Slow Architecture – Linger, Savour, Touch
Architects Thoughts on Time in The Design, Construction and Use of Buildings
Brian T. O Brien, Solearth Ecological Architecture
What is the one thing that you want more of in your work, right now ? Tell me quickly. It’s probably not more projects, but it’s more than likely, if you are anything like myself, more time.
Ask a craftsman or quality builder and the answer will probably be the same. We long for another hour to examine that concept further, a moment to refine a detail, more time to allow the best, instead of the fastest, craftsman complete the job.
The world is fast. Acceleration, in temporal terms (speed) and in material terms (growth) is the orthodoxy of our age and progress has become synonymous with speed. Indeed speed itself has evolved from noun to adjective and, because speed (ie fastness) always implies progress, slow seems to imply stagnation and inertia. We live in accelerating times and architecture no longer stands still.
Architecture (both design and construction) exists at the intersection of culture, finance and technology and is as influenced by time as they are. This fastness in architecture seems more irresistible both due to the push of finance, and to the pull of technology. Backing for most projects come in some form with a time constraint. Interest rates, and the rise in site prices ascribe a value to each moment, and our buildings must respond. We are also pulled toward speediness because it is possible. Technology speeds up tasks and, in theory at least, increases precision- but still our designing produces buildings that lack grip, lack traction in time.
Speed infiltrated architecture when the eye became dominant, when space, as seen and photographed rather than felt, rose to epitomise a new architecture- the modern. Concern for the visual experience of space often through light is inherently visual and thus by definition less haptic than other architectural concerns. Being most appreciable by the eye it tends to the instantaneous, and inclines away from the layering of time that addressing the other senses allows. In fact the dominance of the visual in architecture (by over emphasis on spatiality) disconnects us from the passage of time and fulfils it’s own prophecy- that our buildings will not stand it’s test.
Wooed by the charm of increasing speed we overlook the inherent slowness required for design and for craft, and become reactive. Constantly harried, we lack the intellectual space for reflection and perspective and the temporal space for experience and skill-building.
Lack of time during the ‘creative phase’ of design and building harms not just the architecture but also impoverishes the ‘experience time’ of the user. If the building has not been built up slowly, layered in thought and craft, it lacks weight and denies the ability to mark time, to deepen experience. Pallasmaa writes that ‘architecture must acknowledge and respond to the .. archaic dimensions of the human psyche’-it must slow down perhaps.
In his book In Praise of Slowness, Carl Honore examines the consequences of our antagonistic relationship with time and highlights the benefits of slowing down, pointing to the fact that in Italy the voraciousness of fast food and loud cities are being countered with slow food and slow city initiatives. Slowness is a progressive revolution, a philosophy that optimises both the advantages of technology and the pleasure of reflection. It finds new resources, new energy, and efficiency, unexpectedly, in slowing down.
Slow architecture is the enchantment of form born of a process, where the site has been explored intimately, where dialogue with users and neighbour has been carried out with patience, where the design has flowered slowly, and where construction has been carried out at the pace of human skill. Its affect is that the building is enjoyed not just inhabited, and that the passage of time adds a sense of delight, not decay, to the architecture.
Slow architecture re-awakens our sense of wonder and heightens our sense of the eternal. Palasmaa, in his Six Memos essay, quotes Karsten Harries on the importance of aesthetics, a pre-occupation that has never been far from genuine architectural pursuit but is even more important in slow architecture, where fashion must be rejected in favour of specificity and the revealing of the essentialness of craft and construction, “the language of beauty is the language of timeless reality” he argues. The Japanese notion of tarnished beauty Wabi Sabi, the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and even incomplete, may hint at how slowness and beauty can intertwine.
Perhaps then there is one kind of slowness at the design stage-the slowness of thinking.
So much of design is about pace, about investigating and understanding the question, about following intuitive as well as logical paths of enquiry. Time is needed to make mistakes and to recover from them. It is needed to allow for the reflection, awareness and contemplation that is at the heart of the design process, for the pro-activeness and clarity (Buckminster Fuller’s ‘comprehensive anticipatory decision making’) that is so vital to generating a lasting work. Alain Findeli, who has written on slow architecture, argues that designers must become pro-active and that, to do so, must reject the Bauhaus model of design and embrace a model that balances visual intelligence (perception), action (technological, infused with a moral awareness) and an aesthetic logic, in what might be a reflective rather than a deductive process perhaps.
The reward for slowness in designing is sometimes inspiration, a seemingly instant and timeless (fast one might think) insight that ‘solves’ the ‘problem’. In fact real inspiration is the outcome of reflection and investment over time in curiousity, open-mindedness and refinement. And even after an answer presents itself, design still requires reflection and improvement, in an iteritive cycle of decision and reflection. In fact architects make between 5 and 10 thousand decisions on a project, the vast majority, become convincing to ourselves (and give us the conviction to champion them) only when we allow ourselves the mental space (time) to reflect on them.
My own favourite slow architecture experience occurred when I worked for the design section of a poverty relief organisation in San Salvador in the mid 1990’s. I took a year to design an 8 classroom kindergarten. From todays perspective this seems ridiculous, until I remind myself that it took 2 days to get a black and white photocopy, one phone line was shared between 150 people (applications in duplicate in by 9am) and that the office had to be vacated by 4.30 pm, since the neighbourhood was dangerous after twilight, all of which did tend to slow everything down. The constraints on doing did not militate against thinking though and the outcome was a gloriously long design period where I was able to consider, reconsider and come to conclusion, on every aspect of the building. The advantage to the user was that, through the luxury of having the time to really experience the site, talk to the users (in slow broken Spanish!) and meet the international funders, the building evolved into a community centre and sports hall (as well as serving it’s original purpose), survived the recent earthquakes and was constructed exactly as drawn without one architects site visit (I had impatiently left the organisation prior to commencement ! but visited after completion).
There is also slowness of making- the slowness of doing. Most of the buildings that we may consider slow, the victorian pubs of Dublin or Corbusier’s La Tourette are so because they continue to weather but show few signs of wear, they age as if crafted to do so. Their form may evoke a timeless emotion in us it's true, but the slowness is enshrined because their form, material and detail are crafted not just constructed, made to weather not proofed against it. Slow things are made slowly, crafted. One thinks of the first grandfather clock which took two years to make, or cathedrals such as Chartres which took 100, not to mention Gaudi’s, still under construction, Sagrada Familia in Barcelona , perhaps the very epitome of slowness and stillness.
To engender this care, society has to accept the investment in time that apprenticeship of whatever kind, in craft is a necessity. Time is needed to allow for the repetition, refinement and the deepening of experience that increases skill and fosters craft. It takes time to achieve mastery in a craft, to embed the touch and rhythm of expertise in the craftsman’s body. And even after mastery the building makers need time to apply this skill to each building, to give them the substance needed to address the passage of time, the complexity of use.
Sensuality and Materiality:
Some of the emphasis on this comes down to the dependence for slowness on materiality. Materiality is the architectural aspect that does ‘enslow’. It is more bound into time and memory than space and form. Surface can stimulate the ear as well as the sense of touch, while materiality may tickle our sense of smell and trigger the anticipation or memory of taste.
The substance, especially the thickness, of a material creates echo, the memory of sounds past and the anticipation, or dread, of sounds in the future. Form, made of substance, suggests shadow, the permanence of solidity and drama. It allows age be registered in crack and scratch, in stain and streak. The erosion and deposition that marks seasons and weather are registered as much by hand and nose as by the eye.
Slowness is interconnected with uniqueness- the specificity that comes from improvisation, repetition and ongoing response to context. Christopher Alexander’s ‘timeless way of building’ strives to both universalise the typology of experience and to contextualise the setting for it. He has tried to develop contractual arrangements with builders that enshrine the flexibility to change the design, during construction, in response to new opportunities that emerge from the site, the season and the construction process itself. Bespoke solutions grow both from reflection in intention (design) and flexibility in execution (craft), and are the backbone of architecture. Slowness accepts change and uncertainty.
Since slow architecture must concern itself with the specific and the local, there may be overlap with ‘sustainable’ design. Many aspects of sustainability, like architecture itself, evolve from age old concern with place, and are rooted (often through lack of money) in use of local, natural materials; stone, earth, lime, materials that incidentally wear, uniformly, and warmly.
Another aspect of sustainability is of course the design of structures to fit their climate. A street in Naples is narrow and tall for shade, while a long house in the pacific islands is tall to encourage ventilation, and while tempering the internal conditions these approaches also prevent the building decaying so quickly, again providing some of the durability and slow change that our sense of time calls out for.
And there is the slowness in occupying and experiencing the building, the slowness of being. A building that is designed slowly and envisaged specifically for its situation and that is made with care, using materials that have substance, can deepen our sense of being here. It can decelerate our sense of time, stretching moments and making experiences more special, more ritualistic and delightful. The user inhabits such a building and over time comes to regard it as another layer of himself, revealing or adorning it’s detail and substance, apologising for its patina or wearing it’s changes proudly. Over time the user responds to the slow building, appreciating its subtlety, detail and even personality, the very ingredients the slow design stage sought to imbue. The users experience the slowness of the silent note hanging after a sonata, the echo that outstays the cry.
Finally there must be a slowness of development, or perhaps a more appropriate pace of change, an evolution rather than a revolution. The desire to constantly reinvent and overturn bodes as ill for person as for planet and abrades against our minds clock. On leaving Amsterdam’s central station on a winters evening one is struck by two conditions, quietness and darkness. The city traffic is mostly silent, boat, tram, bicycle and the street lighting all shines downwards (emphasising the ephemeral canopy of twilight), and appear to be at least 50 years old-they indicate rather than illuminate. Because the lighting works, and because it was high quality when first made, it remains, resisting fashion and, in this, redefining it.
The slow development encourages harmonious change; the acclimatised plant emerging from the patient cultivation of the gardener, not the mono-functional hybrid that’s modified by the geneticist. Contentment is the tendency to be satisfied with what is, and what works and the resistance to change simply for the sake of change. Slow architecture must engender contentment.
So if the preceding examines how slow architecture may emerge, is there also a question as to how it might endure ? Perhaps the discipline of architecture and it’s brother fields of construction and craft can redefine how we are remunerated, aligning our future with that of our creations a little more - slow fees.
Slow fees would take the building’s fate and fortune into account, sharing the risk and expressing confidence in the building. They might be structured so that parts of our reward comes as a commission on each re-selling of the building, sharing its rise in value, or perhaps structured as royalties levied on any savings on the regular costs of maintaining the building. In this way our interest and involvement in the building endures in time.
Slow architecture might then be summed up by the following principles:
- Sensuality and Materiality
It would be the creation, appreciation, and enjoyment of all that is careful, that is textured and that stimulates the senses - and the sense of time, in buildings. Slow architecture would ‘enslow’ our senses, our thoughts, our movements and actions. It would add to the delight of our day by deepening a sense of being here; being present and being grounded-through the way the building has been created, is used, and ages.
Ideally slow architecture will not become a style or school of formalist design. Its power is as it verb and adverb rather than noun or adjective. Slow architecture should evolve into an approach to the ‘doing’ of designing, building and inhabiting architecture, a philosophy of ‘how’ rather than a manifesto of ‘what’.