I have a phobia of reading old books. It’s irrational as most phobia are, but nevertheless guides my actions to an embarrassing extent. As a result, it took a particular nudge from my buddy Kostis Kourelis (and a generous copy of the book) to will myself to read Kevin Lynch’s What Time Is This Place? (MIT 1972).
This book blew my mind. To make everything about me: this book was like a cross section of my recent interest in time, ruins, urbanism, campus life, and even teaching. It’s like I was simply living in a world sketched out by Kevin Lynch.
The book in broad strokes is a meditation on time and place. Lynch fearlessly traces the role of time in our daily lives, our building environments, and, as you’d expect, our lived experiences. In particular, Lynch is interested in the experience of time as change.
Here are some running notes chapter to chapter.
1. Cities Transforming. The first chapter considers change on the level of the city and the way in which people’s experience and idea of the city shaped the transforming of cities. It made me think a good bit about my work on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission and our efforts to document (and in some ways influence) the transformation of the city of Grand Forks. For example, my wife and I produced a massive study of mid-century housing in the city that traced its transformation from a city largely anchored in its pre-war pedestrian plan to one defined by cars, post-war prosperity, and the rise of the suburb. You can read the report here.
2. The Presence of the Past. This chapter is even more relevant for my wok on the GFHPC. It focuses on the role of ruins and material evidence for the past in creating a sense of presence in a community. This is literally the mission of the Commission, but as Lynch points out, one that is not as straight forward as preservation for the sake of preservation might allow. Over the past five or six years, we’ve talked more and more about the value of attempting to preserve and document buildings and districts not limited to the obvious or even elite building which often carry the burden of the past for a community. Instead, we have shifted at least some of our attention to apartment buildings, schools, commercial spaces, and (if I had my way) neighborhood bars that preserve the workaday landscapes of the city. We’ve also talked more about how to make present a past that has disappeared as a result of the city’s floods, urban renewal, and social change. What do we do to inscribe the memory of these places into the urban fabric?
3. Alive Now. Lynch’s brilliant contribution to urban planning is that he foregrounded the experience of the city and sought to create urban forms sensitive to the needs of an individual. In this book, he considers time as more than simply made manifest on a collective level (so that everything doesn’t happen at once), but also experienced individually. As readers of this blog might know, I am obsessed with time both personally through my modest collection of watches (or my collection of modest watches) and professionally through my work as an archaeologist. It is hardly surprising that I’ve been fixated on the concept of slow as not only an antidote to the sense of urgency that suffuses so much of our professional life, but also as way to make explicit the tension between clock time and the time of experience.
4. The Future Preserved. When Kostis sent me this book, he made explicit reference to the world of Sun Ra who has become an obsession for me. For those of you unfamiliar with Sun Ra, he is one of the founders of mid-century Afro-futurism which he expertly grafted to afrocentric views of the Black past (as his name suggests). As Lynch recognizes in this chapter title, there is a crucial need to preserve the past not only as a way to remember past presents, but also to remember past futures. The growing interest in Afrofuturism reveals the potential of past futures to shape present futures and to make us aware of how we have and have not lived up to our aspirations (however well intended). It goes without saying that continued struggle for racial equality offers a sobering context for mid-century Afrofuturism. It is also a good reminder that as much as we cringe or even protest at pseudohistory, pseudoarchaeology, and other “false” views of the past, the line between false pasts and false futures is a fine one indeed and the goals of both projects tend to intersect in the messy politics of hope.
5. The Time Inside. One of the more fascinating chapters of the book considers how our internal sense of time clashes with external constraints. Anyone whose body resists the tradition of eight continuous hours of sleep is familiar with this feeling. I’ve speculated on this as it applies to the length and rhythm of the academic semester. Lynch clearly recognizes that time is a factor in learning and how and when we learn, remember, and think various not only as individuals but also collectively. Last year, for example, I started to notice how student workloads, commitments, and time often doesn’t serve to advance student learning. Instead, the time for student learning is a constantly negotiation of space, finances, and other commitments. This is inevitable, of course, but it nevertheless reinforces how the personal time of student experience is not entirely under their own control.
I’ll come back with Part 2 tomorrow!