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Time to move
Explorations of time and architectural experience
More weird stuff I’ve done
For better or for worse (and I think it’s both, really), we human beings are preponderantly visual and spatial. Our language is filled with spatial metaphors. We imagine stories and ideas in space. Even when we try to think about time, we end up thinking about it in spatial terms. It’s hard to imagine any way of thinking about the passage of time other than as a kind of arrow with spatial extent, moving from the past to the future. Our lives are infested by geometry. By virtue of some fairly innocuous neuro-diversity, I think that I’m somewhat more aware of this than many. I’m stereo-blind. What this means is not, as one wag once suggested, that I’m incapable of locating my JVC receiver, but that because of some childhood aberrations, I don’t enjoy completely conjugate gaze (i.e. my eyes don’t quite both point in the same direction) and, as a result, I don’t have what’s called stereo-vision (1). This is not as bad as it sounds. In fact, though I was well aware that my gaze was not quite right as a child and that it had been surgically repaired at a time when such procedures were not as precise as they are now, I didn’t know that I was stereo-blind until about the age of 18. I had applied for a summer job at a factory that manufactured enormous sheets of glass. As part of the intake interview, I had undergone a medical exam (this is the first time I remember being asked to turn my head and cough, as men sometimes are. I thought it was a test of lung function and didn’t understand why the doctor was holding onto me in such a strange and intimate fashion….). When the nurse checked my vision, she administered a standard test of stereo-vision in which you are shown two different images, one to each eye, and asked to fuse them so that you can answer questions. I absolutely could not do this and tried for a minute or two to madly alternate vision from one eye to the other to accomplish the task. The nurse was mystified by my inability. In fact, I think she suspected that I was malingering or perhaps a little thick. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job and that’s why I’m here to write to you rather than just a sad memory of someone who lost his head in a bizarre accident in a glass factory.
This might have been one of the reasons that I was attracted to a scientific problem, my very first serious tangle with science, which involved understanding how Mongolian gerbils perceive the world in three dimensions (2). Gerbils, as it turns out, carry out a peculiar little set of movements before completing tasks that require them to know how far they are away from things. In my lab, this meant that gerbils were trained to jump across gaps of varying sizes while I measured their performance with a lot of tedious video tracking. Just before they jumped, gerbils waggled their heads up and down (in a burst of creativity that I’ve regretted on occasion when I’ve described this work at parties, we called these movements “head bobs.”). I spent a crazy amount of time in my 20s studiously measuring, and thinking about these little movements and, over time, I noticed that many different animals made them—certain lizards, cats, owls and even under some conditions, human beings. I will admit that with my new-found scientific knowledge and my burgeoning awareness of my stereo-blindness, I engaged in a little head-bobbing myself (3). The beauty of the head-bob is that by moving one’s head a little, one can gain two different viewpoints on an object. It’s a little bit like stereo-vision but using a time rather than a space domain (4). It can either supplement or replace the real kind of stereo views of the world.
As a part of my historical research for the thesis I would eventually write about head bobs, I encountered the writings of Hermann von Helmholtz for the first time. Helmholtz was a magnificent figure, remembered for accomplishments in physics, physiology, and psychology. In one passage of his magnum opus, the three volume Treatise on Physiological Optics, Helmholtz talked about the contribution of motion to depth perception. Think, he says, of an experience that you might have as you walk through a forest. You stand still and look up at the canopy of leaves and branches above you and you see a complex mass of green shapes. Take a step forward and notice how your own movement helps to sort out the contours of the forest. By virtue of your own movement, things fall into a certain kind of order.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that my first reading of that snippet from Helmholtz, and the context of my work at the time, has been kicking around in my cranium ever since (5). When I’m hiking through woods, I still remember to look up from time to time just to experience that extraordinary unfolding of the forest that is brought about by the combination of my own footsteps with the scene above me.
I don’t study depth perception anymore, at least not directly, but I’m still very interested in how our own movements influence how we experience the world. And though I don’t often bob my head, I’ve become more and more fascinated by the manner in which my own movements transform my experiences. One way of describing this might be to say that I’ve become fascinated by time as well as space.
Goethe didn’t have it all going on
Johann Heinrich Lips, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
For some years now, I’ve been interested in our psychological relationships with the things that we build, whether they be parks, buildings, houses, streets or cities. Though I think the project is just barely getting underway, I do think there are some possibilities for advancing our understanding of ourselves and possibly building some better stuff along the way (6). But one of the things that has been bothering me about much of this work is that so much of it is couched in the formalisms of space, shape, and geometry and not enough of it addresses the problems of time. In this field, the only pithy quote that is repeated as often as Winston Churchill’s old saw about how we shape our buildings and then they shape us is another quote attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (7): Architecture, Goethe said, is frozen music. Though I think I understand what he meant by that—he was referring to repeating patterns in the architecture of the day, something like contrapuntal rhythms—it has bothered me because, like so much thinking in this field, it thrusts the spatial forward at the expense of the temporal.
When I experience any kind of building or urban scene, unless I’m doing it by looking at a photograph, I’m very rarely standing still. It seems obvious that buildings and cities are meant to be moved through rather than observed from a stationary point. So, it is my own movement that effectively unfreezes the music of architecture. I’m the choreographer of a dance, if you like, where my surroundings constitute a kind of lexicon but I have some control over where I go. To use a linguistic metaphor (which is probably a really bad idea!) I provide the syntax.
I’ve been biased toward the primacy of movement for as long as I’ve done science. Some part of that has probably come from the lessons I learned at the feet of my PhD supervisor, who taught me that, in evolutionary terms, the primary function of vision had been to control the movements of our body in concert with the exigencies of our surroundings. In my work with non-humans, this always seemed abundantly clear. That’s how and why they saw. With humans, the ideas become a little murkier for most of us and I think largely because of our use of language. As soon as we leave the sinuous relationship between body and world for the ethereal realm of the symbolic, things get messier, and not necessarily in a good way (8).
This basic point – that we experience the world as moving participants—is both obvious and shockingly neglected in studies of the psychology of urban life (9). There are some beautiful exceptions to this. I won’t go through them all, but I will mention the wonderful corpus of work by the researcher Ryuzo Ohno of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who spent a scientific lifetime trying to understand in microscopic detail how changes of aspect that take place while walking have psychological impact. Ohno worked both with virtual models but also with real settings where he did some astonishing work in Asian gardens. If you’ve experienced such gardens you’ll know that the best ones are carefully designed so that every footfall, glance, and shift of gaze is artfully designed to contribute to an aesthetic effect. As much as is possible, I think that Ohno captured some of this art in his studies.
This beautiful image, taken from one of Ohno’s papers, shows how different elements of a scene unfold as a viewer walks through it.
But it isn’t just in carefully designed aesthetic environments that such effects take place. They’re also in the everyday. In a previous post I mentioned the contrast between a walk along the sidewalk of a bleak six-lane urban artery for cars and the same length of walk through a lively, urbanized neighborhood. One seems to take forever. The other passes in a flash. A big part of what makes the contrast has to do with time and movement. Architects often speak of transitions—where one thing turns into something else. There might be a transition in materials, in the function of a space or in its shape (imagine, for example walking along a narrow hallway that opens into an expansive space). Most of these transitions are activated by a moving participant. Indeed, without taking our own movement into account, most architecture doesn’t make much sense (10).
I’m not trying to suggest that architects don’t understand the major point here. Indeed, one of the most compelling descriptions of what I’m talking about came from the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who, in his description of the “promenade architecturale,” was making exactly this point. And more generally architects talk about transitions all the time. My own perspective is the one of the scientist trying to make sense of such experiences using the tools that are available to me. I think that almost nobody in my field is tackling this problem and I think that vast intellectual riches await those who do (11).
But what of the non-expert? What’s the relevance of time in architecture? One thought is that we live in a time of mass multi-media madness when we have access to enormous repositories of information about places (12), mostly of the photographic kind. Indeed, architect Marc Kushner described his view in a 2014 TED talk that mass availability of images of architecture would transform the field because now the public would have such mass exposure to fine images and renderings that they would understand what they wanted and why they wanted it. But what’s worth remembering is that architecture is not something that is designed to looked at so much as walked through, experienced, lived and felt in all of its multimodal temporality. A building is at least as much of a “when” as it is a “what.”
Footnotes of a sort
(1) Without going through a long and tawdry description worthy of a PSYCH 101 textbook, I’ll just say that I don’t see the world in three-dimensions in the same way that someone with normal stereo-vision might. To do that, I would need to use my brain to compare the slightly disparate views of the world given to me by each of my two eyes and then fuse them into a single percept of the world in all of its three-dimensional glory. If you’re like about 90% of the world, that’s what you do. If you’re like me and the rest of the 10%, you have a somewhat flattened 2-dimensional view of the world.
(2) Yes that old chestnut again. If you’re a regular reader you’ll already know that I have great difficulty completely escaping from my rodent-ish beginnings. Perhaps I just don’t want to.
(3) I hope I haven’t lost you in the desiderata of my early life. Trust me. There’s a rationale here. Stay the course. In fact, take a moment to subscribe!
(4) In other words, think of two snapshots of the same thing, both taken with the same eye but at slightly different points in time. It’s the same thing as stereo-vision but with true stereo-vision the two snapshots come from each of the two eyes and are combined in the hoary reaches of your cerebral cortex.
(5) I’ve written about this idea before, that somehow these perpetual themes seem to intertwine in one’s life and work, often without explicit awareness and acknowledgement. My earlier account of my own search for “home” is another example of this in my own history.
(6) I will also say, as I have many times before, that there are currently lots of absurdly oversimplified perspectives on how to advance this project, and not a small number of charlatans who know they’re purveying b.s. but jump on the bandwagon anyway, for one rea$on or another.
(7) Like Helmholtz, another polymath who wrote fine literature (Faust for instance) but also made contributions to our understanding of things like colour.
(8) I can’t help interject a little autobiography again but down here in the footnotes where you can avoid if you want. I remember thinking some similar thoughts over a decade ago and I discussing them with a friend of mine at a wedding (when I’m not at a party talking about head-bobbing I might be at a wedding talking about the ethereal realm of the symbolic. Forewarned is forearmed.). She asked me what I was doing with my life. When I told her, she said “you’d probably like to meet my uncle! He’s sitting over there on that hill.” My friend’s uncle was an architect named Ray Curran. I’d never heard of him before this moment, but it turned out that he’d written a wonderful book called Architecture and the Urban Experience that was, in a nutshell, all I’d been thinking about and more. Curran wrote a beautiful exposition describing the ways in which the bald shapes of the streets, the interstices between buildings, influenced our movements. It was a little bit like a discussion of fluid dynamics for mobs of people, but with a lot more thoughtful nuance and practical example. How I was lucky enough to meet this man, get hold of his book, and while away a fantastic afternoon sitting on a hillside in Maine is anybody’s guess. Later that same day, there was a late-night showing of the movie Jaws (one of my favourites) followed by a midnight swim. One of the best weddings I’d ever been to. If I were a believer in synchronicity of the Jungian flavour, though, I’d have some thoughts.
(9) I’d include my own work as a contribution to this shocking neglect. Even when there are opportunities to go further, I’ve all too often found myself reverting to a methodology that asks people to respond to snapshots of things rather than as a moving dynamic. For example, in a method I pioneered involving what I’ve called “psychogeographic walks,” the data is most often collected while people pause during the walk, stand in place, and soak up the context. I’ve done this mostly for pragmatics—it’s a lot easier to collect data from sensors in a stationary observer, for instance—but it avoids the more difficult but also more important questions about how we live in built settings.
(10) I’m not going to try to get into this here, but Bergson’s body of work, which seems to be undergoing a resurgence of late, deals in fascinating depth with the impact of the “spatialization” of experience on our (mis) understanding of what is.
(11) And though I’d very much like to do so if I can find a student and a funder, I do have niggling fears that what I want to do will cause the phenomenon I want to study to collapse under the weight of my turgid reductionist methodologies. As a good friend of mine said recently, it might be a bit like trying to explain why a joke is funny.
(12) Note even the word: place suggests something static—a viewpoint, a position in space. Hence our obsession with what’s sometimes called placemaking.
What I’m Reading
I’ve finally put to death the encyclopedic history of science written by David Wootton entitled The Birth of Science, which took me a full (albeit distracted) month to read. I’m not sorry I did it as it delivered on its promise to provide an extremely detailed and well-supported history of early and modern scientific thought, but I do admit to a small whoop of joy when I finished it in bed the other night and let it clunk to the floor beside me. Now, in accord with my interest in time and all things in it (ugh, spatial metaphor again…) I’m reading Suzanne Guerlac’s Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson. The ambitious me supposes that this will be the prelude to my tackling Bergson’s primary texts again, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to fit this in. But if you want to understand some of what Bergson was saying without deep immersion in his unusual texts, this book seems like a great way in.
What I’m Eating
I’ve pored over the photo archive of recent memorable meals and the best I could find was a nice scallop dinner that I put together. But as a culinary adventure, meh. So instead, I offer a photo of me just about to enjoy a fine dinner of very fresh and local lake perch. Last weekend, we ventured off to Port Dover in Ontario, which is a quaint little lakeside tourist haunt that somehow reminds me of an English seaside town. When they were little, I used to take my kids there for our summer vacation together. There’s a quaint, old-timey hotel there that offers good fish — no frills just good fish. It also used to be memorable for the fact that your dinner came with a massive multi-level salad cart that the server parked beside your table for the duration of the meal. It included every variation of “salad” that one could imagine, replete with lashings of marshmallows, mayonnaise, sour cream and the occasional bit of green. Nowadays in our sad COVID times the salad cart just consists of little bowls of salad. Not the same. But, as you can see, I was very happy to be there. The nice goblet of Belgian wheat beer might have had something to do with it.