Saturday, January 1, 2011

Challenging the Cult of Speed

Every living being, event, process, or object has its own inherent time or pace – its own tempo giusto.                                                 
                                                        —Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness

A confession: I don’t read many books because I seldom have the necessary patience or frame of mind. When I do read I favor newspapers, or magazine articles, or online blogs. I ingest information quickly in bite-sized snippets, the written equivalent of fast food. I walk fast. I talk fast. I eat fast too, often failing to fully savor a fine meal. I know I should slow down, pace myself, and lead a more balanced life. But I haven’t learned how to do so.

I’m not alone. Many others are slaves to our hyperkinetic, 24/7 culture. Seemingly more and more has to be accomplished in fewer hours. Time is money, we are always told. Our clients demand ever greater speed, and we obligingly work long days at an increasingly frenetic pace to meet deadlines. We are forced to think and make decisions faster and faster. But faster isn’t necessarily better.

The costs of not slowing down are increasingly evident. In architecture, these costs include plans rife with errors and omissions, and designs absent of thoughtfulness or invention.

We needn’t be complicit in this veneration for speed. There is a growing backlash to the culture of acceleration, a response that suggests we live more patiently, at the right pace for each moment.

I actually read a genuine book over the Christmas holiday, In Praise of Slowness, written by award-winning Canadian journalist Carl Honoré. The book is his essay on the virtues of living a slower, more measured existence. He touches upon the benefits of working less; the increased acceptance of alternative medicine; the Slow Food movement—traditional, regional cuisine cooked with locally-sourced ingredients; even Tantric sex—love with a slow hand. Honoré asserts that energy and efficiency can be found where it is least expected: in slowing down.

The book appeals to the mounting nostalgia for a time when the cult of speed was less potent, when doing something well, and taking real pleasure from it, was more important than doing everything faster.

In Praise of Slowness struck a chord with me. I am more conscious than ever before of the need to switch gears, to be less impulsive, to slow down. Honoré filled his book with aphorisms so astute that I found myself enthusiastically bookmarking many of them for later reference. The insight conveyed by the following example is universal, but architects will immediately recognize how apt it is to the process of design:

Fast Thinking is rational, analytical, linear, logical. It is what we do under pressure, when the clock is ticking; it is the way computers think and the way the modern workplace operates; it delivers clear solutions to well-defined problems. Slow Thinking is intuitive, wooly, and creative. It is what we do when the pressure is off, and we have the time to let ideas simmer at their own pace on the back burner. It yields rich and subtle insights.

I find it much better to engage design problems and conceive solutions at a gentle pace. There is real pleasure to be mined by considering issues deeply, acknowledging the connections between the myriad strands, and allowing for discovery. “Rich and subtle insights” are hardly ever the fruit of a hurried timetable.

Creation Is a Patient Search
The methodology by which architecture is created is typically iterative, a cyclic process of testing, analyzing, and refining. It begins with consideration of a project’s objectives. The architect probes carefully. Ideas emerge. Employing various media (diagrams, sketches, models), the architect illustrates design proposals at different scales and levels of concern. These are seen, felt, and analyzed. Each proposal stimulates feedback and evaluation. This prompts incremental changes and refinements. The architect repeats the cycle, and then repeats it again.

The goal of the iterative process is a true and full synthesis of ideas and responses. It demands nothing if not a devotion to the arduous search for elegant solutions.(1) The more opportunities we have to explore deeply, to make connections, the better able we are to make discoveries and reveal genius. Time is our ally in this pursuit; haste is not.

People think more creatively when they are calm, unhurried, and free from stress. If there was ever an endeavor that should reward patience, it is architecture. Le Corbusier famously declared that “creation is a patient search.” The creative impulse is not automatic, nor does it necessarily follow a linear course. And yet the real world seldom affords us the luxury of patience or the opportunity to take the meandering path. Instead, we’re expected to solve increasingly complex design problems faster than ever before in the face of escalating time pressure.

Time pressure leads to tunnel vision, certainly not a desirable trait for an architect. Urgency can focus the mind—toward Fast Thinking—but this comes at the expense of intuitive, wooly, and creative Slow Thinking.

If our clients truly understood architecture, they would regard the time they allow us to do our jobs just like the money they leverage for future profit—as an investment. The bottom line is that without such an investment the likelihood of a profitable return is diminished. Our clients would realize that real benefits accrue when architects enjoy the luxury of schedules that are commensurate with the scope and complexity of their projects. The most obvious benefits include greater efficiencies in the completed buildings—improved productivity, lower life-cycle costs—as well as enhanced property values. Devoting more time to significant projects could also yield something less tangible: great architecture that possesses integrity, presence, and beauty.

My wish is that one day soon all our clients will be enlightened enough to realize the folly of their obsession for speed. Time may be money, but not spending enough of it well is a blueprint for mediocrity or failure.

Slow Architecture
There is a (slowly) growing movement toward a process of building design and construction that is more patient, more careful, more detailed, a process in which the pace required by human craft dictates how construction is carried out and the passage of time adds a sense of delight rather than decay. Dubbed “Slow Architecture” by its advocates, the movement loosely adheres to the following principles (as outlined by Irish architect Brian O’Brien):
  • patience
  • craft
  • sensuality and materiality
  • specificity
  • delight
  • contentment
Slow Architecture is about the creation, appreciation, and enjoyment of all that is careful, that is textured, and that stimulates the senses in buildings. Slow Architecture is an approach to design and construction, a philosophy of “how” rather than a manifesto of “what.”

Ireland appears to be a Slow Architecture nexus. An exhibition about Slow Architecture traveled throughout the Irish republic during the autumn of 2010. Ironically, Japan, a nation that worships at the altar of speed and efficiency, is another center for Slow Architecture. Italy (the birthplace of Slow Food and Cittaslow(2)) and Switzerland are also home to numerous proponents. The movement’s spiritual leaders include Juhani Pallasmaa, the noted Finnish architect and writer, and Peter Zumthor, the Swiss winner of the 2009 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Zumthor’s Therme Vals spa complex is often cited as a seminal work of Slow Architecture. Its defining characteristics include the process by which it was realized—a protracted six-year gestation period of reflection, analysis, and design by Zumthor—as well as the sensory aspects of the architectural experience. Therme Vals is perfectly harmonized with its natural surroundings, a product of Zumthor’s intimate familiarity with the site and commitment to the use of local materials.
The High Priest of Slow Architecture: Peter Zumthor (photo by Gary Ebner)

Slow Architecture has yet to make notable inroads in North America. Too many of us here are still in the thrall of speed. Architects too easily resign themselves to generating hastily conceived, fashionable, evanescent, and shallow architecture. This is a function of not being more aware of the alternative: architecture that is marked by longevity, presence, harmony, and delight—architecture that is the product of slow and mindful processes.

A New Year’s Resolution
January 1, 2011, is not the first New Year’s Day I have resolved to slow down and smell the roses. However, by blogging about how unhealthy and unfulfilling our “time sickness” is, I have already done more to keep this resolution than I ever have previously. I credit reading In Praise of Slowness for providing the motivation. Carl Honoré believes the cult of speed may still have the upper hand, but the pressure to change is building. The tipping point may not be as far away as we think. When it arrives, we will again all pursue our work at its natural, proper pace—at its tempo giusto. We will create lasting, beautiful architecture by taking the necessary time to enjoy balanced, healthy lives.(3)

(1) Here I am loosely quoting Bill Kleinsasser, my influential professor at the University of Oregon.

(2) The Cittaslow movement seeks to improve the quality of life in towns while resisting the fast-lane, homogenized world so often seen in other cities throughout the world.

(3) The French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote a classic verse about the virtues of being “drunk” if being sober meant a life as a martyred slave to time:

Be Drunk
You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking . . . ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be drunk!” So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.

                                                           —Charles Baudelaire

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