This past weekend, I put aside some of my irrational qualms about reading an older book and dove head first into Kevin Lynch’s What Time Is This Place? (MIT 1972). I was stunned by how prescient the book appeared to be, and in my post yesterday started to observe how nearly every chapter explored issues that tangentially related, in some way, to my own research and interest.
I’ll continue that practice today starting with chapter 6.
6. Boston Time. This chapter is a photo essay that starts with images of clocks in Boston before proceeding to trace the changing character of the city as it represents the changes in Boston time. The opening images invariably reminded me of Scott W. Schwartz’s new book, The Archaeology of Temperature: Numerical Materials in the Capitalized Landscape (2022) which I blogged about here. Schwartz notes the prevalence of clocks and temperature displays in cities and parallels the experience of time with temperature. Both tend to be represented in absolute (or at very least numerical) terms, but experienced in physical ways. As I write this its -5° F outside here, which is quite cold but not terribly unusual for this time of year. Such consistently low temperatures makes the 30° F days we experienced late last week feel downright balmy. In the same way that the 45 minutes that I’m waiting for the Eagles playoff game to start (I’m writing this on a Sunday), will speed along provided I continue to try to finish this blog post. If I were to put aside my computer, time would slow to a drag.
7. Change Made Visible. The chapter on the ways in which changes are visible, reminded me a good bit of my work with students on the Wesley College Documentation Project. In this project, we documented two buildings on campus between their abandonment and their demolition. The buildings were laced with evidence for the passage of time both in the ways that they were adapted over their century of use to the immediate decisions their most recent residents made when they decamped for the final time. At the end of our work in the building — immediately before asbestos mitigation began — we put on a concert in building’s former recital hall. The weeks before the buildings’ scheduled demolition, we had a short ceremony recognizing their memorial function on our campus. These events made the passage of time visible. You can see some of the work here.
8. Managing Transitions. In his chapter on managing transitions, it is hard to avoid thinking of the recent work on migrants of various kinds. In some ways, Lynch seems to anticipate some of the ways in which we thought about the spaces of “man camps” in Western North Dakota during the Bakken boom. These camps embodied a landscape caught in a kind of transition between low density rural settlements and the concentrated workforce necessary to support extractive industries. The ephemerality of the oil industry presented a landscape that we always only transitioning and contingent. The communities of the Bakken struggled to manage the contingency of the boom in part because the landscape preserved so little from previous booms to remind these communities how they adapted to the stress of demographic change. Elsewhere in the world the architecture of migration reflected the transitional state that migrants often find themselves as they depart economically, environmentally, or politically compromised homes and seek new ones.
9. Environmental Change and Social Change. One way that Lynch’s work shows its age is when he talks about environmental change. In the 21st century, our mind naturally turn to thoughts about climate change rather than changes in our built environment. Lynch remains optimistic that build environments can transform social experiences. I’ve been watching my institution try to transform campus culture through architecture over the last decade. For example, the university has changed most classrooms into active learning type spaces and, as a result, students (and faculty) have come to expect both active learning and teaching techniques suited to these spaces. Alternately, the campus has invested in architectural forms and spaces designed to promote informal gathering, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a consistent sense of campus. I’ve suggested that these two impulses — student space and a consistent campus — are not necessarily complementary.
10. Some Policies for Changing Things. Kevin Lynch made his name as an urban planner so it is hardly surprising that he concludes this book with some reflections on policy. The most compelling of these is that suggestion that we think more deliberately about the temporary rhythms and routines we expect of our students and peers. As someone who is unnaturally preoccupied with synchronizing my own schedule with clock time, I have to admit that I’d struggle with a policy that allows greater freedom for individuals to organize their lives according to different temporal rhythms. That said, I don’t think it would be bad for me to have to encounter that. Even little things like allowing students to turn in papers in their own time and developing the patience to deal with people and processes that operate on different times serve as useful reminders that I should not reduce time to a fungible commodity, but as a deeply personal form of social experience.
Reading an older book as a way to become aware of how the passage of time enriches and transforms how we read and understand a classic text is a wonderful reminder that as creatures of the present, we are never quite free from the past and recognizing the different rhythms of life and senses of time that operate around us should not be a burden. Instead, experiences different senses of time should enrich our experiences and our ability to appreciate our world.