstore, Grosch Bistro and entrance to the gallery spaces. The groin vaults in limed plaster contrasted with the red brick floor instantly recall the earth and sky. Walls and ceiling blend together into one continuous soothing ceiling-scape that envelops you in a warm glow of diffused light. The brick floor is the earth underfoot, made of the rough clay and heavily textured compared with the plaster vaults. The only other elements are the oak shelves, tables and chairs that appear to grow out of the earth and provide “a place to be,” to sit and slowly enjoy a chat, a coffee or a meal.

    The pavilion at the museum is entirely new. A delicate shell-shaped concrete roof hovers over the glass wall perimeter held up by four massive pillars. Again the roof is the dominant element and the walls are barely there. But given its urban context Fehn surrounded the pavilion with a second set of concrete walls that edit out any visual noise. This results in an introverted space filled with daylight, views of the sky and momentary glimpses of the surrounding context. The concrete walls extend the space visually further dematerializing the glass walls and providing a calm backdrop for the exhibition.

    SF Oslo Cafe with People_ Mette Aamodt

    Grosch Bistro, Photo: Mette Aamodt

    SF Oslo Pavilion Perimeter_Mette Aamodt

    Pavilion at The National Museum – Architecture, Photo: Mette Aamodt

    Dialogue With Materials

    To find one’s place in the world, according to Fehn, and to be truly present, involves all of your senses in dialogue with the materials around you. Fehn writes, “You converse with material through the pores of your skin, your ears, and your eyes. The dialogue does not stop at the surface, as its scent fills the air. Through touch, you exchange heat and the material gives you an immediate response… Speak to a mountain ledge, and [it gives] sound a mirror. Listen to a snow-covered forest, and it offers the language of silence.” For his projects he used a very limited palette of materials whose properties he knew very well: wood, glass, concrete, brick, plaster and light. His work was rooted in construction and the very practical building techniques of Norway, so all of the materials are used in a very natural form, unadorned and lacking in any detail that was not necessary for construction.

    Slow Modernism

    In Sverre Fehn: Works, Projects, Writing, 1949-1996, Christian Nordberg-Shulz writes about Fehn’s trip to Morocco in 1952 and how this informed Fehn’s understanding of the relationship between space and time. Fehn went to discover new things and found many things he had seen before, things he recognized in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Nordberg-Shulz said Fehn discovered the atemporality and anonymity of vernacular architecture; “He discovered that basic architectonic phenomena are timeless.”

    In Fehn’s view, this atemporality characterized the period when people thought the world was flat and ended at the horizon that they could see. When they discovered the world was round, virtually endless, they developed perspective as a means for defining space, as Fehn writes, “to distinguish scientifically between inside and outside,” with a linear and homogenous time marching along beside it.

    According to Nordberg-Shulz, the modernists, inspired by the vernacular, sought to define a new meaning for the “atemporal” in architecture, but one that was more qualitative and involved the interaction of the individual’s heart and mind with the modern world. This suggests an alternate history of the modern movement, or at least part of it, a slower, humanist approach that typically gets drowned out.

    Nordberg-Shulz writes, “It is a misunderstanding to think of the modern movement as one interested exclusively in change; its pioneers were strongly aware of the need for ‘constants,’ or ‘basic principles.’” Indeed, the modern movement has been characterized by its obsession with speed, change and novelty. But as with all histories there are always many versions. The history of Slow Modernism is certainly one worth researching and will be the subject of my upcoming book.

    About Sverre Fehn
    Sverre Fehn

    Sverre Fehn, Photo: Stina Glømmi

    Sverre Fehn (1924 – 2009) was the leading Norwegian architect of his generation.

    In 1952–1953, during travels in Morocco, he discovered some universal spatial principles which were to deeply influence his future work. Later he moved to Paris, where he worked for two years in the studio of Jean Prouvé, and where he knew Le Corbusier. On his return to Norway, in 1954, he opened a studio of his own. In the 1960s he produced two works that have remained highlights in his career: the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1959-62) and the Hedmark Museum in Hamar, Norway (1967–79).

    He taught in Oslo’s School of Architecture as well as at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. His highest international honor came in 1997, when he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

    Bibliography
  • The Dressmaker and The Architect

    Up until the early 20th century when a man or woman of means needed a new suit or dress they would go to a Tailor or Dressmaker.

    They might have had some magazine clippings of what they liked and a vague description of the type of event they would use it for.

    The dressmaker would take their measurements and send them on their way.

    Later he or she would do some sketches of the design to show to the clients and if they approved she would make the garment.

    One hundred years later, fashion has moved on but architecture is still trying to practice in exactly this same way. The Dressmaker is out of business but the Architect still fights for the few small commissions that remain.

    The Architect of today practices just like the Dressmaker of 100 years ago.

    Ready-to-wear fashion has revolutionized that industry sacrificing quality for quantity. And it has created some significant human and environmental issues in the process. Labor conditions for textile workers, environmental pollution from pesticides used in cotton production and the waste of poor-quality Fast Fashion are but a few examples.

    Move-in-ready spec homes constitute more than 98% of new home starts each year, again sacrificing quality for quantity. McMansions are 50% bigger than the average home for the same sized family 50 years earlier. They are built quickly, with poor quality materials that do not hold up and the residential building industry is notorious for wage theft and exploitation of illegal workers.

    McMansions are the Fast Fashion of the building industry.

    Fast Fashion and Junkspace, the term we use for spec houses, strip malls, etc., have as much in common as the Dressmaker and the Architect, however the Architect is not out of business yet. Hundreds of young architects graduate from school every year and they are passionate, motivated and creative. If only they recognized the precarious state of the profession and banded together to forge a new future that created buildings that were good, clean and fair for all. That is the mission of the Slow Space Movement.

  • Junkspace and the Death of Architecture: Slow Space Finds its Nemesis

    “Junkspace” is a rambling, brilliant lamentation on the death of architecture by one who actively participated in its demise. It was a scathing critique at the time it was first published, but now 16 years later, it can only be seen as a prophecy. A siren call fully actualized.

    The essay “Junkspace” by Rem Koolhaas first appeared in The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (2001). It was reissued along with an introduction and essay entitled “Running Room” by Hal Foster in 2013.

    Surprisingly little has been written about “Junkspace” and I believe that is a reflection on the discipline of architecture rather than on the importance of the essay.

    Koolhaas was far ahead of his time when he wrote this in 2001. What should have been a wake up call has merely languished. I myself was at the GSD then and had no awareness of what Koolhaas was doing or thinking. Nor can I recognize any shift in OMA’s work that might be attributed to this.

    I stumbled upon the essay last year when I was doing my own research. The title alone spoke to me and I found the concept of Junkspace to be the perfect villain and counterpoint for Slow Space. The essay by Koolhaas should be read in it entirety as it can be interpreted in many different ways. Here is a link to do that. Below is a series of excerpts from the text alternated with my own comments.

     

    The End of Architecture

     

    “It was a mistake to invent modern architecture for the 20th century. Architecture disappeared in the 20th century.”

    Why? Because we lost our ability to appreciate, experience and therefore design space.

    “As if space itself is invisible, all theory for the production of space is based on an obsessive preoccupation with its opposite: substance and objects, i.e., architecture. Architects could never explain space; Junkspace is our punishment for their mystifications.”

    It is the resultant of the image-driven obsession with form.

    “Junkspace is the body double of space, a territory of impaired vision, limited expectation, reduced earnestness.”

    The junk food of architecture, Junkspace is the McMansions, the shopping malls and casinos that are bloated on fillers and chemicals.

    “Because it cannot be grasped, Junkspace cannot be remembered. It is flamboyant yet unmemorable.”

    Initially exciting but quickly leaves you feeling empty, lost and detached.

    “Junkspace is overripe and undernourishing at the same time.”

    And will ultimately make you sick.

     

    Starchitecture

     

    “Junkspace is post-existential; it makes you uncertain where you are, obscures where you go, undoes where you were.”

    We are distracted from the essential questions of life – who are you? what is the meaning of life? – by busyness, overstimulation, visual and audible noise.

    “(Note to architects: you thought that you could ignore Junkspace, visit it surreptitiously, treat it with condescending contempt or enjoy it vicariously… because you could not understand it, you’ve thrown away the keys…. But now your own architecture is infected, has become equally smooth, all-inclusive, continuous, warped, busy, atrium-ridden….) JunkSignature™ is the new architecture: the former megalomania of a profession contracted to manageable size.”

    Junkspace is the dominant paradigm and architects, without protest or criticality, have succumbed.

    “A shortage of masters has not stopped a proliferation of masterpieces. ‘Masterpiece’ has become a definitive sanction, a semantic space that saves the object from criticism, leaves its qualities unproven, its performance untested, its motives unquestioned. Masterpiece is no longer an inexplicable fluke, a roll of the dice, but a consistent typology: its mission to intimidate, most of its exterior surfaces bent, huge percentages of its square footage dysfunctional, its centrifugal components barely held together by the pull of the atrium.”

    The avant-garde and cutting edge have become so commonplace. Every day a new iconic building replaces the last in the world lexicon of #architectureporn. Novelty feeds consumption and wastes our resources.

    “Junkspace is a look-no-hands world….”

    Stunts. Gimmicks. Turning Tricks.

     

    Neoliberalism, Consumption and Entertainment

     

    “Junkspace happens spontaneously through natural corporate exuberance – the unfettered play of the market – or is generated through the combined actions of temporary ‘czars’ with long records of three-dimensional philanthropy.”

    Speculation and development provide the world with what people think they want and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    “Junkspace is political: it depends on the central removal of the critical faculty in the name of comfort and pleasure.”

    Neoliberalism feeds Junkspace’s growth and power as it spreads across the globe.

    “The chosen theater of megalomania – the dictatorial – is no longer politics, but entertainment. Through Junkspace, entertainment organizes hermetic regimes of ultimate exclusion and concentration: concentration gambling, concentration golf, concentration convention, concentration movie, concentration culture, concentration holiday.”

    The King of Junkspace controls all of these kingdoms – casinos, golf courses, hotels and resorts – and has used entertainment as a means of wielding political force. In 2017, Koolhaas’s architectural lamentation has become a prophecy of the rise of Donald Trump.

  • 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.

  • Built with Blood – Labor Exploitation in US Construction

    I am Mette Aamodt. I’m an architect and founder of slowspace.org, which is basically a community of architects, designers, builders, artisans, activists, and lots of other people who care about our built environment. Together with my partner Andrew Plumb, we are starting a movement and we call it Slow Space. It is slow food for the built environment, and we have a manifesto. “Our world is covered in junk space: bad buildings that are ugly, poorly designed, and unpleasant to be in, composed of cheap toxic materials that make you and the planet sick, and built by unskilled workers that are exploited, enslaved and endangered on the job. Every day more of these buildings go up, but we say, ‘Enough is enough.’ The Slow Space Movement aims to end the mindless proliferation of junk space, to educate the public on the physical and psychological dangers and to inspire architects, designers, builders and artisans to stand up for buildings that are good, clean and fair.”

    In today’s video, I’m going to talk about the issue of fairness in the construction industry and I’m going to tell you the story of Luis. This is a true story. It was reported in The Boston Globe by Beth Healy and Meg Woolhouse in September, 2016. Okay, Luis was a 15 year old boy originally from Ecuador and living in Brockton, Massachusetts, attending high school there. One summer a couple of years ago, he took a summer job for a roofing company to make some extra money for his family. The job was in Maine. He was working on a house in Portland helping to fasten roofing shingles.

    One day he fell, and he tumbled down two stories and he severely shattered his leg. His employer did not call an ambulance. Instead, a coworker transported him 75 miles across state lines in the back of an old construction van to a Massachusetts hospital where he received emergency care. Luis was in severe pain. I don’t know how long it took them to get back to Massachusetts, but 75 miles in traffic takes a long time in these parts. He said, “I couldn’t breathe, much less talk. It’s pain you don’t forget.” The general contractor on the job said it wasn’t his responsibility because Luis was being paid by a subcontractor by the name of Force Construction. The JC had run regular background checks on Force and had confirmed at the time that they hired him that they had liability insurance and Workers’ Comp.

    Luis was actually being paid by another subcontractor called Twin Pines Construction and this was a company owned by the same person that owned Force. His name was Fernandes. That summer, Fernandes had let his Workers’ Comp policy lapse a month before Luis fell off the roof. This was not an isolated incident, by the way on the jobs of Fernandes and his companies. He and his companies have been cited for more than 100 violations and have racked up $1.5 million in fines from OSHA. Luis did eventually receive the medical care that he needed. He was transferred to Boston Children’s Hospital and a rod was surgically placed in his femur. A workers’ advocate helped him navigate all of his medical appointments and paperwork, and a Medford lawyer helped him to sort through the tree of subcontractors until they finally found one who had insurance to cover him.

    Luis is one of thousands of people, many undocumented, many children, who fill the need for cheap labor in Boston’s booming construction industry. They hold slabs of sheetrock and climb rooftops and dusty scaffolds, doing often dangerous work for contractors looking for cheap labor. They’re not on the books. They’re paid illegally in cash and for much less than the prevailing wage. The workers advocate who helped Luis said this is not about catching a few bad apples. We have evolved a system for providing subsidized labor to build our houses and it’s based on the vulnerability of the workforce.

    Luckily, at least in the US, we have laws aimed at preventing this type of thing, but enforcement is difficult and there are many ways to get around it. For example, many contractors would prefer to just pay the fines rather than to change their ways. Everyone complains about the cost of construction, but actually the true cost is not even being counted. If you take the example of Luis, his suffering subsidized the cost of the roofing job on that project.

    Many prefer to look the other way and I’ve been guilty of that in the past, but this is an issue we want to bring into the light. If you care about these issues, if this is something that’s important to you, that you’re interested in, and you care about good, clean and fair buildings for all, then please join us by subscribing to our mailing list at slowspace.org and/or liking us on our Facebook page. That’s facebook.com/slowspacemovement. Thank you. I look forward to seeing you there.

  • Slow Space Manifesto

    Say No To Junkspace.

    Say Yes To Good, Clean, Fair Buildings For All.

    #slowspace

     

    Our world is covered in junkspace* – bad buildings that are ugly, poorly designed, and unpleasant to be in, composed of cheap toxic materials that make you and the planet sick, and built by unskilled workers that are exploited, enslaved and endangered on the job. Every day more of these buildings go up, but we say enough! The Slow Space Movement aims to end the mindless proliferation of junkspace, to educate the public on its physical and psychological dangers and to inspire architects, designers, builders and artisans to stand up for buildings that are good, clean and fair for all.
    *junkspace credit: Rem Koolhaas, 2001

  • Killing Time in Japanese Space

    Benjamin Franklin would never know how significant his little phrase “Time is money” would come to be in the American psyche. This turn-of-phrase rolls off the tongue every time we need a justification for why we are trying to hurry up. But this is not a universal truth. It turns out it is a very American idea that, according to Gunther Nitschke, is based in geography.

    In “Time is Money – Space is Money” published in 1993 Nitschke, the German architect and planner, compares how the time deficit in the US and the space deficit in Japan have affected the design logic of each country. There are numerous lessons from Japan that are applicable to urban living all over the world as well as for our investigation of Slow Space.

    Time is gained by ‘killing’ (compressing) space.

    He reasons that time is more valuable in a large country with relatively few people, like the US. “America has always had sufficient space. The result has been an appreciation of, if not an obsession with time. ‘Wasting time’ is only possible in the context of a continual goal-oriented rat race. Thus, America’s greatest contributions of human ingenuity have been in the realm of time problems – the speed of and accommodation for movement of objects, people and information.” He goes on to say “America’s ‘places’ are far from each other. Since one is compelled to ‘waste’ time moving from A to B, one tries to shorten the lapses of ’empty’ time by compressing experiential space through speed and ease of movement. Time is gained by ‘killing’ (compressing) space.”

    Space is created by ‘killing’ (slowing down) time.

    On the flip side, space is most appreciated by people in a small country with a large population. “Throughout its history Japan has had too little space. The result is a reflex to use space intensively, filling and refilling it. Accordingly, Japan’s greatest contributions of human ingenuity have been in the field of space problems – the terracing of mountains for rice paddies or dwellings, the packing of people in ‘capsule’ housing.” Therefore, “Since Japanese ‘places’ tend to be very close to each other, the tendency is to expand space by increasing experiential time through the reduction of speed and the obstruction of movement. Space is created by ‘killing’ (slowing down) time.”

    For more on the metaphysics of space and time read this post.

    Image: “Japanese traditional style house design” (CC BY 2.0) by TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)

     

     

  • Not Literally Slow

    Slow is not meant to be taken literally. As a concept, it is complex and has been described most eloquently by Carl Honoré, in his book In Praise of Slowness. “Fast and Slow do more than just describe a rate of change. They are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections – with people, culture, work, food, everything.”

    In my web survey I have come across a few definitions of Slow Architecture that describe it as architecture that literally takes a long time to design and build. The Wikipedia entry cites this definition among others, citing the Sagrada Família, in Barcelona, as an example. I think this misses the point, or rather oversimplifies what I believe is a beautiful and complex idea. The Sagrada Familia certainly is slow in the sense that it is intuitive, unhurried, careful, reflective, deeply meaningful and connected to the site and the people. And it also happens to have taken a long time to build.

    Good architecture inherently resists speed. The creative process is organic, nonlinear, often turbulent and does not wish to be rushed. Any artist knows this. But that does not extend infinitely.  It is simply a matter of taking enough time to do it right.

    Throughout this blog I will be exploring various definitions of Slow Architecture, Slow Building, Slow Design, Slow Home and the term we have coined, Slow Space. This is an open-ended and messy journey that I hope will bring together many different strands into one larger whole.

    Image: “Sagrada Familia” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by aliby

  • Williams & Tsien: Slowness and the Folk Art Museum

    In 1999 Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien wrote an article entitled “On Slowness” referring to the slow speed of hand drafting, the slow careful thought process of designing and the slow perception and experience of space. The article can be read in full on their website. They quote Milan Kundera’s novel Slowness and the powerful relationship between time and memory.

    “There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time. In existential mathematics, that experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.”

    They describe how as their work has evolved its essence become more difficult to capture in photographs. The spaces need to be experienced, quietly, slowly, particularly as the buildings relate to the landscape. It is difficult for them to describe their work as well. “So there is no quick take on our work; no singular powerful image that is able to sum it all up.” Perhaps this makes the work more difficult to appreciate in the sound-bite and media driven world we live in.

    There is no singular powerful image able to sum it all up.

    In 2001 Williams Tsien inaugurated their biggest work to date, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Opening to critical acclaim and numerous awards the exquisitely detailed building embodied all of the aspects of slowness that they wrote about. Michael Kimmelman wrote in a New York Times piece “Those bespoke, domestic-size spaces, like the building’s sober hammered bronze facade, share something with the handicraft of the folk art museum’s collection; the building has a rootedness, a materiality, an outsize claim to significance.” The hammered bronze facade even included a panel inscribed with the names of all the workers who helped to build the museum showing their respect to the craftsmen who gave the building their love.

    The Folk Art Museum was located on a small site surrounded on three sides by the Museum of Modern Art. Kimmelman writes “It stands proudly on the street, the unfashionable antithesis of generic, open-ended modernism, the opposite of what Diller Scofidio now envisions in its place, with its paradigm of indefinite and perishable culture.” He is referring to the fact that in 2014 the MOMA swallowed up the Folk Art Museum and demolished it to make room for its own never-ending expansion. After only 13 years the building was consumed by fast growth and a gem of Slow Space was lost.

    Update: I just learned that so many architects and others were upset by this and the hashtag #folkMOMA was created in protest of the demolition of the Folk Art Museum and the MOMA in general (also Diller, Scofidio & Renfro).

    Image: “NYC, 45 West 53rd Street” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Detlef Schobert

  • Architecture Has Become Disposable

    With every new innovation architecture is creating its own obsolescence. The race for taller, greener, more cutting edge building narrows the window of time each preceding iteration can be marveled. If every few years there is a new city chasing the Bilbao effect won’t there be a point of diminishing returns? Will tourists race to one city only to find they then have to turn around to get to another?

    If it is the newness that is so exciting what happens when these iconoclastic buildings become old? Do they retain any value? Or do they quickly become passé?

    This is not just the case for “it” buildings. In many parts of the US people don’t want to buy a “used,” I mean old, house. It’s like a car. There is always a newer model. So instead of maintaining, renovating and adapting their homes to their changing life circumstances, they trade up. Vast tracks of spec homes will be abandoned after they are no longer new. Instead of increasing in value these homes are losing value. As they should be actually. They are usually built of such poor quality that they are not meant to last more than 30 or 40 years. Then what happens? Are they demolished? That costs money too. Not to mention the waste. THE WASTE. That is the real issue.

    We see it in fashion. The world is covered in our discarded garments. There are not enough needy people in the world to give them too, and most are of such poor quality that many don’t even want those hand-me-downs (Samson). Then there are the waste byproducts of clothing production as well as the enormous water use.

    Starchitecture has been terrible for architecture and the built environment.

    Every building is an ICON, so then none of them are. The explosion of architecture blogs and publications has been feeding the frenzy of consumption, with every day a new batch of exciting buildings being published online. Design is tailored to the image it will produce, the “money shot.” Because perhaps that is all that really matters in the end? Very few people will actually experience the building and very few people will care after the initial glow has worn off. The media cycle will have moved on to something else. The trend will pass and when the newness has worn off it will likely be replaced with something else.

    Design and construction is moving faster and faster to keep pace with technology. But Starchitect Rem Koolhaas still laments its slowness (Koolhaas). But it is speed that is the problem. Architecture can and should not be fast and should not compete with technology. Architecture has a 3,000 year history. It is the (second) oldest profession. The Great Pyramid at Giza took 20 years to build by 100,000 workers. Chartres Cathedral was built over a period of 30 years. Both of these structures have survived more than 1,000 years and are celebrated as world treasures. That’s not likely to be the case for anything built today.

    Image: “Demolition” (CC BY 2.0) by MICOLO J Thanx 4, 3.1m views