Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Expanding Agency by Expanding Time

In How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, inventor/designer Stewart Brand argues that buildings and architecture must be thought of in terms of time and not simply in terms of space. For Brand, buildings consist of six layers, each with its own temporal lifespan:
• SITE – This is the geographical setting, the urban location, and the legally defined lot, whose boundaries and context outlast generations of ephemeral buildings.
• STRUCTURE – The foundation and load-bearing elements are perilous and expensive to change, so people don’t. These are the building. Structural life ranges from 30 to 300 years (but few buildings make it past 60, for other reasons).
• SKIN – Exterior surfaces now change every 20 years or so, to keep up with fashion or technology, or for wholesale repair. Recent focus on energy costs has led to re-egineered Skins that are air-tight and better-insulated.
• SERVICES – These are the working guts of a building: communications wiring, electrical wiring, plumbing, sprinkler system, HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning), and moving parts like elevators and escalators. They wear out or obsolesce every 7 to 15 years. Many buildings are demolished early if their outdated systems are too deeply embedded to replace easily.
• SPACE PLAN – The interior layout – where walls, ceilings, floors, and doors go. Turbulent commercial space can change every 3 years or so; exceptionally quiet homes might wait 30 years.
• STUFF – Chairs, desks, phones, pictures; kitchen appliances, lamps, hair brushes; all the things that twitch around daily to monthly. Furniture is called mobilia in Italian for a good reason. (13)
Breaking a building up into these layers allows Brand to describe how these objects appear at once static things – “that church has always been there” – but at the same time, an object that is always “tearing itself apart” and becoming something new (13).

These layers are important for designers and architects, because humans interact with them at different levels:
The building interacts with individuals at the level of Stuff; with the tenant organization (or family) at the Space plan level; with the landlord via the Services (and slower levels) which must be maintained; with the public via the Skin and entry; and with the whole community through city or county decisions about the footprint and volume of the Structure and restrictions of the Site. The community does not tell you where to put your desk or your bed; you do not tell the community where the building will go on the Site (unless you’re way out in the country). (17)
Therefore, the Skin and Stuff of a building might undergo a quicker degree of change (every 3-30 years), while the Structure and the Site might change a lot slower (every 200+ years). Services, on the other hand, might undergo change depending upon the Skin and the Stuff – do I need a T1 connection if I do not own a computer? The point Brand is making is that buildings act much like an ecosystem, in that “the lethargic slow parts are in charge, not the dazzling rapid ones. Site dominates the Structure, which dominates the Skin, which dominates the Services, which dominate the Space plan, which dominates the Stuff. How a room is heated depends on how it relates to the heating and cooling Services, which depend on the constraints of the Structure. […] The quick processes provide originality and challenge, the slow provide continuity and constraint” (17). Each independent layer relies on and influences the other layers – though again, the results might not be immediate.

What reminded me of Brand’s evolutionary understanding of buildings was Jane Bennett’s position in Vibrant Matter - that the claim to vibrant matter (or a vital force located in all objects) becomes “more plausible if one takes a long view of time” (10). For Bennett, this type of evolutionary (temporal) view allows us to recognize the object specifically as an actant. So that, following De Landa, she finds that, “Mineralization names the creative agency by which bone was produced, and bones then ‘made new forms of movement control possible among animals, freeing them form many constraints and literally setting them into motion to conquer every available niche in the air, in the water, and on land” In the long and slow time of evolution, then, mineral material appears as the mover and shaker, the active power, and the human beings, with their much-lauded capacity for self-directed action, appear as its product" (11). By simply extending our view of time we find that agency is not necessarily a human property. This lesson seems to be similar to that found in Brand, that time becomes a hindrance to understanding an object’s agency when it is not allowed to regress (or progress?) beyond a certain point. Objects act, but only on their own time. A lesson needed for OOO.