The Hidden Dynamic of Time



Edited by Rebecca Falazno
Photography Trent Bell

So much of architecture is about three dimensions. Architect Elizabeth Newman reminds us of a fourth.

According to architect Elizabeth Newman, while buildings are largely static, our experience of them is not; people and the environment interact dynamically with structures, moving and changing over time. “Construction drawings are packed with information,” says Newman. “You look at them and see walls, windows, and measurements—but they are static, too. So unless you do some intense 3D modeling, you have to imagine the one critical dimension of the design process that you don’t see.” And that is the element of time.

Q: How does the element of time translate into architectural design?
A: Envision moving through a house you know. People follow light intuitively, and natural light is the most significant environmental factor in design. Architects not only compose rooms and spaces to catch or moderate sunlight and open to views at strategic moments but also arrange elements such as windows, doorways, and paths of movement to draw people through the house, from one space to another.

As sunlight moves through spaces over the course of the day and the seasons, the shadows and the intensity of light are changing constantly. The path of the sun was traditionally a major determinant in the siting, orientation, and forms of buildings because it provides heat and light. Technology at times has replaced some of that, but as sustainable design becomes the norm, we are returning to sun-based design and learning to put technology in its service instead.

Q: Architects have been following light in their designs for centuries now, haven’t they?
A: During a summer of giving tours at Nôtre Dame in Paris, I learned that the main designer and builder, Abbé Suger, was part of a group of mystics searching for transcendence in the qualities of light passing through colored glass. Over the course of the day, warm tones in the glass amplify morning light, and blues mute the afternoon light to the south and west. For this, Suger devoted his life to making the cathedral, and today the play of light and shadow, and the materiality of that place, still moves people. To persist as an architect, you have to have some of that need to create compelling spaces.

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, there is a town whose buildings have deteriorated, leaving behind only pipes and plumbing fixtures. Throughout this city, women sit combing their hair in bathtubs suspended in midair. Early in the design of a space, I like to imagine being suspended in open air exactly where that room will be, and then design the enclosure in relation to that spot, those views, that changing light. You can get this feeling by taking a ladder to the site and sitting where a bed, dining room, or favorite chair might be later on. But remember to stay there for a while, or come back at a few different times of day.

Q: How does understanding architectural history and conservation—that is, dealing with the effects of time—play into design?
A: There’s no substitute for design practice, and we all have to put in our ten thousand hours of that, but many other experiences influence architects. My design work is contemporary, but I keep one foot in the door of old buildings. Before starting my own practice, I spent a year documenting every stone in the main space at Grand Central, rappelled down tall buildings in Manhattan inspecting façade conditions, traveled through France climbing dozens of scaffolds on tenth- to twentieth-century buildings under restoration, and helped rebuild the stone walls of a medieval village in Provence. I keep in mind what the elements, and people, can do to a place over time.

Q: How do you incorporate this knowledge into your work?
A: Some of the most challenging work in architecture is weaving together new and old, changing and adding respectfully to great historic buildings with new work that stands on its own. For the past few years, I have worked with the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust on the conversion of the Patan Royal Palace Complex into an architecture museum. Along with the restoration work, the team has a lively ongoing discussion on approaches to the design of new elements, large and small, within this complex whose elements date from the third century AD through the mid-twentieth. “Appropriateness” is a key concept. Copy? Rarely. Contrast? Maybe. Blend in subtly? There is no formula—if it’s good enough, it’s appropriate.

This long interaction with historic buildings has strengthened my conviction that a building should speak clearly of its own time. But whether you choose to respect or reject history in your design, it always helps to understand it. One of my current projects is a superinsulated solar-powered house with a green roof; another is an addition to and renovation of a nineteenth-century brick town house in Portland’s West End. The same design ideas apply to both: listen to the owners, draw from the site, and go beyond functional requirements to create compelling places that capture the movement of light and stand the test of time.

To design buildings that not only look great but also hold up over time, it helps to know how others have solved the problem of durability, and to see how well those details have held up. We all appreciate how time brings out a building’s character: the weathering of cedar shingles, the patina on a stone, the curved ridge of an old barn. But I also keep an eye on how time brings deterioration: wear and tear, leaking roofs, cracking foundations—and I’m intent on making buildings that last.

The forms and functions of historic buildings like the palace complex in Nepal have a long backstory. That museum-to-be has already gone from royal residence to tax collection office to prison. Working on this kind of project is a constant reminder that any work I do is an intervention at a point in time, and probably not the last one. Some new buildings become untouchable icons, but most change with time. Recognizing that whatever you design is probably going to be altered in the future keeps you humble—which is not a bad thing.