We live in a world of constant distractions. We have hundreds of TV stations with a backlog of shows and movies saved on our DVR’s. We have cell phones and text messaging, which create an expectation of being immediately available at all times. We have the internet and YouTube, where every minute 24 hours of new content is uploaded. Many of us check our email before we even get into the office, causing our focus to veer off in a myriad of directions. Our smartphones are filled with apps that take our attention away from the world in front of us and constantly notify us with a beep or buzz that someone has emailed or text messaged us.
Paul Virilio has defined this condition as picnolepsy – similar to frequent epileptic fits, it is a condition of constant interruptions after which we are unaware of the time that we have lost. For Virilio, this picnoleptic state is a symptom of an increase in speed at which content is consumed and the abolition of distances in time by various means of communication and telecommunications.
I don’t mean for this to all sound negative. I think it is incredible that I can take a picture of a framing connection with my iPad, bring the image into photoshop to clean it up, import the cleaned up version of the image into Sketchbook Pro where I can draw a sketch over or next to the image and write notes about whatever the issue is, email it to the structural engineer with a question and get an answer in (almost) real time. And with the video conferencing capabilities on my iPhone, I can review a construction question/issue with a Builder from my desk, which truly has allowed us to effectively expand the territory in which we work. Seriously, how did Frank Lloyd Wright get Fallingwater built without all this technology?
When we describe our work, we like to talk about presence. How the quality of construction and building materials evoke a physical presence. How the various phenomena that is unique to a particular site interacts with the architecture. How the relentless refinement of the design through our iterative process strips away inessential design details that distract from the perception of the architecture. Just today, I have been thinking thru the difference between the way that light sculpts a round tuscan column versus the crisp transition on adjacent surfaces of a square column – for the project I am working on the square column works better.
But we also can describe our work as allowing the occupants to be present in their lives and escape Virilio’s picnoleptic state. At it’s best, great architecture has atmospheric qualities that allows for reflection and contemplation.
In residential architecture, this might mean a quiet space where you can enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning and experience the way that the light grazes a beautifully textured stone wall. Or a space with great cross-ventilation where the smell and feel of the spring air causes your thoughts to be present in your environment. Or a covered terrace where you can hear the rain falling on a copper roof.