The Problem of Time

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clock on tower at the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome


   Architecture today has a big problem with time that renders the profession incapable of producing better work, and of building in a truly sustainable way. I was one of the speakers at the Natural House seminar held each summer at Harvard University recently. My presentation started like this:

aerial image of parallel ridges at Fort Payne, Alabama

   These two parallel ridges separate the land below into three watersheds where water that falls on one side of one of a ridge will never reach the other side. In similar fashion, we divide time into three virtual "watersheds of time": the past, the present, and the future.

   Many architects declare that we must not look to the past. Anything from the past is off limits as a source for our work today. Our work must be intensely "of our time." Most architects claim to be forward-looking. But while the architects are the one that erected the ridge separating us from the past, it is the universe itself that has separated us from the future, as humans are notoriously bad at guessing how the future might work out.

woman wearing white dress and man wearing all black ascending steps to Campodiglio in Rome

   This self-imposed terror of the past is harmful on several counts. We don't reject people because they're not from here, so why do we reject ideas when they're not from now? Racism means preferring one race over another. "Timeism" should be a word that means preferring one time over another. Timeism is as damaging to sustainable architecture as racism is to civilization. A Modernist prefers the present over the past (and has "nostalgia for the future.") A historicist prefers the past over the present. Both approaches are damaging. Why does it matter when a good idea originated? We should choose the best ideas for the job regardless of when or where they originated.

three-dimensional diagram of gable roof and butterfly roof

   For example, consider the act of getting water off the roof. These two roofs each have the two green triangles of wall area at each end. But the one on the right also has larger red areas on either side. It also, by sloping to the middle, brings the water down where a gutter leak could cause major damage inside.

ancient temple at Paestum, Italy

   Architects have understood this for a few thousand years, and have chosen to build the more efficient roof all around the world. But today, most architects would be completely ashamed to build the more efficient roof because that idea is "from the past." So they do roofs like the one on the right (and worse) and Modernist buildings are notorious for their leaks and their high construction costs. Rejecting everything from the past and burdening ourselves with having to discover everything on our own deprives architects of lessons impossible to learn in less than many lifetimes.

stone stairway to the dome of the Duomo in Florence, Italy

   The complete unhappiness with the past that these architects exhibit is unhealthy. If we feel that everything that came before us is bad, or at least unworthy of us, then the logical conclusion of that train of thought should be that we ourselves probably shouldn't exist, either.

   The historicist, on the other hand, is completely happy with the past. While this may be a comfortable position, it doesn't lead to growth.

   The best approach may be to be partly happy (with the good things) and partly unhappy (with the bad things) with the past. Take this balanced approach, and you're able to learn from all things past and present and move forward into a better future.

wooden olive press at Santa Catarina Hermitage on Lago Maggiore in northern Italy

   Using the best ideas regardless of when they originated, then, is clearly a better approach than timeism. It is important to note, however, that we should look for the best ideas one pattern at a time. By "pattern," I mean things like the design of an eave, the way we connect columns to beams, or the way that the column attaches to the floor of the porch. Considering one pattern at a time allows a rational conversation between reasonable people.

father and bride entering church in Rome, Italy

   People often make the mistake of choosing entire styles of architecture, rather than the patterns they're composed of. Styles are far too complex, so rational conversations about styles are almost impossible. They devolve instead into style wars, much like religious discussions can devolve into religious wars. With a particular religion, you either believe or you don't believe. With a particular style, you either like it or you don't. Discussions about individual patterns are surgical instruments compared to the blunt instruments of style discussions.

workshop packed with tools and parts

   There's another category of "idea collection" that has similar problems to that of style. A "toolset," "toolkit," or "model" is a collection of many things used to do a job at some point in time. For example, the feudal system was a model that worked efficiently to produce food in Europe during the Medieval era. Some individual agricultural techniques that were part of the feudal system might be useful today in the creation of nourishable places, but the entire system had too many things tied specifically to that point in history, so it would be foolish to even consider trying to restart the feudal system in Europe today.

   The bottom line is this: any system of thought, whether Modernism, historicism, or something else, that insists we use ideas only from restricted points in time is flat wrong because it deprives us of some (or even most) of the best solutions to a problem. Many have been working for years to figure out how to live sustainably today. We haven't figured it out yet, so it's obviously a big problem. To deprive a problem so large of any good ideas that might help solve it is insane. We must be allowed to use the things that work, whether they were invented now or at some other time!


   ~Steve Mouzon


Legacy Comments


Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Today's Original Green post is on the Problem of Time... or why the Modernists and the historicists are both wrong.

Aug 3, 2012 1:17pm


C Fenno Hoffman

Excellent piece by Steve Mouzon on temporal prejudice in design.

Aug 3, 2012 4:11pm


Kevin Hamak · Owner at Farmer K, LLC

Great discussion on why architecture doesn't need to reinvent the "wheel". Architects today are intent on experimenting with square wheels, triangular wheels, and oblong wheels; none of which work as well as the round wheel that civilization has used and refined for thousands of years. 
Likewise, historic preservationists insist that the wheel was perfected about 80 years ago and no new wheels should improve, emulate, or even be constructed as round lest they be confused with a working wheel.

Aug 6, 2012 7:35am


Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Continuing this train of thought with today's rant: http://www.originalgreen.org/blog/wheels-down-on-mars.html.

Aug 6, 2012 10:34am


Edward J. Shannon, Architect

Great Article! Chicago's IIT and Notre Dame (south Bend, IN) are about 90 miles apart. Both teach an ideology that, if taken too literally, can lead to the extremes you speak of. When it comes down to it, I feel both are really esthetic preferences. Good can be had in both. However, these preferences need to be tempered with the humane aspects (as espoused by Original Green) that make buildings truly sustainable.

Aug 6, 2012 8:22pm


Virginia Fitzpatrick · Bon vivant at Retired

As a statistician, I question that we have a random sample of historic cultures e.g. music, literature and architecture. Probably only the best survived leaving many of us erroneously wishing for yesterday. However, in remodeling the interior of my condo, I am reading up on newer materials ( e.g. laminate glass) to work up the courage to try something new. I suspect many customers are not as daring as architects about change.

Aug 7, 2012 4:10am


Jeffrey Jakucyk · University of Cincinnati

I like to compare the disdain for the past in architecture with the same trend in artwork. Painting and sculpture took on a much different character in modern times, very similar to that in architecture. The difference however is that architects want to have the freedom of those artists while ignoring that architecture is not purely a visual medium but on that has equally important practical considerations.  
I think the ignoring of pragmatic sensibilities is what has gotten the architecture profession in so much trouble. If the same mindset was applied to cuisine we'd have chefs experimenting with random chemicals and untested industrial processes. You'd likely get fed by a tube rammed down your throat because serving it up on a plate is just too kitschy.  
Clothes are another example. Yes there's some crazy modern styles out there, but we're not generally wearing spandex to work or clear plastic jumpsuits or inflatable rings or who knows what else. Buttons, zippers, belts, ties, hats, shoelaces, scarfs, gloves, and socks all have a long history and practical applications that are just as valid today as they were in the past.  
I guess the one most important thing to remember is that historical techniques have a lot to teach us about durability and efficiency. They did the things they did for a reason, most of which were to protect the building and its occupants from the elements. The modern building that eschews "silly" classical details like cornices, overhangs, water tables, window sills, and rusticated bases are the ones that end up with walls that are cracked and streaked with dirt, and which need twice as much air conditioning.

Aug 7, 2012 10:39am


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