Time Scales

5x5x5 was a suitable starting point for the ThinkTime agenda, looking critically at the ways that timescales can influence the design process of architecture, and introducing some of the themes that inspire us in the work we do; championing the consideration of a building’s position in time as well as space, and how the age of a material or the memory of a site can be wielded as a tool to bring meaning to a project. The seminal 1977 film ‘Powers of Ten’ by Charles and Ray Eames remains one of the most thought provoking and visually arresting analyses of scale in physical space, but what of scales in time? 5x5x5 attempts to identify commonalities and anomalies by comparing 3 project timescales: buildings designed to last 5 weeks, buildings designed to last 5 decades, and buildings still standing after 5 centuries.


Lewis Kinneir – Carmody Groarke
Studio East Dining

The very nature of a temporary building and its requirement to be assembled and removed quickly and efficiently makes it the antithesis of the majority of architectural design. This anti-durability was described by Lewis as being ‘at the margins of architecture’, and designing beautiful temporary structures requires as much un-learning of standard approaches as it does learning of new techniques. These fleeting forms usually concern spectacle, designed to bring theatricality and pomp to a celebration or festival, and their legacy is the sensation that they affect and their lasting impression in the mind of the visitor.

The perceived advantages of designing a temporary structure (lightweight material, less robust detailing, form and space that is more ambitious than compliancy usually permits) are compounded by a free and intuitive design process that champions quick thinking and gut instinct; often these timescales will not permit iteration or consultation by committee. This makes architecture at this timescale a very useful means of testing experimental ideas that can go on to inform a practice’s future built work or design direction.

Carmody Groarke - Studio East Dining 01

Sam Casswell – Caruso St.John
Tate Britain 

The renovation of Tate Britain art gallery is an exercise in managing an evolution. Over the last 100 years the gallery building has grown and extended as the ‘Eames scale’ of time zooms out, and the rationalisation works undertaken by the architects today seek a clarity amongst the patchwork additions, attempting to zoom back in and establish a more recognisable singular identity.

The design work borrows liberally from the layers of time that survive on the site, creating a calm and poised contemporary aesthetic – more ‘cross section through’ than ‘addition on top of’. In some instances this requires a fanciful proposal, bold enough to argue for the appropriate response where the authentic one is not sufficient to meet the objective. This creates interesting opportunities to realise hyper-contextual ‘what might have beens’, rather than being shackled relentlessly to what was or is.

At a macro level a city like London mirrors this process; expansion then rationalisation, growing upward and outward, and only allowing us to take stock when the new framework finally becomes apparent.

Caruso StJohn - Britain

Fergus Connolly – Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Bath Abbey Footprint Project

Architecture at the largest time scales is inherently more challenging to repair and adapt, not only are the conditions more fragile and complex, but the significance of the fabric necessitates closer scrutiny. Urgently needed repair works at Bath Abbey hope to implement a new floor throughout the nave and aisles that will last 200 years, within a building that has lasted for 500 years, on a site that has housed religiously significant architecture for 1500 years. Repair at this timescale is about envisioning the future of the building, and how the changes we implement now can ensure survival for generations of worshippers to come.

This looking forward can only be achieved by looking backwards. Using cutting edge surveying technologies to (literally) find the gaps in our understanding, and using research to assess the building’s key evolutionary interventions; in terms of why they were made, what they hoped to achieve, and whether or not they succeeded. Some could argue that design works within this timescale could never be as brave as the design work on a temporary timescale, but a counter argument would propose that any alteration at all would be a bold step in such a celebrated structure.

FCBS - Bath Abbey Footprint

Discussing the projects after the presentations concluded, each scheme was described as a relative point on a spectrum between ‘the instant’ and ‘the constant’. A temporary folly is a fleeting instant in the timescale of the city, it is one of the moments and memories that collect to form a lifetime. A historic monument is an enduring constant in the timescale of the city, and creates the framework within which instants are able to exist and be understood. Neither can have a meaning without the other. Further to this it was suggested that each of the timescales bore the characteristic of a Vitruvian virtue. The short-term project of surprise and caprice spoke of an architecture of delight, whilst commodity and firmness were strictly superfluous. The mid-term project of use and utility fine tunes detail and intervention to the commodity of the purpose at hand. Finally the long-term project is the work of firmness, when wear and tear becomes patina and patina becomes memory.

Each timescale presents a unique challenge to architects and affords many specific lessons that can inform the way that we design. Discussing the intricacies found at each extreme offers refreshing perspective on the work we undertake at alternate scales.


images courtesy of


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