TECHNE 20 (2020): Time and architecture

Where do ideas come from

Lorenzo Matteoli
Politecnico di Torino, Italia

Published 2020-09-18

How to Cite

Matteoli, L. (2020). Where do ideas come from. TECHNE - Journal of Technology for Architecture and Environment, (20), 45–50.


«Future history will no longer produce ruins. It doesn’t have the time» (Augè, 2004).

While for many other environmental physical phenomena we have “sensors” and organs capable of recording them, for time we do not have an organ that records, feels, translates it into an image or into a physical provocation. If it exists, we do not know it.

The eyes see light, colours, distances, depths. The question remains whether what I see is exactly the same as what others see, but there are good reasons to suspect so. Ears hear sounds, noises, register the direction from which vibrations and acoustical energy arrive and recognize frequencies within certain limits. They probably also record many other characteristics of sound energy according to categories that are unnoticeable, unquantifiable or incomprehensible to most of us. The thermal sensors of our body tissues feel the heat and react to it in different ways: increasing or decreasing their temperature, secreting sweat, dilating or contracting their pores to grant the organic balances necessary for our well-being, comfort and safety. We also have sensors that react to pain caused by environmental, “social”, accidental and mechanical situations. These sensors can react to trauma by cancelling the sensation of pain to allow rational control behavioural patterns to handle the emergency/life threatening situation, an assumption I make because it is contradicted and confirmed by many different stories.

We do not know “organs” in our body that “feel”, “record”, “evaluate”, “quantify” or “qualify”, time as a physical dimension of the environmental context. Perhaps it is our whole physical and organic system that “feels” and “records” time: in fact, the system “ages”, changes physical, dimensional, organic, biological, chemical, mechanical, neuro-vegetative qualities and sensitivities of various kinds and nature. Overall, for this reason, it is correct to say that it is by living that we measure time. A few decades ago, in a short essay published by the UWA (University of Western Australia), I wrote that «time is like an immense motionless ocean that we cross while changing» (Matteoli, 2002).

It is a literary and suggestive image, but in reality only useful to contradict the other “figures” of “time”, which “passes”, “rolls”, “unfolds”, “runs away”, while it is we who “pass”, “roll”, “run away”, pursued by a strange, benevolent or evil demon or genius.

For us, the “dimension/feeling” of time is even more relative and is linked to the time we have lived, to the activities we carry out or that we would like to carry out, to the pleasure or boredom or discomfort of the present. A year of life for a ten year old is 10% of the life he has lived. For a 50-year-old adult, it is only 2 percent of the life he has lived: the same 365 days are worth less for the adult by a factor of 5 (500%).

This is why the summers of our childhood seemed very long and those of our later years seem very short.

In the absence of time sensing organs or in the absence of our knowledge and control of our time sensing organs, we have invented measuring instruments which measure the astronomical time of the Planet: the (approximate) 24 hours of rotation around its axis and the 365 (approximate) days of the revolution around the sun, from sundials, Horas non numero nisi serenas1, hourglasses, water clocks, pendulums, to John Harrison’s chronometer (1693-1776) with spring and balance (the first instrument capable of measuring longitude at sea), to watches based on vibrations of quartz crystals to atomic clocks, etc.

But the times of architecture have little to do with the measurement of time marked by astronomy.

These are times related to History, Anthropology, Culture, Economy, Geography, Technology, Politics: all relevant items for the “design culture”, few of which are studied, analysed and systematically explored in the curricula of our architectural design schools, although architects are perhaps among the greatest manipulators of time.

At this point, to deal with its times, a definition of “architecture” and the architectural design culture is needed. For the breadth of the critical grid of my notes, I think that an equally broad and general definition will do: «everything that has to do with the form, structure and substance of the anthropic context». The built landscape, the city, houses, monuments, streets, bridges, ports, etc. the items of everyday life, clothing, pots, furniture accessories... everything that requires drawing, formal thought, visual intuition, technological tools, materials, their process and shaping, where needs induce problems and solutions that require thought, anticipation, description, communication, logistic organization, production, making, using, living, suffering.

I can’t help but think about the courageous Chinese student in Shanghai who, after my conference on “Italian design”, asked me: «Where do ideas come from?»2.

A challenging question that still occupies some sleepless nights of mine and that I willingly pass on to my Techne readers.

The times of city design are centuries, with many generations involved: we live in cities that others have designed and design cities in which others will live. These cities, by definition, hardly meet current needs because they were conceived on the needs of other times, other generations and other cultures which is a specific condition on the way we live plan, draw, manage and use them, in a challenging, fascinating self-referential twist. It is no coincidence that those who live in Genoa are different from those who live in Turin, Milan or New York. When the times of the city were consistent with the times of its conception that was not a problem, but it is now. 

In this “narrative” lurks the problem of city planning, which requires knowledge of history and compromise with history, long-term vision of the future and respect for the past, authority and power in the present (Mumford, 1938, 1961). 

These are not easy conditions in the complicated clash between administrative political clients and professional design and planning competence. This clash involves laws, rules, regulations, property regimes, micro and macro economies and financial schemes, all contingent factors often abstract and dominated by logics far from those of the cultural/social needs of the optimal urban container (Magnaghi, 2000).

In some cities, traces remain of the dictatorial powers of the times in which they were conceived: the Ramblas of Barcelona, the Boulevards of Paris, the orthogonal grid of Augusta Taurinorum, efficient rational castrum of the Roman legions and their chain of command of consuls and centurions, pragmatically reproduced by the Scottish colonizers in thousands of cities in North America (Romano, 2004).

It is a legitimate question how much of this memory, how much of this time informs today’s decisions, it is reasonable to maintain that this condition is much more important than what is perceived by the common feeling. The environment in which we live is part of our cultural DNA even if we have no clear knowledge of it. 

In cities there are houses, churches, schools, courts, offices, shopping malls, museums, libraries, universities and hospitals, all qualifying as “architecture”, all designed and built to respond to needs; all products, good or bad, of a “design culture”.

What time condition has produced, conditioned, formed them?

«Where do ideas come from?».

Most are the result of a virtual zero time. Hundreds and thousands of trivial objects put together to build a message that goes far beyond the specific banality of ordinary objects. They form an urban landscape and the set of their specific platitudes produces a more complex meaning through a strange conundrum, whereby the sum of any number of singularly meaningless items conveys a meaning. Colour? The infinite repetition of a current sign? Windows? The balconies? The gutters? Here you can see the power of municipal building regulations which, dictating a set of banal rules, unify, coordinate and determine a system language. They give to banality a systematic semantic dignity. The eaves of Florence, the attic-roofs (mansards) of Paris, the terraced-houses of London, Manchester, Liverpool, the porticos in Bologna and Torino.

With the thousands of trivial items, however, there are exceptional buildings, the Casa Milà in Barcelona, the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, the Lingotto in Turin, the houses of Coop Himmelb(l)au, the houses of Troppo Architects in Australia and thousands of other splendid and less splendid examples of great provocation, which I cannot quote for obvious lack of space.

«Where do ideas come from?».

The time of these specific items is in the history of their designers. Which memories, which references, logical analysis, provocations of customers/clients, building construction conditions, material, which first pencil stroke on paper, literary quotation or poetic provocation, dream, vision, music or song, or what other accidental occurrence. 

Each, however, may be followed by the ability to associate the “vision” to the tools for its communication and for its translation into a built object, technology, materials, processes, logistics, competence, men, women, money.

Some building “times” are a matter for thought, buildings that took decades and even centuries to build, with no documented record of the time required for their design.

The “design” and construction of Gothic cathedrals in Europe was the founding episode of the engineering and logistics of large modern construction deeds. The real Renaissance, after the Middle Ages that was not dark or gloomy at all, but a great historical melting pot and host of formidable intuitions and visions involving huge multigenerational enterprises, which affected entire regions and thousands of workers, masons, stone cutters, financing schemes launched over hundreds of years, territorial infrastructures for the transportation of materials (roads, bridges, canals). For many of the European cathedrals, a designed project never existed: their construction followed verbal instructions from the master builder. There was no “calculation”: the structures were intuitively assessed and built on an empirical basis. Accounting required trust-based contractual relationships, the money value of which in present day currency would be several billion euros. It would be difficult to find politically, dimensionally and financially comparable endeavours currently (perhaps space exploration). The time of the cathedrals started in 1100-1200 has not yet ended today, after 8-9 centuries and there is no end in sight. The huge local, territorial, social, knowledge and experience and lives invested is still returning huge interest after more than 40 generations. Never so few made so much for so many.

Many of these items have provoked, and will provoke, ideas, visions, design and architectural experiences with the times of current communication, teaching, media and again for months, years, days, centuries.

These times set the problem of teaching, training and transferring the design-culture to future generations of architects and designers.

In my experience, there are two current teaching attitudes:

A. to throw the student into the deep end hoping that he will learn to swim;

B. to establish a “school” with set formal methodologies, procedures and models and impose them.

The combinations and variations of the two methods are infinite.  

The alleged existence of a design “method” represented by block diagrams, outlines, operational sequences, grammar and various syntaxes is peculiar to attitude B and its presence in literature is abundant. The merit of managing the problem rationally and giving students an operational reference of relative certainty should be acknowledged for this manual. Follow this diagram and you will achieve a result, even if you’re not a genius.

Teaching attitude A is more adventurous. Many drown in the pool, and those who do not drown are not necessarily the best.

The two attitudes are defeated by the brilliant subjects, by those who “use” the school but are equipped, however equipped, with robust individual, critical and cognitive tools, perhaps 2% of the school population of our School of Architecture. The trouble is that for this 2% of exceptional subjects there are many normal subjects who “believe” they are part of that 2% but regrettably they are not at all.

«Where do ideas come from?».

This is another place of “time” and architecture: the time between the delivery of knowledge and its practical application.

Schools of architecture train professionals who will be operational (hopefully) perhaps within 10-15 years after leaving school, a time during which, today, almost all knowledge and technical know-how loses much of its actual value: that is, we teach things we do not know, because what the tools, technologies and building materials will be in 10-15 years is not documented yet. We solved the obvious contradiction by teaching “problems” and not “solutions”. Problems do not change, solutions continuously change.

The three Vitruvian categories “firmitas”, “utilitas”, “venustas” will still be valid in ten, twenty, thirty years. The ways to grant them in the buildings that will be built in ten, twenty, thirty years will be very different. According to ancient wisdom, the correct and complete expression of a problem is an essential part of its solution.

There are other times of architecture that require attention: the time needed to conceive the project, the building time and the expected useful life of the built item.

Each historical moment is characterized by specific political, economic and cultural conditions that dictate or imply different priorities and values, conditions to which design responds with specific solutions, forms, techniques and materials. Thus, architectural design in the 1930s in Italy responded to the cultural climate of the fascist dictatorship and the interpretation of the Modern Movement was consequently informed by it. The same is true of 1950s design, which was affected by the urgency and pressure to rebuild the country after the Second World War, while in the 1960s and 1970s, design was affected by the economic boom and the consistent naiveté (l’Italia da bere). 

On the “useful life” of architectural items there are two significant examples: the buildings built for Italy ‘61 in Turin – the Palazzo Nervi by Gio Ponti and Pier Luigi Nervi and the Palazzo a Vela by Annibale and Giorgio Rigotti – later arguably manipulated by Gae Aulenti, and the buildings of the Regions, buildings that were to last for a six-month service and which are still, with the columns of Nervi, a useless and very expensive, presence after 60 years. The other examples are the buildings for the 1911 Universal Exhibition in Turin, many designed by Raimondo D’Aronco3 and made of straw and plaster which, at the end of the 1911 exhibition were demolished and the rubble pushed into the Po river leaving the beautiful Valentino Park to the city, one of the elegant present day urban features of Torino. A lesson to learn. The only permanent building built on that occasion was the Medieval Castle, also on the banks of the Po river, a philologically exact copy of a Savoy castle in the Aosta Valley still economically useful today with restaurants, shops, historic workshops and tourists.

One cannot fail to admire the long-term vision of Renaissance investments in Italy which, after centuries, still supply millions of euros a year in tourism for a country that has little to do with the Italy of Lorenzo dei Medici and Pope Leo X.

Long term vision: this too is a beautiful example of time and architecture, unsurpassed to date.

In the 1980s, when I was the dean of the School of Architecture of the Turin Engineering Polytechnic, one of my duties was to welcome the new students to the School, a task which I did with affection and diligence because I considered it a function of great importance. To the class of “matricole” (first year students in Italian) gathered in the main hall of the School at the Castello del Valentino I used to say «In this School we have no certainties and we cannot give them to you, but if you follow what we tell you, perhaps you will be able to live peacefully with uncertainty». The bewildered gaze of some of them still remains with me. 

The concept of living peacefully with uncertainty is an essential scope of teaching architectural design and I still like it forty years later. 

To live peacefully with uncertainty, the essential thing is to accept it and in order to accept it, it is mandatory to control a solid catalogue of knowledge.

«Where do ideas come from?».


1 «Don’t count the hours if they are not serene», famous motto on an ancient sundial.

2 The student is called Sun Xinci.

3 1857-1932, born in Udine, in literature sometimes referred to as the “ottoman architect” because his most important client was the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II.