TECHNE 20 (2020): Time and architecture

Spaces, Times, Architectures. the Elements of the Constructive Phenomenon

Emilio Faroldi
Dipartimento di Architettura, Ingegneria delle Costruzioni e Ambiente Costruito, Politecnico di Milano, Italia
Published October 7, 2020
How to Cite
Faroldi, E. (2020). Spaces, Times, Architectures. the Elements of the Constructive Phenomenon. TECHNE - Journal of Technology for Architecture and Environment, (20), 9-15.


Architecture represents a primary hourglass marking the passage of time. It elevates the city to a preferred theatre for such representation, «[…] human time will never conform to the implacable uniformity or fixed divisions of clock time»1.

The discipline of architecture falls between art and science as a continuum between past and future, dialoguing with the passage of time, marking eras, tastes, and aspirations. «[…] Reality demands that its measurements be suited to variability of its rhythm, and that its boundaries have wide marginal zones. It is only by this plasticity that history can hope to adapt its classifications, as Bergson put it “to the very contours of reality”: which is properly the ultimate aim of any science» (Bloch, 1998)2.

Our relationship with time is articulated, differentiated, and dependent on discipline-related and personal variables. A unitary vision and perception of time is not possible; one need only think of the different relationships entertained with it by philosophers and athletes, physicists and poets, teachers and students.

Architecture, concurrently as an object and as a single element pertaining to a set, is born, lives, and often perishes according to the different relationship it has with the value of time. At times, the latter is assumed as a challenge to tend towards the absolute, at other times as an indicator of temporalized planning ability.

The professional applications of architecture must therefore be translated and filtered through the variable of time, testing the times of the project, establishing a relationship with historical dynamics, and defining the duration of the prefigured building. The act of designing also reflects cultural approaches that agree or disagree with the spirit of the time through adherence to or contrast with the identities, languages, and modes of seeing and thinking about architecture in a way that conforms to the contemporary age or by means of countering trends.

We are not faced with a single way of conceiving space, time, and architecture; rather, the terms require their evident terminological pluralization. The built space, its form, the language undoubtedly represent the barometer of an era, the result of economic, social, technical, and cultural variables that come together synergistically to define the architectural meaning.

With regard to the thinking of Sigfried Giedion, based on the assumption that architecture may be generated from many surrounding conditions, but which once built may also represent an organism with independent value, we can see that architecture today is the fundamental essence of a becoming landscape, thus the bearer of dynamic values of constant interaction with the physical scene in which it is situated3.

The influence of the architectural element on the context and vice versa amounts to evident, sharable dynamics. Interest is not limited exclusively to the morphological/typological and linguistic characteristics that determine the details of the object, but rather the ways in which they act in their environment. For Giedion, space and time in the new architecture are connected by a direct thread, underlining a position that is still supported today.

What has changed in contemporary architecture is the value of time, its perception, something that is now the object of obvious constraints; pluralities, differences, dissonances are increasingly connected to an altered, never linear, temporal dimension.

The Twentieth century and more recent years correspond to a period marked by the collapse of certainties, the total freedom of thought, the adoption of forms increasingly freed from their gravitational laws, a linearity between form and function that is no longer perceptible. In this context and with respect to architecture, time assumes an independence never seen before.

«One of the essential characteristics of the European spirit», wrote Fritz Saxl, an Austrian art historian that lived between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, «seems to be the way in which it destroys things and then reintegrates them on new bases, breaking with tradition only to return to it with a completely new spirit» (Fritz saxl, in Gregotti, 1999). It is a concept of the past as a phenomenon in itself, concluded and distinct from the present due to an irreparable rift, rooted in a sort of irreconcilability between the architecture of the past and contemporary spatiality. «It represents an increasingly common position to be contrasted by affirming the value of the present precisely in relation to its dialogue with history» (Faroldi, 2016)4.

Classicism provided our discipline with the arduous, noble task of enduring forever. Now architecture is handed vital rules and prearranged phases of functioning. With growing assiduousness, the elements of architecture and the related language borrow principles and terms with a clear temporal connotation: continuity, resilience, adaptability, permanence, flexibility, reuse, ephemerality, and duration, just to name a few.

The spatial decomposition that architecture has undergone has also opened a new dimension in the temporal matrix, breaking a linear relationship based on the introduction of elements, superposition, and interconnections that create short circuits between the architectural foundations and its space-time assumptions.

This approach reopens a discussion about the relationship between our discipline and the figurative arts. Perceptible in some areas is the design attempt to develop a renewed spatial culture that can highlight the relationships between architecture and daily human activities and the synergy of the very methods of construction, painting, urban planning, and the sciences. This is valid for both the act of design and the act of criticism and rendering the architectural phenomenon: ours is knowledge that highlights the need to go beyond reality.

In order to design, one must understand the event in an attempt to anticipate the future; the present events are most apparent within a continuum, where time flows uninterruptedly. 

Contemporary arts and science recognize the action of observing and the observed object as elements in a single complex setting. Observing means interacting, consequently acting on the phenomenon being observed, thereby altering it. This is why the relationship with time in architecture elects the historian as a figure that should necessarily and intimately represent a constituent part of the era, one who is capable of addressing questions regarding the past that are still suitable for guarding a meaning.

In history, space in itself and time tend to evaporate, dissolve, in order to form a single great evolution of events aimed at blending the two entities.

The relationship between time and architecture today is therefore affected by a crisis of identity due to the acceleration of processes, the immateriality of the phenomena, and the simultaneous spread of information. The technical and technological acceleration that affects our living and contemporary interest, directed at the past interpreted as a heritage, decidedly emphasize the space-time ambiguity of events.

With regard to architecture, the meaning of time acquires multiple variations related to the perspective through which we consider the design process, the architectural building, its analogue value.

Throughout history, the architectural form symbolically echoed absolute concepts strongly tied to the time variable; on the urban scale and the object scale, the formal definition indicated a precise vision of the relationship with time.

The recent decomposition shatters this relationship, echoing more abstract, less tangible or limitable architectural conceptualizations. Historical time, the spirit of time, the time of duration, the perception of time, movement, and rhythms all change in relation to the evolution of the form and the architectural space.

«In the disintegration of time characterizing our era, which is composed of a sum of increasingly considerable moments and a multitude of information products that replace and overlap the real objects, architecture may still serve as an antidote to the illusory nature of images: an everyday object, a trace that constrains our movements and roots our thoughts. Architecture as a tool for rooting rather than an element of alienation. […] Yet to obtain this, “patient research” is required, as is a great deal of modesty, an attitude that is increasingly foreign in a world where a spectacle (and market) is made of everything and everything is consumed with a speed that is intolerable because it is faster than our capacity for reflection, assimilation, or verification. A world that, due to the state of things, produces prima donnas, fake masters, and disorientation as a necessary mechanism giving rise to the next “novelty”. Perhaps this modesty should contain some traces of Pagano’s “rejection”, his hushed speech, his battle against those who are possessed by the anxiety of becoming pioneers with some unplanned, unthinkable invention» (Borroni et al., 1987)5.

Time is the substance of every human event.

Many sociological analyses have shown how modern civilization depends on the precise scan of time, whether idle, social, or economic. Time is also a dimension and complex reality: a system whose overall behaviour contains properties that both derive from the cooperation of singular elements and are also completely extraneous to the elements themselves.

Time is a Latin word; the Greeks did not have a single word to indicate time, but rather many. Indeed, for them it constituted a complexity.

The high-performance capacity of humans to order the elements that surround us concerns the concept of time, but we barely scratch it. A Ciceronian tyranny of time is thus born6: In an attempt to discipline it, we crush it.

No form of organization can erase the discrepancy between the incessant acceleration of time and the constant slowness of humanity. A doubt arises à la Hamlet: to chase it or to stop, to act or to observe. Faced with the impossibility of providing a correct answer, it becomes possible to appeal to the Aristotelian in medio stat virtus – “virtue stands in the middle” – a continuous fight for the future, for evolution, improvement, which is halted, however, by the awareness that when we have all the answers, all the questions will have changed.

Like humans, “architecture can no longer keep up with the world”7 or with time.

The term architecture comes from Greek so it does not ignore complexity. Indeed, it is precisely complexity wherein lies the capacity to accept, organize, and enhance age as a resource, which we call “history”, or better yet, “memory”. The latter represents one of the main elements of design, on par with matter, light, and climate. At the same time, the stratification of past experience interprets the constituent phenomenon of the city, as well as the streets, people, squares, and buildings.

Only when a set of houses, volumes, buildings possess a history and a memory are we in the presence of a city and not just a place where simple, superficial aggregations occur. By means of these entities, a set acquires meaning and energy and thanks to this, new buildings, new parts of the city are also absorbed and metabolized by the urban system, in turn becoming the expression of the history.

«In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn; the tilt of a guttering and a cat’s progress along it as he slips into the same window; the firing range of a gunboat which has suddenly appeared beyond the cape and the bomb that destroys the guttering; the rips in the fish net and the three old men seated on the dock mending nets and telling each other for the hundredth time the story of the gunboat of the usurper, who some say was the queen’s illegitimate son, abandoned in his swaddling clothes there on the dock. As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands.  A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls. […] The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things» (Calvino, 1972)8.

On the one hand it would be titanic (if not impossible) and on the other hand useless (if not insignificant) to try to produce architecture that “does not age”, which is not subject to the passage of time, which is commonly and perhaps erroneously defined as current, contemporary. What architecture today could we describe as not current or not contemporary?

«Contemporary time is not the present, the here and now. Contemporary time entails a much more extended, rich, dynamic temporal nature. Contemporary time moves, and in moving, it moves our thoughts, the ideas we have about the world, our models, convictions, our ways of living. Contemporary time is a way of acting with respect to the present time, looking for a perspective that helps us understand what is around us. This means projecting ourselves into the future, but also looking to the past for ideas and works that shed light on the present» (Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, 2014)9.

It is easy to show how likewise contemporary – contemporary in the sense that they are alive – are the Pantheon and Torre Velasca, the Imperial fora and CityLife, the Parthenon and the Centre Pompidou. Even if the architectural project is formed in the present dimension, this dimension is none other than the profound union of the past with the future. Ancient and new cancel out by means of being fundamentally present.

«The fascination of the world’s past and the history of architecture therefore resides – paradoxically – in not being able to view and separate it from the flow of daily time, just as it is not possible to observe the layout of a labyrinth unless we are lifted above it, something that fortunately is not permitted in the rules of the game» (Purini, 2007)10.

Due to its nature, architecture cannot and should not constitute a consumer good. If so, it would go against its guiding principle: enduring forever.

Giancarlo De Carlo states: «When I design, “I design for forever” and it does not even cross my mind that what I design may last for only a short time. [...] Architecture is still one of the few custodians of memory. … I believe that if I did not design for forever, this would truly hinder me in being an architect, so I believe that all architects, even those that say the opposite, if they have quality and ambition, design for forever»11. Gio Ponti teaches us that «The past does not exist. Everything is simultaneous in our life and culture. Only the past exists. In it we recreate the past and imagine the future» (Ponti, 1957)12.

For antonomasia, architecture is a human product, the result of a thought that is first immaterial and then constructive, prepared to compete against the flow of time. Its fundamental characteristic is duration and, in particular, its performance throughout that duration: temporal continuity that elects a formal gesture in the place. It follows that every building possesses its own temporal dimension: it is not left to chance for those who experience it, but rather becomes the first object of the project. 

In this context, the user is an integral part of the building itself, representing a fundamental dynamic element. This concept imposes a revolution in canonical thought: the acceptance of a fourth spatial dimension that we define academically as time, which represents the essence of the same.

Time is not an “a posteriori of the place”, but rather a necessary “a priori”. While the concepts of space (and place) have assumed a central place in the architectural debate, especially following postmodernism and Deconstructivism, the variable of time becomes forgotten, weakened in its essence.

As some scholars have pointed out, there is no Genius Temporis, understood as the interpretation of the individual situated in a historical context, accepting the future in its essence, in the creation of the civilization, society, culture of a place. One cannot – and it would not be correct to – stop the flow of history and its passage.

This concept is worth even more for architecture as an interpreter and expression of a community’s demands, needs, and requirements, directing designers to trace out a decision-making path whose statute is based on the concept of “continuity”. Space and time are also objective quantities. In the heart of this relationship, the architect acquires an extraordinary awareness of the profound energy and opportunity to create time. Without being subject to it; rather, organizing it, ordering it, often creating it.

The architecture of time becomes an indicator to define, implement, and design a space, since it is an element that possesses times connected to physiological rhythms of use.

“The architecture is testimony to man’s aspiration to win time by raising the order in space” (Broch, 2016)13.

Spaces, times, and architectures blend in an indissoluble trinomial. They meet and once united cannot disentangle themselves or stretch independently, but rather contribute as one to shaping the theatre of our lives, constantly making the whole of our daily lives vibrate.

This is architecture.


1 Bloch, M. (1949), Apologie pour l’histoire ou Métier d’historien, Librairie Armand Colin, Parigi, in Bucci, F. (2020), “Giudicare o comprendere? Il senso della storia”, in Faroldi, E. and Vettori M.P. (Eds.), Insegnare l’architettura: due scuole a confronto, LetteraVentidue Edizioni, Siracusa, p. 73.

2 Marc Bloch, Thje Historian’s Craft, introduction by Joseph R. Strayer, Translated from the French by Peter Putnam, A Caravelle Edition, Vintage Books, A division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York 1953, p. 189.

3 Published in the United States in 1941, Space, Time and Architecture was translated for the first time by Hoepli in 1953. In 1965 it was republished in a version integrated and refined by the author himself. The work continues to highlight notable points of interest. For Giedion, architecture constituted the means of interpreting a historical period. His is a comparative approach borrowed from his education straddling art history and engineering that aims to identify relationships and parallels between architecture and technological and artistic development.

4 Faroldi, E. (2016), “Architettura contemporanea: elemento di dialogo tra eredità e ibridazioni”, Techne, Journal of Technlogy for Architecture and Environment, Vol. 12, Firenze University Press, Firenze, p.12.

5 Borroni, L., Coppola Pignatelli, P., Lenci, S. and Ostilio Rossi, P. (1987), “Tempo e Architettura”, in Borroni, L., Coppola Pignatelli, P., Lenci, S. and Ostilio Rossi, P. (eds.), Tempo e Architettura, Dipartimento di Progettazione Architettonica e Urbana, Università di Roma La Sapienza, Annale 1986, Gangemi Editore, Roma.

6 Translated literally, the Latin phrase “tempus fugit” means “time flies”. The expression comes from a verse in Virgil’s Georgics.

7 «Architecture can no loger keep up with the world» in Fairs, M. (2004), “Rem Koolhaas”, in Icon, available at: (accessed 15 august 2020).

8 Calvino, I. (1972), Le città invisibili, prima edizione Giulio Einaudi Editore, Torino. “Invisible cities” Translated by William Weaver English translation copyright © 1974 by Harcourt Brace & Company.

9 Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, P. (2014), “L’importanza di essere contemporanei”, Arte contemporanea: turismo e distretti culturali fra politiche pubbliche ed energie, Convegno per la presentazione del nuovo comitato italiano delle fondazioni, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Torino, 23 settembre 2014.

10 Purini, F. (2007), in Cervellini, F. and Partenope, R. (Eds.), Una lezione sul disegno, Gangemi Editore, Roma.

11For this and other related concepts, see: Salvi, R. (2016), Dentro l’edificio. Brevi considerazioni sull’architettura d’interni, Franco Angeli, Milano.

12 Ponti, G. (1957), In praise of architecture, Translated by Giuseppina and Mario Salvadori, Preface by Mario Salvadori, F. W. Dodge Corporation,New York 1960, p. 79.

13 Broch, H. (2016), La morte di Virgilio, Feltrinelli, Milano.


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