If you order a Diet Coke at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, the buxom barmaid in her floor-length skirt is likely to put her hand on her hip and expostulate: “Diet what?! Never ’eard of it! We’ve shandy. Or a nice dandelion burdock.”
If you grew up near Birmingham, the experience offers a frisson of familiarity, for the Black Country Living Museum is that sometimes embarrassing artistic phenomenon: a historical reenactment. English pubs and churches, bakeries and shops have been preserved from a multitude of sites and brought together to capture an image, a photograph almost, of a certain place during a certain, significant period of its history: here, the West Midlands in its industrial heyday from the late 18th to early 20th century.
Such cultural manoeuvres have their fashion, and people generally have strong views for or against them. But the popularity of the Black Country Living Museum is a testament to something perennially important, and that is: that one has a physical relationship with the past. Photographs are one thing, and actors strutting their stuff as saucy Edwardian barmaids are another. But to stand where real miners and metalworkers stood – beneath a smoke-darkened ceiling of pressed tin, caught in the polished gleam of solid oak and centuries-old cut-glass – is to be swept up in the history that lives on through architecture.
It may strike one as a cliché – of course old buildings carry histories – but there is a larger matter to acknowledge about the relationship between architecture and the past: each time we enter a building, however modern, however shining, we are already moving through a determined space, caught in the moment of its concept, of its making, of its use. A completed building is, as its foundation stone wants it to be, fixed – anchored not just physically, but temporally.
One argument that the barmaid with her old-fashioned burdock drink is making is that whenever we enter a building, we are always stepping back in time.
The relationship between time and architecture is a complex one. Can we, for example, relate speed to our experience to structure? Are there fast buildings? Slow buildings? Any of us might suggest a few examples for either category – and not always happily!
Anyone who has worked on a project that requires accommodating the pressure of crowds in public spaces knows that there are definite mechanisms for hurrying people along, or slowing them down. Colin St John Wilson’s sunken piazza in front of the new British Library takes its visitors from the roaring traffic of London’s busy Euston Road and deliberately delays them with its wide steps and irregular plateaus. The architecture makes you pause. It makes you reduce your speed even before you enter the building proper. What the piazza does is prepare you for the sensibility of the library space. Or, we might say, library pace. It is architecture that slows you down.
It is these ways in which buildings permit the experience of time that I want to examine, both actual and, more suggestively, metaphorical time. And I want to begin to ask: if buildings do permit an experience of time, to what purposes might such an experience be put? How can we harness the power of what we might term “architectural narrative”?
Let’s begin in Osnabrück in Lower Saxony. The Felix Nussbaum Haus was the first of Daniel Libeskind’s buildings to be fully constructed, designed in 1991 to house the collection of the 20th-century German painter, Felix Nussbaum. It is a compelling building, and its three intersecting volumes carry a variety of narrative determinations, from its larger symbolic triptych of house, path and bridge to its deliberately metaphorical interiors of blind corridors, slashed windows and fragmented space.
As in many of Libeskind’s buildings, the architecture represents a kind of journey. But what first strikes one, even before one has begun to engage with the intricacies of the building proper, is the bold delineation of materials. For the three parts of the Felix Nussbaum Haus are made of strikingly different materials: the first part panelled in long strips of oak, the second a path of concrete, and the third a bridge covered in sheets of zinc. The best laid plans of architects can, experientially, be lost on visitors, who may be distracted by the myriad competing elements of function and form. But Libeskind uses a straightforward – and unmissable – inaugural gesture to dramatize the three parts of his building’s story. To move through his museum is to remember one’s initial sighting of it, and as such, the materials constitute a kind of narrative.
Frank Gehry once said, in a characteristically unfussed manner: “It seems to me that when you’re doing architecture, you’re building something out of something.” He went on to explain that what exists prior to the building – whether it’s materials or the city itself – is already rich with meaning: “There are social issues, there’s context”.1
Describing the plethora of new buildings near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in the 1990s, he was critical of an overly conservative approach: “The other new projects on the square, which are trying to be copies of the 19th-century buildings that used to be there, look pastichey and miss the point. They didn’t learn.”
Gehry’s language to describe the bank he’d been asked to design (and describing what any of us can learn from other buildings) is exciting.2 He talks about how “the scale of the moves I made on the façade of this building relates to Pariser Platz”. He also focuses on material. “The stone is four inches thick because the [Brandenburg] Gate’s stone is also very gutsy.”3 For his building to make sense, he needed to understand the way it would be shaped by the architecture of the past, not just as imitation, but as a set of historic principles – gutsy, large-scale – which could be adopted to make something new.
The material build of a structure is one way in which architecture can alter the nature of our experience, an experience we cannot help but understand in chronological terms, whether it is by association with materials of the past or by establishing a deliberate sequence of fabrics that tells a story.
Yet what is enclosed by all that material? There are equally in many buildings what we might call narratives of space. Indeed one of the most long-established aspects of public architecture is its connection to ceremony. Buildings do not offer a random sequence of possible movements, but instead cultivate a consciously hierarchical approach to them. Buildings have their own story to tell, and physical progress through them (as well as waiting and delay, to say nothing of restricted access) are ritualized events in which time and motion are made to carry symbolic meaning. Indeed, they are buildings that insist on a sensibility of time.
Let’s look to India for an example. Traditional principles of kingship in India were set down in a wide-ranging literature of princely education. Among the many theories that explain royal authority was the idea that:
sovereigns were exalted above ordinary mortals because of the magic power of royal ceremonies. The consecration was the most important of these since it infused the king with cosmic force. In the central rite, the abhisheka, or ceremonial bath, the sovereign was identified with a divinity such as Indra, the king of the gods.4
As the ritual, so the building in which it takes place, which itself becomes structured and designed to accord with proximity to the king, and by extension, to the divine. As George Michell writes:
Sun motifs appeared on the walls and ceilings of palaces, suggesting the beneficial influence of the heavens…. Gem-encrusted chhatries, or umbrellas, were held over the king as he sat on his throne…. [Their] multiple tiers indicated the ascending realms of the heavens.
That the king’s throne was intended as an axis mundi, or cosmic pillar, is demonstrated in the late 16th century at Fatehpur Sikri, where a massive monolithic column inside one of the royal pavilions supports a seat used by the Mughal emperor Akbar for private acts of meditation. The importance of free-standing columns dates back to the early Indian kings, who used them as emblems of power and as appropriate vehicles for royal proclamations.5
The monolithic column – as fundamental an architectural feature as we could wish for – becomes the very heart of the princely story. It is not just the place where power is wielded, but the architectural endpoint toward which visitors of state and envoys from other countries hoped to journey, moving nervously through outer precincts, through audience halls and private chambers, as they were gradually led through the royal palace to meet the king.
Palaces are not unique in this, though their formal scale lends itself to such complex paths. Indeed the papal palaces of Rome have a particular language to describe the size and sequence of rooms through which visitors had to pass. The more important such ambassadors were, the further they were allowed to advance and the larger the rooms became.
Apartments within the Roman palaces were arranged according to strict matters of protocol. Their typical layout suggests by the number, size and shape of the rooms, the stages of protocol necessary for daily life and social commerce…. Depending upon the ranks of the visitor and the occupant, after ascending the main stairway, the visitor would pass through several rooms, moving from the sparsely to the more elaborately furnished, before entering the camera d’udienza, or meeting room. The occupant (often a cardinal) would have his own room further away, to which only the most esteemed visitor would be admitted. The etiquette manual specified who was to meet whom in which room and what pleasantries were to be exchanged, who was to speak first, who was to bow, who was to be seated, how chairs were to be positioned, what were the appropriate sizes of chair and so on. Naturally the appearance of the palace itself as well as the size and decorations of these formal apartments were crucial to the overall meaning of ambassadorial receptions. Social, diplomatic, and ecclesiastical life was a matter of negotiation; art and architecture were crucial mediating terms in these encounters.6
Temples and churches carry similar narrative potency, as do buildings of government and judiciary. In the 18th century, proponents of the baroque encouraged a new ideal of movement through space. Architects and town planners laid public squares in Paris and Turin, improved street layouts in cities as convoluted as Rome and designed buildings marked by what one critic has identified as “an interest in movement above all, movement which is a frank exhibition of energy and escape from classical restraint”.7
Buildings became a kind of theatre, where the performance of the liturgy, for instance, became much more open, rood screens and chancels withdrawn and the venture from noisy street to high altar unimpeded, and all the more dramatic for being so.
The church building is a setting for mystery and ideology. . . Most Baroque churches pull the worshipper right off the street, transporting him or her from the brightness and noise of city life to a region of half light and incense. Although temporary benches would be set up toward the high altar for Mass, baroque churches were generally open spaces. Because the services were now, as a result of the decisions of the Council of Trent, orientated toward the laity or congregation, all those devices such as rood screens and chancels that gave priests their privacy when performing their duties were taken down so as to make the interior more like a huge theatre.8
Open spaces might seem less narrative, less determined. But what baroque artists strove for was an immediacy of emotional impact that reinforced the prevailing ideology, whether religious or political, as natural and inevitable. The story in a baroque church or palazzo becomes an unequivocal one, not so much free as singularly, perhaps ruthlessly, effective.9
My point is that in all such spaces, a story is told. There is no escaping the ascent of the stairs, the movement along the nave, the gaze drawn upward toward the dome, the apse, the pillar, the monumental edifice. One moves toward these things in a series of ever more powerful approaches, stopping at thresholds, identifying transitions from one defined area to another. Walking through architectural space is not like swimming across a lake or crossing a field. It remains, as it has so often been in the past, a highly ritualized movement through time.
There is a third principle I’d like to mention briefly in this examination of how buildings make us experience time. We have materials; we have the construction of space itself. There is also a sense of outlook that architecture provides. Buildings have, of course, in a variety of ways always had an understanding of prospect: from the pleasing room with a view to the highly symbolic importance of directing the human gaze religiously or politically in a particular direction.
But contemporary architects such as I.M. Pei have found brilliant solutions to the problem of competing with the past by taking the “view” as an integral part of their new buildings’ design. When you are asked to build near the grand palais that is the Louvre in Paris, how on earth do you respond? Pei’s solution was neither to compete nor capitulate, but to take it as a given that any new building has an inevitable relationship with those that have preceded it. With this idea as his starting point, his new entrance to the Louvre brilliantly draws visitors to its noticeable modernity, then surprises them inside by its self-effacing transparency. To descend the escalators of Pei’s glass pyramid is to be forced to cast your gaze upward toward the old palace itself. His showpiece allows the former showpiece its own importance and gathers up history as part of its modernity.
The Acropolis Museum in Athens does a similar thing, setting out its own expressive interest, while at the same time, subduing its importance to that of its unparalleled site, with glass floors and open spaces that provide constant views of the Acropolis above and ongoing archaeological excavation below. The addition of I.M. Pei’s exhibitions building to the German Historical Museum in Berlin has been similarly evocative of itself and of its neighbouring buildings. As Hans Ottomeyer, the director of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, has enthused:
The profound scepticism predominant among architectural critics and architectural professionals that architecture of quality may represent a disruption because it does not adapt to and fit in with the surrounding built environment, can be perceived as absurd in the context of Pei’s architecture. The facades respond to, reflect and resist the urban buildings and streets around them in a kind of dialogue. They open up new vistas and meticulously composed perspectives and images that have already become subject matter for postcards and souvenirs of Berlin.10
Postcards may not be our ultimate goal, but what a thriving testament to a building’s impact: a building that says not just “look at me”, but “look around you”.
We can agree then, I hope, that buildings offer a particular experience of time. I’d like to move on to consider to what uses such an experience might be put. If time matters, as it seems to in our hurrying world, and if a sense of history is thus an inescapable aspect of the human condition as we perceive time passing, how can architecture be used to help us understand that condition or improve it?
My interest is, as you might expect, cultural, for I’ve learned over the years how important it is for people to have a sense of time, to appreciate their own history and to connect that history to the many other stories to which it relates. You could say that, as the director of museum, I work with time.
And it is not an accidental content. To understand the cultural weight of museums as a few rooms of ancient objects set out to be admired is to miss their impact. People are moved by history. It is as if their place in the world demands that they make sense of what has gone before them. What museums permit – rather like the buildings of I.M. Pei – are perspectives on the past: they provide windows into the actuality of lives in other times and other places, and encourage a sense of connection to those lives. When museums communicate well – and it is here where architecture and design feature so strongly – they create sympathetic spaces, where what one gains is not just knowledge of past lives and other cultures, but an appreciation of their connectedness to our own.
Let’s retrieve some of the principles of architectural narrative I’ve examined and see what their potential might be for cultural communication. We know that materials carry cultural value. A bronze statue is different from a terracotta figurine, just as a marble column conveys a notably different message to a thatched roof. But the relative importance of materials is not an abstract or universal hierarchy. A building made of the local limestone or a particular shade of brick may be far more meaningful than the wished-for importance (one might say self-importance, at times) of imposed materials, however valuable they might be in worldly terms.
By extension, cultural architecture often benefits from being site-specific. One can think of any number of museums founded in a historic building, from the Fortress Museum of Vladivostok to the many civil war museums that dot the southern United States. Here, materiality becomes a larger principle: not just the building itself – bullet-scarred and embattled as it might be – but the very terrain is suffused with memory. We can remind ourselves that classical models from Plato to Quintilian for training the mind, especially for making public speeches, drew on architectural images as sites of memory: one placed the various “topics” in different rooms and so imagined moving through an intellectual argument as one moved through a building. What the rhetoricians understood was how deeply rooted, how unshakable, our sense of association with place is. You might forget any number of things – from your car keys to the plethora of passwords and PINs we all apparently need to survive. But one is never likely to lose the potency of a remembered space, the texture of wallpaper, the colour of a door, the slope of a roof.
In the largest sense, a cultural building can absorb an entire city, as the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising does. Here, a former tram power plant houses a busy array of interactive and historical exhibits about the terrible events of 1944. The material power of the building is its symbolic connection to the entire city of Warsaw: it both survives as a pre-war building and only exists (like so many others in the city) as a structure punitively bombed and extensively rebuilt.
Traditionally museums see themselves horizontally: their self-concept is one of spaces arranged for display. When one wants to grow as a museum, one wants an extra wing, a new building, more room. But a focus on the material reminds us that, like the layers of geology on which any building sits, museums can convey meaning vertically. Whether it’s a local stone, part of a surviving wall, or a larger context of land and cityscape, cultural architecture builds up from the layers of the past on which it stands and its meaning speaks from the historic material out of which it is made.
Spatial narrative poses different problems and unleashes different strengths in cultural buildings. It will come as no surprise that the familiar narrative of palace and church has to some extent been co-opted by museums. As one writer has said, museums are increasingly “places where society likes to come together and seek its own heart. Museums have inherited or secularised the religious or political ceremonials of the community.”11 And museum buildings, naturally, follow suit.
Indeed, one might argue that museums are buildings where architectural narrative finds its most suitable content. The traditional museum has to a large extent been chronological. Its subject is, at one level, the passage of time. You start at the beginning, whether it’s prehistoric tools or the first postage stamp, and you proceed to tell a story over time as you advance through the building.
Such chronologies are not, of course, inevitable, any more than is the architecture itself, which can offer more or less in the number of chosen pathways through the space. Other ways of organizing – or not organizing – museums have always been possible. When the German art critic and curator Wilhelm von Bode pioneered period-room displays in museums in the late 19th century, he wanted to get away from crowded cabinets where all sorts of objects were jammed together, as he said it, “like herrings, one above the other”.12
It is not just the spatial arrangement of the objects that defines a museum’s temporal argument. The building itself can constitute its own chronology. A mesmerizing example of a powerful building that does so is the museum of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Here is architecture that quite literally spans, with or without objects, 15 centuries of history, from its celebrated dome – seemingly “suspended by a chain of a gold from the height of the sky”, according to the Byzantine historian Procopius – to the solid buttresses of its many precincts. Even the most casual observer cannot fail to notice the contrasts of period, where Islamic calligraphic roundels are suspended next to Christian mosaics, and mosque and church co-exist simultaneously.13
Architecture in such a building is as powerful an expression of time as any rare artifacts a museum might choose to display. But we cannot build the Hagia Sophia! It is what it is by virtue of its history, not because we can imitate it. But architects have found various means to connect their modern buildings with the past, so that what is expressed architecturally conveys historical meaning without being itself historical. It is not the easiest of tasks, as Paul Cattermole has noted:
The conundrum that faces architects, artists and film-production designers alike when set the challenge of physically realizing our future, is how much to borrow from the past. For many this is a straightforward “cut and paste” exercise, taking existing historic or contemporary elements and combining or exaggerating them to create a distortion of both past and present. But this method does little justice to the essence of a culture’s architecture, its underlying ethos or the spiritual significance of its component parts.14
To recall Frank Gehry’s terms, they produce “pastiche” because “they don’t learn”. But there are wonderfully modern buildings that have a clear sense of historic time and place. Renzo Piano’s Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea, Melanesia, designed and built in the 1990s, presents a cluster of towers strung out along the line of the main complex. The towers are a reference to the Great Houses typical of Kanak culture, for which Jean-Marie Tjibaou had done so much to get international recognition. Piano took inspiration from many Kanak sources while avoiding any direct replication or objectifying closure, as if the Kanak people were somehow finished and his to exploit architecturally. His cultural sensitivity is vivid enough that he has left the ends of the towers open to “signify that the culture whose artifacts they exhibit is still expanding and evolving, rather than being a remnant of history”.15
That such historic reference is a living relationship is what preserves it from parody. A similarly nuanced approach can be found in the First Nations Garden Pavilion in the Montreal Botanical Garden, designed by Saucier and Perrotte in 2001. The pavilion stands as a modest intervention between a spruce and a maple forest, sunk unobtrusively into the ground, its undulating roof recalling a wisp of smoke through the trees. Much of the building projects its space outdoors, where even its exhibitions are often held.16 What begins as cultural reference modulates in successful buildings like these into a true connection to the history and the beliefs of the peoples they are striving to represent.
There are, inevitably, risks to such historicizing procedures. In trying to make sense of time, contemporary buildings can end up as pastiche, as we’ve noted, or even competing with the past. The Caen Mémorial in France aims to animate the history of the Second World War through a bravura mise en scène. Its austerely modernist facade is split in two by its dramatic entrance, a jagged crack symbolizing the terrible destruction visited upon Caen by the war. The galleries include a theatrically bare room containing a single, large projected photograph of Hitler, around which the electronically distorted sound of one his speeches is broadcast. The museum has had a great success for its innovation – war memorials are certainly not known for being lively. But its critics argue that it forecloses true memory, by reducing experience to spectacle. Instead of sympathetic paths for viewing and contemplation, the visitor is left unengaged, a voyeur rather than a participant in the historical exercise.17
It is not just the representation of time – architecturally, or in terms of design and display – that poses a risk. The power of authenticity I noted earlier, where the museum exists on the site of a historical event, can be troubled by the passage of time itself. Writing of holocaust memorials, James Young notes that remnants can be “mistaken for the events from which they have been torn; in coming to stand for the whole, a fragment is confused with it”.17 It is here that the perceptual nuance of architecture is required, finding a balance between displaying temporality and acknowledging – as Renzo Piano’s unfinished towers do – the world moving on around it. The point may be to enter time, rather than try to fix it – the very place where pastiche gets it wrong.
Indeed, one needs to acknowledge that buildings are not merely responsive to context. They alter the environments into which they are put. Arata Isozaki writes in an essay on architectural narrative that “new buildings should stimulate the creation of new contexts in their surroundings”. Whether defensive or aggressive, he argues, “once the struggle with the location is over, direct confrontation with the broader culture behind it becomes possible”.18 His understanding seems to me profound: the building exists as both initial intervention and an ongoing process through time, connecting it to people and place, “the broader culture”, as Isozaki puts it, that changes and is changed by it.
Related to this is the third way in which we see that architecture can present time. The buildings of I.M. Pei, or the new Acropolis Museum, take up the architectural gaze as a powerful means of gathering up time. They allow themselves to be excitingly modern, while benefitting from the beauty of the past, not through imitation, but through recapitulation.
We might imagine such procedures, where the visual is absorbed as a series of snapshots and moving pictures (for one is always moving past such perspectives in these buildings), as troublingly modern. Is it not emblematic of contemporary culture, this superficial insistence on the visual, the transient image, time as disappearance? Might it not be history as consumable heritage, rather than a meaningful communication of the past?
It seems to me that we must disagree on two counts. One is that myriad visual games on an architectural scale have been enjoyed by cultures across the ages. The very pyramids of Egypt are a kind of delight with shape and perspective, thinking on the largest scale about the eternal gaze. The 18th and 19th centuries – hardly “fast” cultures of the sort we are now nervous of – saw the rise of the panorama, a perspectival game in which cities, battles and seascapes were captured in the round, often housed in top-lit, purpose-built buildings specifically designed to transport visitors to another place and time.19
The second objection we must make is that people are who they are, whether they are visiting a school or a shopping mall, a bank or a leisure centre. When young people visit a museum, they are the children of X Boxes and websites, computer games and mobile phones. To refuse to speak their visual language would be patronize them in the worst sort of fashion. Even worse, it would be to lose their interest, to refuse to engage them. If architecture is to convey a sense of time and history to them, it must allow a measure of familiarity with all ways of looking. Indeed, in their strongest moment, the most successful buildings we encounter appeal to the widest possible experience of them.
All buildings are the playthings of time. On the one hand, as the Black Country Living Museum celebrates, they belong to the past. They have made their statement, chosen their materials, configured their space, established their views. They are complete and have entered history, evoking myriad associations from the very moment they first open their doors.
Nevertheless, buildings continue. They exist within cultures and environments, and as such, evolve over time. Buildings live, just as the people who use them live. They change, they age – and in this way, they belong to the future as much as the past. For an architect like Frank Gehry, there is no boundary between a building and life itself. Speaking of his love of the novels of Trollope and Proust, he confesses: “I hear the descriptions of the parties, and they’re architectural for me.”20
If life is architecture, then we can safely assume that the experience of time in buildings is as fundamental as any temporal awareness. But the particulars matter. Any sense of foreclosure – of history as pastiche or empty spectacle – deadens time rather than enlivens it. It may be a question of a relationship as much as representation. Buildings may be oppositional and striking, or modestly accommodating to their contexts, but ultimately it is those that make sense of an ongoing relation with the broader culture that thrive. Cairo’s eagerly awaited Grand Egyptian Museum looks to do just that, as much a vision of the past one can experience as a repository of it.
It is this feature of the living building that makes architecture such an exciting and important part of our lives. As Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.”21