Thoughts, Time and Architecture : Ar.Niranjan Gard...

Thoughts, Time and Architecture : Ar.Niranjan Garde

This article is an attempt to elaborate the relationship between ‘thought’ and the sense of ‘time’. It will explore what factors seem to influence our perception of time. With this introspection, comes the issue of how is the quality of perception (of things and architecture) related to time? Scientific approaches could be used to elaborate the above relation. However, I lay emphasis on the intuitive aspect and will attempt to take the reader along this journey by taking examples, which most of us may be able to relate. I will conclude by asking a series of questions, which the reader is encouraged to ponder and discover the answers to the same. There seems to be a strong relationship between the ‘scale’ of our thoughts, the sense of time it generates and the quality of our perception. We will attempt to understand this relationship by taking a simple example.

For this, we choose a setting where a community is staying for generations and the building typology has evolved over centuries of trial and error techniques. Consider Long Houses, or the Bhungas or any kind of ‘traditional’ architecture. What exactly do we mean by the word ‘traditional’ (or ‘vernacular’)? In trying to build a dwelling (such as a Bhunga), the inhabitant carries an impression of the traditional knowledge of building processes – hand skills required for putting things together and building the structure by an available material palette.

These considerations, in turn, are informed by ideas of social structures, cultural considerations, division of labor, inter-community exchange of skill sets, judicious use of natural resources such as water, climatic issues, privacy concerns, relationship with nature, cycles of maintenance and deep rooted responses regarding sustenance, belief systems and so on. The thought needs to consider the sand, wind, clay, water, wind, sun, flora, fauna, material, process, people, and the relationship of all these interdependent systems. In this complex (but not complicated) set of systems, architecture is thus, just a part of the whole. And therefore, the perception and the conception of architecture is not just spatially (and visually) driven, but encompasses a lot many parameters mentioned above – for these inhabitants and should also be considered for any fruitful architectural contribution by architects to them. Thus, the visual composition of form and space
manifested by the inhabitants (despite ‘looking visually quite ordinary’) has the ability to convey a range of meanings based on the depth of our understanding of the relationship of people to their ideas of perception and to their expression of ideas in architectural forms. The consideration of these parameters takes our gaze of thought beyond the visual and the response for architecture which gets generated, has a significant contribution of geography, history and at times – philosophy. Thus, our perceptions of spaces (as architects) is bound to change by our increasing  awareness of inter-relationship of different systems that generate architecture.

Thus, a naive judgement of architectural appraisal based on the sole criteria of visual aesthetics ought to be discouraged. Further, achievement of architecture, in terms of grandiose scale of projects or eccentric visual delights cannot be the sole criteria for understanding “appropriateness” or “goodness” of the intent of expression. Essentially, we are trying to understand ‘readings’ of spaces and ways to conceive architecture, and the argument is that the more we become aware of the inter-relationships of different systems, the more profound our ideas may be informed and may get manifested in architecture. It is quite natural, that in realizing the inter relationships of systems, we are now dealing with a different ‘scale’ of time – mostly pertaining to decades, generations or centuries, since manifestations of phenomena in terms of culture, beliefs, history, myths, religion, nationhood, and even the meaning of community, take enormous time. Thus, one of the questions to ask ourselves is: what we are seeing in front of us? Does it convey the complete picture?

Or does it relate to something far more different, if many parameters are taken into consideration for a longer period? Thus, we develop a tendency to take a deep pause before arriving at any kind of a judgement and initiate a response. Time is the key ingredient. By giving more time to understand and feel things around us, our perceptions may tend to become profound with meaning. We may start to arrive at some of the fundamental questions pertaining to ‘forward movement’, ‘development’, ‘vernacular’, ‘backward’, ‘traditional’, ‘sustainable’ and so on, since each of these terms
indicates a perception of space which is informed by our understanding of effects of time on the phenomena. Simply stated, by giving more time, we perceive situations, people and relationships differently thereby creating corresponding responses.

Let’s explore the reverse case, since it is an indicator of contemporary urban situation as regards to time. I wish to narrow my argument to prominent concerns of our time – digitization and its effect on time. Impact of digitization on our perception of thought, the way we choose to live and form our experiences, and our relationship with time is an extremely vast topic to explore and debate. Summarily it can be stated to be a perception that ‘time seems short’. This should prompt us to question – how did this perception get created and why do we seem to feel this? And what seems to be the effect of this perception on the quality of spaces we design or we live in? Digitization has many effects, which we will try to see now. I prefer to equate digitization with its nature of rapid change. Digitization is also connected with the processes of visualization, drawing-making and construction industry. It is also connected to the domain of management of any phenomena from micro scale (such as bio-metric thumb impressions) to mega scales (such as management of cities, infrastructure, and services). And importantly, it is also connected to dissection of any given phenomenon into infinitesimally parts, thereby generating enormous quantum of data and compelling us to be engrossed continuously in analysis – all in the name of ‘refinement’ or perfection or prediction. We are compelled to concentrate and base our analysis and response on the infinitesimal part (or the ‘moment’), rather than eternity. Since a moment changes fast, so do the dissected data generated by the digitization tool, thereby forcing our responses to change with the same rapidity.

The entire notion of our perception seems to only be concerned with the reality of the moment – since we have allowed the digital world to take control of the smallest components of time, on which we are basing our analysis and responses. Second is the aspect of increasing penetration and dissipation of information by virtual environments such as smart phones and the internet in our daily lives and its apparent changing nature characterized by replacement, displacement, transformation, modification and so on. The frame of reference in this virtual world seems to be changing and fluid. This has advantages as well as disadvantages on the nature of perceptions of reality. We will try to see what effect the above two developments (digitization and the internet presence) seem to have on our perceptions: Any concept, idea, issue or an understanding, which depends on a larger framework of time to evolve and be realized, has no place now to be aptly considered for discussion. This includes any idea or a concern or an understanding related to nature, ecology, geography, culture, society, nation, history, myth, and religion, a sense of community, collective wisdom, and hierarchical relationships and so on. Note that above terms indicate a larger reference of time to evolve and indicate an understanding of a relationship of different phenomena to create an idea or a concern or an understanding. Due to the compulsion of reducing our frame of reference to only a ‘moment’, it becomes difficult (and perhaps redundant) to consider complex set of inter-relationships of different systems of phenomena – thus forcing us to consider each part as a separate part (and not necessarily connected or related to the whole). This constitutes a change in perceiving our world now. All ideas, concerns and issues seem unique, separate, novel, and not inter connected.

The ‘whole’ picture is becoming increasingly fragmented, changing, complex. The individual reality or the idea of being distinct or separate supersedes the idea of the collective and the interconnected. These have bearings on our perceptions of nature, self and architecture. Architecturally, this means, we conceive spaces not necessarily considering the phenomena of culture, society, myth, religion, climate, traditional building techniques, ecosystems, renewal and so on. Our responses seem to cater only to the immediate and the individual tastes and not really trying to see how spaces can cater to a multi-functional and multipurpose use for the family or the community or even for those stakeholders or participants of space creation, whose voices are rarely heard or acknowledged in the processes of interventions, planning, and designing. The decisions may not be considerate to the subtle effects of climate, geology, history, tradition and so on. Thus, the nature of spaces is not becoming ‘inclusive’ of many parameters. This brings to the forefront regarding the changing identity of community spaces, neighborhood spaces, social and cultural spaces within the city, multi-functional zones in the city and so on. Spaces seem to be conceived only to be enjoyed by a few, its huge carbon footprints denting our delicate relationship with nature and abused at will by few people with little care for others. One does not seem to care about the aspect of sustenance and renewal and perhaps it is casually assumed that anything can be built overnight without the slightest regard for utilization of energy and anything can be brutally bulldozed with equal speed by constantly shifting priorities catering to individual whims and fancies. One need not be responsible for the ‘greater good’, one need not be answerable and one need not be concerned about analyzing one’s own creation.

Of course, there are advantages in this change of our perception and our tendencies of concentrating on the moment (or the “now”), some of  them being – “newness” to look at the same phenomena in extremely divergent perspectives (which need not be converging), breaking and challenging hard set belief systems born out of tradition, culture, breaking hierarchical dispersal of knowledge systems and a constantly changing focus. However, I argue that such tendencies to concentrate only on the ‘moment’ and the resultant expression of this tendency towards a ‘distinct’ or ‘separate’ response is to be seen critically, since it may disconnect our relation and responsibility to nature, thus causing serious harm to the environment and us. This is at the crux of the problems we seem to face today. The requirement of inclusive thinking, and wider and longer view of the situation is dependent on the frame of time. Changing digitization tools also means changes in the way things are done.

This means new ways of execution, but also means disruption of traditional skill sets. Since traditional systems of thinking, place reading, conception, hand drawing, negotiating with building masons, the actual building process itself were slow, the nature and the process of design had to cater to these parameters. With increasing use of software technology in the processes of drawing and execution, our thinking pattern, and its relationship to different aspects of idea creation, to the people and to the processes of execution are also affected. Question to be asked is whether effects of traditional skill of spanning and construction need to be considered or not? Should we be dependent on slower and local building techniques of execution, when much quicker alternatives are available? Do we need to feel concerned about empowering local skills, craft based occupations through the medium of architecture by giving an opportunity for such skills to manifest in our design or a quick, efficient, standardized solution bulldozing generations of wisdom is the correct way of going forward? Do we really need to go to the site to ‘feel’ its nuances or can our feelings be informed only by virtual data? What is the approach towards maintenance?

The question is, what do we seem to achieve by faster mode of thinking and execution? What do we gain and what subtle clues from the environment do we get, when we deliberately attempt to slow down our responses? These have repercussions on how we think about ourselves, our environment, the choice of material palette and the carbon footprint on the ecosystem that our proposed designs generate. And finally, there is the aspect of ‘memory’. Our changing perceptions about time scale affect the nature of our memories as well. With the changing nature of our memory, we see ourselves differently, perceive spaces differently and have different priorities to  consider – all this is a subject matter of another article someday.