TECHNE 20 (2020): Time and architecture

Time and Architecture

Massimo Lauria
Dipartimento di Architettura e Territorio, Università Mediterranea di Reggio Calabria, Italia
Riccardo Pollo
Dipartimento di Architettura e Design, Politecnico di Torino, Italia
Published September 18, 2020
How to Cite
Massimo Lauria, & Riccardo Pollo. (2020). Time and Architecture. TECHNE - Journal of Technology for Architecture and Environment, (20), 16-22.


In the Italian language, the term “tempo” (literally time) is a word of daily use to which we attribute many meanings.

It can signify a chronological dimension between past, present and future, an epoch or a period, a phase of an action, as well as the weather and its change. In philosophical and scientific thought, it was the becoming, the before and after of each moment, the unchanging and uniform time of Galilean and Newton’s physics, the variability of existential states or the memory of a primeval condition.

As the physicist and essayist Carlo Rovelli states, time «is perhaps the greatest mystery» (Rovelli, 2017). The journalist Federico Rampini recalls an ancient Afghan proverb «you have the clocks, we have the time», reflects on its value dimension, different from the attitude of western culture to measure this dimension, to attribute meanings according to its precise accounting (Rampini, 2013).

The contemporary age thus stimulates reflections on the comparison between different visions of time, from the linear ones, typical of modernity and the industrial age, to the “timeless” phenomena of quantum physics, where only relationships count, up to measures of different types like the succession of the cycles of nature and human generations.

In its various meanings, time is a fundamental factor of forecasting, of the future and, therefore, of every project, in the meaning of its Latin etymon projectus, which is the action of becoming and projecting forward.

In the relationship with the project, artistic practices therefore imply a very close link with the temporal dimension. Among these, the architecture that «claims that share of aspiration to eternity that lies in the very foundation of the idea of humanity» (Gregotti, 1997).

Time and architecture are therefore terms of a powerful dichotomy that considers architecture works and their duration together; their permanence and changes in form and image; their conservation according to the social, productive and urban transformations of the city and landscape.

Time in the city is, and has always been, relative. The monuments and old towns have a centuries-old history, the political discussions and dynamics that govern the projects are asynchronous, empty and inconsistent anticipatory announcements of promised architectural works, perennial delays in implementation. Celebrations and festivities live ephemeral seasons, the installations are, by definition, temporary. The speed of transportation and instant communication tools coexists with the slow time of the man who walks and with the real-time processes of the smart city. The time of unfinished works is interrupted. In recent days, humanity has experienced a new dimension of time, that of the pandemic. A time that we perceived suspended and widened. Inversely proportional to the contraction of space that has suddenly become insufficient due to the confinement at home and to sharing living and working in a single environment.

An unmeasurable event – the pandemic – invisible, of which we do not know and cannot imagine its boundaries, another “hyper object”, as Timothy Morton could define it, like Global Warming and Nuclear Holocaust (Morton, 2013).

The new scenario cannot fail to be a topic of reflection, as well as a dramatic break in the biography of the living. Many of the changes taking place were already present, or at least they were in Western culture: smart working, telemedicine, distance education, sociality no longer experienced in physical contact but through social media.

All different phenomena investigated by many and often referred to as the ability of technology to make them possible in accordance with man’s boundless confidence in governing his relationship with the environment. The eruption of this planetary phenomenon also linked and favoured – but probably not determined – by technology, therefore pushes us to observe reality in a different way. And although the authors of the Dossier have not been allowed to explicitly address an issue, the pandemic that is not yet manifest but perhaps already immanent to the environmental theme, it is certain that these latter events seem to strengthen the relationship of connection space-time, and of these two entities, with architecture and more generally with nature.

In the past, these relationships were fulfilled and evolved through the succeeding alternation of generations. The ancient city centuries-old construction sites were built with the contribution of the entire community, which then proudly displayed its ancestry, memberships and social goals. The architecture was the synthesis of a complex process that allowed its construction by workers, custodians of knowledge of local techniques and materials, their processing and conservation. The collective enjoyment of historic buildings was a prerequisite for their durability and compatibility between urban transformations, needs of civil society and representative functions of architecture. On the other hand, the buildings’ construction has always required long times. Incomparably longer, however, has always been the time necessary for them to give rise to a place, become part of the city, be accepted by the inhabitants.

Time, when referring to architecture, evokes and therefore naturally combines with the idea of transformation and the action of construction. But also, with regard to this aspect, there are differences between the present and the past, when designers often did not see their most ambitious works completed. Palladio never saw one of his buildings completed. The Sagrada Familia, symbol of the city of Barcelona and whose construction began in 1882, is still being completed today after having accompanied the life of its designer, Antoni Gaudi.

The case of the Spanish basilica demonstrates how the history of the time-architecture relationship does not follow linear patterns and successions between design, construction and use, showing the paradox of a building that is a symbol of a city, enjoyed by millions of visitors but not yet completed; a unique architectural work that is still in construction and under restoration, studied by the disciplines of engineering and architecture.

The natural course of time appears so upset: past, present, future coexist and chase each other in a circular succession of events that confirm the intuition, present in the expression widespread among architectural technology scholars, of Valerio Di Battista at the end of the last century, of «project of the existing» (Di Battista, 1992). Principle according to which a linear and unidirectional temporal succession can no longer be associated with the “life” of an architecture. At the same time as the metabolization of these theories, other terminologies brought to the general attention further questions on the time concept: that of techniques (Nardi, 1990), their appropriateness (Gangemi, 1988), recovery (Caterina, 1989), building maintenance (Molinari, 1989). An evolutionary process that took place, first through the conscious definition of the characters of the new complexity connected to the theme of the intervention on the existing building stock, prefiguring as a priority the search for knowledge tools and suitable intervention methods. In the following decades the meanings of terms such as conservation, reuse and requalification have been declined according to the significance that the technical-scientific lexicon still adopts in the present. In this perspective, time faded in its boundaries and is no longer uniform but a generator of sequences and cyclic modification processes.

In one of his last writings, Vittorio Gregotti, quoted here because of a heartfelt tribute to a protagonist of 20th century architecture, says that past, present and future take on meaning as «material of the architectural project», like space, context and function (Gregotti, 2020).

His interpretation of time is therefore that of one of the “structural materials” that the project shapes. Time, place and space represent an opportunity for the present to confront a poetic, disciplinary and civil past. What many researchers and intellectuals – Ruskin, Riegl, Yourcenar – have referred to as true “beauty”.

In the contemporary urban environment, on the contrary, time seems to have lost these dimensions and values, just as the civic sense that supported the most important works seems to be lacking. Buildings completed with the rapidity of industrial processes are placed with indifference in the city, contradicting the dialogue between “conservation” and “transformation” typical of the historic town. Such historic contexts, where well preserved, seem to show organicity, compatibility with the environment, evoking in definitive the abused but powerful concept of sustainability as well as the most current one of resilience.

The extension of the construction time phases has changed compared to a more static and slower past, becoming pressing and close, functional to programmed lifetimes, linked to the solution of contingent problems and short-term financial goals.

According to Salvatore Settis, contemporary urban transformations are to a large extent subject to negotiation between public authorities on the one hand, and area owners, investors and property developers on the other. So, the uncontrolled expansions of the city or even certain regenerations of dismissed and abandoned places are the result of economic or financial calculations, rather than architectural works (Settis, 2017).

Logics are therefore too often dictated by short-term economic visions, inconsistent with the times of the social and cultural construction of the city. The short durations and the frenetic constructions in fact often escape the control of the project and are “suffered” by the city. Construction sites are subject to slowdowns, accelerations and abrupt interruptions creating new urban landscapes dotted with contemporary ruins, new simulacra dedicated to ambition, to bad political programming, to technical incapacity, in some cases to malfeasance. “Birth”, “life” and “death” of a building wear out, sometimes, quickly and unreasonably.

In this way, an important domain is set up which contemporary architectural production faces by considering in dialectical terms the need to implement, right from the initial stages of the design process, strategies inspired by the permanence of architectural works and temporary-oriented options. The first are linked to the traditional concept of the durable building, whereas the latter consider it an artifact of limited and programmable duration, rapidly obsolete, ephemeral and consumable. In this dialectic, absolutely central issues are involved in the disciplinary debate concerning the governance of anthropic transformations of the built environment, from economic and sociological issues, to the need for a correct environmental balance, overcoming mere financial goals. This concept is well described by the French word “durable”, synonymous with sustainable. A dialectic, however, of marginal significance, according to Francois Burkhardt, who says «it seems to me that neither is realistic, since one dreams of a past that is future and the other a future without a past» (Burkhardt, 1997).In this scenario with boundaries as wide as uncertain, in inviting researchers from different fields, from architecture, to technology, to philosophy to express their point of view on the theme, the expedient of proposing them, such as starting point, some quotes from the literature were followed.

These trace a sort of logical common thread that moves from the historicity of the object and the architectural project (Lewis Mumford and Aldo Rossi), to the relationship between the designer’s thought, permanence and aesthetic value of the architectural artifact (Rafael Moneo, Giò Ponti), to its transformation by nature and society (Marc Augè), to end its relationship with the environment and the climate (Jeremy Rifkin).

The authors, as expected, betrayed and, at the same time, supported that schedule, introducing highly topical themes and profound representations. The multifaceted aspects of time, different and variable in individual perception and physical reality, are intertwined with biographical paths, with disciplinary training, with the events of society, with the narratives of culture and with the relationship between man, nature and artifacts.

Through the magnifying glass of time, an unprecedented comparison between the different disciplines and architecture has resulted. Philosophy, history, environmental physics, technology, as systematized methods of knowledge of nature, of thought and of acting in it, have always looked at architecture as art and as a practice. This relationship is also true in the opposite direction, from architecture to forms of knowledge of the world and society, without which the discipline and its practices would not exist.

In architecture as an artistic and material expression though, that of culture that makes us feel contemporaries of the ancients, and nature, which inevitably marks the birth and death of objects and living things, as well as people, meet and interpenetrate.

Moving between the loops of this ambiguous relationship, Ettore Rocca claims that the architectural project becomes «supreme human manipulation of nature» which, when completed, «becomes nature, is delivered in the time of nature». Art and culture are man’s time. The time of nature is indifferent, it is birth and death. Architecture is both the time of man and the time of nature, which also decays, dies and, like all matter, is regenerated.

A vision that seems to allude to the reflections and elaborations typical of the technological culture of design, which connects the project, as an intentional act, but with not obvious and uncertain results, to the time of nature which, in turn, transforms and corrupts the material of the building. In this way we can interpret the quotation in his essay “Architecture should become a detail of the Earth” (Hiroshi Sambuichi) as a vision of the relationship between time and architecture.

In a historical perspective, such as that suggested by Stefano Della Torre, the city is a living material of men and artifacts. The Mumfordian metaphor of the “mold” can therefore be interpreted, outside of determinisms no longer acceptable, in a dynamic meaning in which history, culture and matter find relationships outside of ideological visions that enhance parts, or eras, at the expense of others.

Invoked by Sergio Croce, the concepts of resilience, adaptation, mitigation inform the theories and tools of environmental design. The response to changes and catastrophes through social and technical reorganization is the new needs reference framework of the contemporary architecture project. Adaptation is the condition in which the natural and artificial worlds find themselves to avoid trauma and extinctions, mitigation, the set of technical and conceptual tools that intervene to govern complexity towards favourable and shared outcomes.

In a conscious contemporary vision, environment and health are collective and no longer individual goods. The fragility of individuals and communities, underlined by Teodoro Georgiadis, is combined with that of nature and it is no longer conceivable to separate the environment from society, the living from humans, the communities among each other. Universalism aimed at continuous progress, as well as the localism that feeds conflicts, must make place for the consciousness of being “terrestrial”, as Bruno Latour argues, capable at the same time of «imagining under what conditions the world, in age of globalization, can be made habitable – and other adjectives that have become important for the contemporary age: sustainable, durable, breathable, liveable» (Latour, 2009).

Time acquires a biographical dimension between architecture, research and teaching in Lorenzo Matteoli’s vision. The architectural project is strongly linked to the experience and culture that are projected in acting and ideation. «Where do the ideas come from» is the question that arises with the student mentioned in his essay, highlighting the association between “time” and “ideas” as a possible place for some answers. Ideas come from us, from our mind immersed in the world. In the neuroscientific perspective of the embodied mind, as Pallasmaa states, it is the “thinking hand”, it is the body, with the mind, that designs. Experience, perception and action are not distinct, but inextricably united. The transition from the experiential dimension of the architect to the interconnection with the world of objects and living, according to Tim Ingold’s vision, closes the circle of reflection. The project, an elusive entity is, therefore, increasingly distant from being an abstract idea, which precedes the making, the construction of the object. Construction and design appear increasingly social rather than individual, thus recalling the vision of Marc Augè who inspired the contribution.

Finally, starting from Aldo Rossi’s acknowledgment of the permanence of the built, as an objective element of the knowledge of the city and its existential and cultural dimensions, Lorenzo Bellicini contextualizes time in urban reality, in its development and in the social and institutional dynamics that regulate it. Dynamics that often led to pathological results in which the absence of a unified project and the lack of sharing of forward-looking visions by the actors of the construction process led to the at least partial failure of urban planning ideals. From these reflections one could derive the need for a holistic project of the city, its redevelopment or expansion, according to the contexts, capable of responding to the need, this time truly collective, of a healthy city. Thinking about the times of the city thus becomes an instrument to correct the dysfunctions, even temporal, of its structure today, between the past and the future. A renewed, but essential, urban project requires adequate implementation times and certain rules for sharing choices, not marred by vetoes and administrative inefficiency.

In closing it could be said with Carlo Rovelli, that “absolute” time does not exist, or rather it is an intellectual construction, it is not a fixed and predetermined entity, but linked to experience, to changes in the life of objects and living, to their relationships, to their physical, atomic and existential nature. At the same time, in a homologous way, the architectural project is not, even in an updated anthropological perspective, separated from the material, but united in a continuum that links society, culture, operators, and nature in a single system.

This vision is particularly needed in this moment in which the living relate in ways that dramatically escape the logic of domination that has characterized what we have considered the development of human societies for some centuries: a relatively short time if you think about the history of genus sapiens.

A separation between project and product, idea and realization, technique and technology, between digital culture and the new dimensions of the infosphere is no longer conceivable (Floridi, 2014). In the same way, we cannot think of the separation between health and economy, between the world of men and biosphere, between nature and built environment.

The world of objects, animated or not, cannot be separated from society, just as architecture is not solely to conceive an abstract idea but extends over time of construction and interactions with the environment.

Design and construction are intertwined with the lives of people, societies, cities and nature. And it is precisely this multifaceted nature that makes the considerations that follow productive confrontation opportunities for the practice of architecture and for the reflections around it.


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