306090, It’s About Time, 2008
“It’s About Time: Dimension and Duration in Architecture”
Space and time, like language itself, are works of art, and like
language they help condition and direct practical action.
—Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization
Time is the means and ends of architecture at every dimension. If architecture is to be a vital protagonist in a complex world, a temporal idea of dimension, dependent upon our perception of time and space, is essential. This has great implications for the methodology, meaning and manifestations of design. In this formulation, the design process is grounded in an exploration of multiple durations of time that are present in a project. This fosters the development of architectural concepts that originate from and are even transformed by their relationship to time. The completed work—from its formal organization to its constructional details—communicates these ideas directly through use and experience.
Three recently completed projects are case studies that demonstrate the relationships between architecture and time at each scale of our work. At the smallest increment of time, architecture engages human perception, shaping momentary phenomena in response to the movement of the body in space. Over a longer duration, architecture composes program relationships spanning decades to constitute the function and identity of an institution. Unfolding over generations, architecture—conceived as infrastructure—defines processes of urban development. In the most successful designs, ideas developed in terms of the longest time frame include aspects of all the smaller durations. The result is a layering of qualities that encompasses the dynamism of life itself—from the individual act of inhabitation to the collective expression of urbanization.
In many projects we develop elements that create correspondences between a space and the momentary, hourly, and daily changes of an individual’s position, posture, and prospect. For example, in a residential interior on Manhattan’s Central Park West, we created a series of sliding screens, or panels, made of machined medium density fiberboard. These lattice-like surfaces are designed to mediate light and views. Program and space unite through carefully calibrated visual connections at the boundaries between entryway, dining room, living room and bedrooms. Transcending decoration, detail, program, structure or fenestration, the dimension of the screens are time/space dependent rather than time/space determinant.
Apertures in the screens occur at two different heights, which are related to the apartment’s program. Between the living and dining areas, two parallel groups, each containing three screens, allow for different combinations which can either separate or connect the spaces as desired. In one group, with a more porous area centered approximately 48 inches above the floor, views through the panel are permitted while seated. In the second group, apertures occur at approximately 66 inches above the floor, favoring views from a standing position. Thus the relationship between spaces changes contingent upon arrangement of panels and activities such as dining/sitting versus walking/standing. The operation of the screens also relates the room-like quality of the existing pre-war interior to a more expansive flow of space found in Central Park below.
At the dimension of the panel itself, the surface texture is a consequence of the interaction between two simultaneous patterns: graduated openings and rhythmic vertical grooves. The field of graduated apertures establishes a non-figural openness that activates the entire panel. The size of the openings varies from 1/8 inch (the diameter of the router bit) to 3/4 inch square. Overlaid vertical grooves vary in width, further breaking down the panel surface and catching light within. The faceted surface is edge-lit by recessed linear LED light fixtures that accentuate texture and depth. An unexpected effect occurs in the evening, as the illuminated surfaces of the screens are reflected in the windows, merging with the glowing windows of the tall buildings beyond.
Medium: Institutional Identity
At the dimension of rooms and the organization of space that constitutes a building, architecture has the capacity to define the purpose and identity of an institution as it changes over decades. We have designed additions and renovations to several academic buildings constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. In each case, program and site conditions had changed since the original building’s completion, resulting in a schism between the existing architecture and the mission of the institution. The most visible aspects of our projects are strategic interventions that alter the existing building at a critical location with respect to the internal organization and the external presence of the institution. We approach projects such as these in their totality, the old and new coexisting as distinct elements within an integrated composition. Internal function and external expression are intertwined; the dimension of the new relates to the dimension of the existing.
The Princeton School of Architecture is situated within the center of a liberal arts campus, forming one side of a quadrangle bounded by other academic buildings housing the philosophy, music and humanities departments. This location fosters interdisciplinary connections that mirror architecture’s role as a social art. The existing 1963 building, however, is clad in large expanses of brick and dark tinted glass that limit its potential to interact with its physical and social context. Within the School, a similar separation existed between library, studios, classrooms and other programs, each occupying different floors or parts of the building with relatively limited connections. Although the project includes interior renovations that repurpose some existing spaces to serve current work processes (such as digital fabrication), the most prominent element of the project is a transparent glazed addition that links the south (office/library) and north (classroom/studio) wings of the building. As the expression of the existing building is a concrete frame that serves as armature for the program, the addition is a window that defines relationships between the program and the campus by creating views between them.
Replacing a solid masonry entry portal between the north and south wings of the existing structure, the addition is a threshold between the scale of the surrounding campus and that of the School. The addition re-centers the School, joining all major spaces and programs in the building. It contains a two-story lobby, elevator, stair, and student lounge (Figure 9). The new construction incorporates the existing concrete structure and residual space between the north and south wings into new program space. The dimensions of the link were set by the plan and section dimensions of the existing building; the new spaces align with the existing floor levels and the rhythm of the exterior window bays. Large glass panels, with several different densities of ceramic frit in linear patterns overlaid like the folds of a curtain, comprise the envelope of the addition. The spacing of frit lines, which reflects the proportions of the window bays of the 1963 structure, filters daylight and frames views to the campus. Moving between entry, administration, library, studios, and classrooms, the addition is experienced as a light-filled caesura in the order of the existing building.
The growth of a city is measured in generations. Over time, urban development and inhabitation make every city a product of culture, whose particular character is also determined by specific circumstances including economics, geography, and climate. In response to this long duration, the role of architecture must be critically reinterpreted as a dynamic between form and process. This mode of urban design is in contrast to a finite, a priori master plan or a totally fantastic visionary proposal. This method is grounded in dimensions of the plot, the block, the street and the neighborhood, as well as the relationship between public and private spaces.
In the City of the Future project, the winning entry of a one-week design competition envisioning Manhattan in the year 2106, architecture is a framework for a process of development. Our proposal acknowledges its implementation over time, is intrinsically responsive to existing conditions, and maintains a density of development tied to the characteristic morphology of New York City. The basis of design is the assumption that sea levels will rise due to the loss of polar ice caps caused by global warming. The net effect to Manhattan will be a watermark increase of approximately one meter, with corresponding encroachment of the Hudson and East Rivers. Based on this scenario, two conditions were overlaid: the existing Manhattan street grid (set forth in the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811), and formerly low-lying wetlands susceptible to inundation (documented in Egbert Viele’s Water Map of 1865). In the areas along the coast of Manhattan flooded by rising sea levels, private property on the blocks disappears as it is covered in water. Simultaneously, the space of the street is reconstituted as a pier-like building or “vane” that defines a new public infrastructure for mixed-use inhabitation. At various locations at the new water’s edge, this process results in a transformation between open space and buildings.
Vanes are architecture as infrastructure. In concept, they are similar to the Manhattan street grid: an ordering device proposed in advance of demand. They are a mutable, habitable connective tissue, a matrix upon which the city can continue to develop. Their locations and dimensions are set by government authorities and local conditions. The extent of the area encompassed by the vanes is determined by topography and the inflow of water; the exact length of each vane is not fixed. Housing constitutes the majority of the program; a mixture of retail, office and other uses is envisioned. Each vane is loft-like—constructed as a reinforced concrete frame with generous ceiling heights and a thin section to promote cross ventilation. The structure of the vane enables a multiplicity of internal configurations and cladding alternatives. Interstitial service floors, single and double loaded circulation spaces, watercourses, and roof gardens are among the possibilities. The vanes increase the coastline of the city, bringing more people into contact with the water, incorporating New York’s nature into the life of the city, but they also extend the most well known character of Manhattan’s street pattern. Rather than a closed and finite urban design, vanes represent a dynamic process which combines urban requirements with environmental forces.
Our work encompasses a wide range of duration, from the days or seasons of a single residence, to the past and present of an institution, to the epochal span of a city. The projects described here are grounded in human activity, whether it is movement, program, or process. A multiplicity of experiences over time, at several scales, constitutes the meaning of each project. While each is a specific response to a particular situation, their designs are open to possibilities we cannot fully anticipate but which will inevitably emerge through use and over time. Every scale of experience is enriched by these possibilities. This phenomenon, whether it is measured in moments or generations, is fundamental to architecture that participates in the world.