Time is of the Essence, Part 1

Most of us keep track of time on a daily basis.  We set appointments by the hour and keep track of time with a watch or look at our cell phones.  But The Present Clock designed by architect Scott Thrift and available through the Metropolitan Museum of Art keeps track of time as it occurs over the course of a year instead of a day.  The hand represents where you are now in relation to a time continuum of one year.  Without the hand, it wouldn’t be a clock at all.  It would merely be a color wheel.  But by adding the moving hand, albeit a very slow-moving hand, the color wheel has become representative of the seasons.  The hand moves in a clockwise rotation.  Straight up is New Year. Straight to the right (solid green) is the Spring equinox.  Straight down (yellow) is the Summer Solstice, and straight to the left (orange) is the Fall Equinox.


The Present Clock stretches out time, and our perception of where we are Now, from a day/hour perspective, to where we are Now, from a year/seasons perspective. 

But the Long Now Foundation propelled this idea even further with their Clock of the Long Now which stretches out time, and our perception of where we are Now, from a day/hour perspective, to where we are Now, in the context of a 20,000-year perspective!  Which falls nicely into the foundation’s goal of motivating people to change their way of thinking about the concept of “Now” as day-to-day, maybe year-to-year, to thinking about “Now” as multi-generational, hence the term “Long Now” in the context of a span of time extending from 10,000 years in the past to 10,000 years hence.  Ten thousand years is about the age of civilization, so a 10K-year Clock would measure out a future of civilization equal to its past.

Currently under construction in West Texas, on land owned by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, it has been designed not only to keep track of time for the next 10,000 years, but also plays a melody at irregular intervals, but each melody will never be repeated in the 10,000-year span.

“Why would anyone build a Clock inside a mountain with the hope that it will ring for 10,000 years?” asks the Long Now Foundation website. Part of the answer: “just so people will ask this question, and having asked it, prompt themselves to conjure with notions of generations and millennia. If you have a Clock ticking for 10,000 years what kinds of generational-scale questions and projects will it suggest? If a Clock can keep going for ten millennia, shouldn’t we make sure our civilization does as well? If the Clock keeps going after we are personally long dead, why not attempt other projects that require future generations to finish? The larger question is, as virologist Jonas Salk once asked, “Are we being good ancestors?”

Danny Hillis, designer of the clock relates on the website: “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years.”


We all experience time in the same way… moment-to-moment.  But how we perceive ourselves in relation to time is each person’s perception.  Architecture can be the focus of that perception.

When you are experiencing architecture by walking through it or around it or around in it, your perception of time is as fast or as slow as you’re moving, but the architecture doesn’t change in any perceptible way.  It’s your relationship to the architecture by moving through it that’s changing, not the architecture itself. But if you were able to experience that architecture over the course of a century, the effects of time could be observed, but essence of the building itself would still be the same.

Experiencing architecture involves the passage of time, in that you’re always aware of where you are at any moment (Now) but also where you’ve just come from (the Past) and where you’re going (the Future).  That’s one of the things that makes architecture so great – it allows the past, present, and future to be experienced all at once!

In the short term, experiencing architecture is a moment-to-moment activity.  Architecture can’t be experienced any faster than the passage of time allows. 

However, architects can visualize and share a fast-forwarded experience of architecture, by means of computer simulations.  The video at left allows a pavilion structure to be quickly experienced from many different perspectives.   In the video at right the observer’s point of view doesn’t change, but an entire day’s worth of the sun’s ever-changing effects of light and shadow, from sunrise to sunset, can be seen in a matter of moments.  It’s virtual vicarious time travel.

Architecture is a statement of its time.  Architecture serves as mile markers in the journey through time.  Architecture is static in the short-term and slow-changing in the long-term.  It’s this relationship between time and architecture that allows architecture to be a time capsule of the people that created and used it.

Whenever the creation of architecture is being considered, there’s an opportunity for all concerned to make the architecture expressive of our time.