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Feeling Time in Space: How Architecture Is All About Time

Recent architectual investigations include subjective time.

 Marc Wittmann
The Abbey of San Galgano in Toscana, Italy, as depiction of space and time.
Source: Marc Wittmann

Architecture is concerned with space. Architects have learned to envision and construct buildings. A building is describable as three-dimensional object in space. A drawing on paper, a computer animation on screen or in virtual reality, and the real object are witness to this fact. At first glance this exclusive perspective of architecture on space seems self-evident.

However, a few considerations show us that ‘time’ is inseparably connected with built space. At least three temporal aspects are important. There is, first of all, the influence of space on the experience of time passage. Second, there is perceived duration of the age of a building, the realization of long stretches of time that results from the alterability of the world over years or millennia.

Finally, there is the aspect of timelessness of the design principles of architecture. Beauty is essentially human; it transcends the individual. People of all ages were exposed to the same existential constraints which are reflected in architecture. These three points lead us to conclude that the architect is a builder and designer of time and space.

(1) Experienced time

Over the static drawing of a floor plan my eyes and fingers wander in time. In the computer animation of a future residence I fly through the rooms. I comprehend the whole only by exploring the animation across time. When walking through the rooms of the building I feel the time it takes to explore the house. It is a physical experience when I'm out of breath climbing and descending the stairs. Space, time, my body. Architectural space.

If it is a waiting room in a clinic or a public space, it is in a very direct sense a space of time. Waiting means having a direct experience of time. Read my blog on our study of how people feel the passage of time in a waiting situation: Who is afraid of waiting?

Scholars of architecture are now starting to explore how different features of a room have an effect on the felt passage of time and experienced duration. For example, Shokofeh Darbari, a student of architecture at MIT in her thesis Space is the Now; Now is the Time! has started to study the effects of lighting and shape on subjective time.

Studies are indeed showing how people estimate their waiting time depending upon the design of the room they are in. Narrow spaces without the possibility to direct the gaze into a distance, be it through a window into nature or a picture, throw us back on ourselves and the waiting situation we are in. We pay more attention to the elapsing time and time stretches.

A space with escapes that allows the feeling of vastness creates a future perspective that distracts us from ourselves and allows time to run faster. This is the direct experience of time in space. Read my blog on how the sense of self is related to our sense of time passing: The case of boredom: Enduring empty time.

In this context, as I have summarized elsewhere, healing environments need both types of space: Large open space permitting perspectives, but also individual and confined space to allow the retreat of a patient. Patients should be able to change spatial (and thus temporal and personal) perspectives: the wide spatial opening for a larger perspective; a confined space for the feeling of safety and retreat. Having both options available results in a feeling of control that may well lead to stress reduction. Architectural space as planned according to the changing needs of patients has a healing potential.

(2) Time as sensing the age of a building

The architect Juhani Pallasmaa writes that contemporary architecture is too much fixated on the visual sense. Today, buildings are often designed as if they were snapshot-like visual images. In modern architecture, uniformity of light and color as well as flatness of materials often prevails. The person actually living in the house does not appear in this polaroid photo concept of a building (that is flat time). In contrast to this stands a building as experienced across time, embodied by man and his needs, expressed through haptic surfaces, through changing light situations, and the conscious inclusion of weathering, wear and tear (that is deep time). A house is a place of life that accompanies the inhabitants across their life. A home is lived time of decades for one person and beyond for many generations. This means that people's lifetime must be taken into account, and not just functionality, if architecture is to survive as a place for humans to live in.

This is what Kevin Nute from the University of Oregon is investigating. According to him, indoor environments should evoke positive associations with an individual’s past, present, and future for generating positive affect, essentially for feeling at home. Features such as an indoor hearth may remind us of a nostalgic past. By introducing weather generated movement of light, wind-animated shades or rain on glass roofs we stay engaged with the present. Built-in vistas and prospects make us look forward in time, they let us image a future. Architecture is thus about built time.

(3) Timeless design and construction

To say it with the philosopher of architecture and art Karsten Harries: A place of residence is not only the delimitation of space as a bulwark of security to the outside (my home as a shelter). It is a means of protection against the "terror of time", our existential vulnerability, ultimately related to our own death. Our home makes us forget our existential fragility. See my blog on The taboo of death where I elaborate on how we face personal death.

Here is another thesis by Harries: The language of beauty is the language of a timeless reality. Timeless here means that design and building ideally follow principles that are not tied to a particular fashion or epoch. The feeling of protection against time and space is bound to principles that can be found in every era. Of course, epochs differ in aspects that determine culture. That is reflected in the history of art. But there are underlying design rules for successful architecture which are timeless, i.e. enduring, and which can also be found in successful contemporary buildings. This is the task of the respective new generation of architects: Find these timeless design principles.

Several people helped me shape this essay. Most notably, the Munich architect Jakob Bader who pushed me to summarize these ideas, MIT architecture student Shokofeh Darbari who built her thesis on the idea of measuring subjective time in space, and University of Oregon Professor at the Department of Architecture Kevin Nute.

References

Harries, K. (1982). Building and the terror of time. Perspecta, 19, 59-69.

Nute, K., & Chen, Z. J. (2018). Temporal cues in built environments. International Journal of the Constructed Environment, 9(1), 1-18.

Pallasmaa, J. (2012). The eyes of the skin: Architecture and the senses. John Wiley & Sons

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