On Slowness

We wrote this essay in 1999 for the publication 2G.


In an earlier edition of 2G devoted to Arne Jacobsen, Knud Aerbo, one of his former associates, spoke of Jacobsen’s office:

“What we had when we worked with Arne Jacobsen: A drawing table—a 90 x 160 cm uneven table top—a side chair with a straw bottom. Our own T-square and a pencil which had to be sharpened with a knife… Drawing pins to hold the paper; tape was not invented yet… If you look at it today, you will have to say: it could not be done. But luckily we did not know then.”

Recently, one of the architects in our studio put down the telephone and said incredulously, “No more leads!” Calling to place an order for new “F” leads, he was told that Faber-Castell was no longer making them. People apparently do not draw enough anymore to make it worth their while. This is just the latest disappearance. And it seems to be happening more and more often to more and more tools that we use. Lettering and shape templates are disappearing. In 1993 we were told that there were only 144 more Dietzgen lettering templates in all the warehouses in the United States. So, we bought twenty. The “S”s and “4”s on these templates are wearing out, breaking, and there are no more templates to be had. Because we hear that they too are being phased out, we are hoarding ink pens. It is isolating and disorienting; a very strange feeling, rather like waking up to find that that the tide has come in, and familiar landmarks are submerged. Slowly, the tools of the hand disappear.

In the United States, the practice of architecture has come to rely on the computer. In offices the word “efficiency” is always mentioned, and in design schools the capability to create and rotate complex forms in space is lauded. So, with surprising speed, the tools of the hand are becoming extinct.

clutch pencil, lead, and lead pointer*
bunny bag*
erasing shield*
lettering template*
*soon to disappear

This is a lamentation for lost tools and a quiet manifesto describing our desire for slowness. We write not in opposition to computers—in fact we are in the midst of bringing them into our studio—but rather it is a discussion about the importance of slowness. We write in support of slowness.

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.

In existential mathematics, that experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.”

Milan Kundera,  Slowness

Photo by Peter Arnold, 1998

Slowness of Method 

Our desire to continue to use the tools of the hand, even as we may begin to use the computer, has to do with their connection to our bodies. Buildings are still constructed with hands, and it seems that the hand still knows best what the hand is capable of doing. As our hands move, we have the time to think and to observe our actions. We draw using pencil and ink, on mylar and on vellum. When we make changes, they occur with effort and a fair amount of tedious scrubbing with erasers, erasing shields, and spit. We have to sift back through previous drawings and bring them to agreement. So, decisions are made slowly, after thoughtful investigation, because they are a commitment that has consequence. It is better to be slow.

We like to keep the stack of finished and unfinished drawings nearby so that the whole project can be reviewed easily. Their physical presence is evidence of work done, and a reminder of what there is to do. The grime that builds up from being worked over is poignant and satisfying. We see the history of the presence of our hand. To have the actual drawings in reach allows us to understand the project in a more complete and comprehensive way. In the buildings we design, we struggle to achieve a unity and sense of wholeness that can come from a balance of individual gestures within a larger and more singular container. The focus of a computer screen feels too compartmentalized and tight to see and understand the whole. And if every time a change is made, a new printout is made, there is the problem that the printouts are too clean. They don’t show the scrubbed and messy sections of erasure, so there is no evidence to indicate the history of the development of an idea. Crucial to creating wholeness is the understanding of the development of the idea.

We work together, twelve people in one room without divisions. Much like a family, we expect that others will help whenever we need them, and however we need them. So there is no division of labor into design, production, model-making, or interiors. Each architect is involved in the making of contracts, billing, and writing of letters. Since we have no secretary, the phone is answered by whomever has the least patience with the ringing. Because each person must be a generalist, a certain amount of efficiency is lost, as each person must learn all the tasks of the office. We ask that people constantly shift their attention between their particular task and one which helps the office as a whole. What this rather casual approach to office management accomplishes is that everyone knows what is going on around them. If there is a problem, it is shared, and of course we try to share the joys as well. The sense of well-being in the studio must be supported and nurtured by each member.

So our way of working allows us to have the experience of slowness. Tools are connected to the slower capacity of the hand; the presence of hand-drawn pages documents both the path of thought and the destination. The generalization of tasks means our office works not as an efficient machine, but as a loose and independent and somewhat inefficient family. The slowness of method allows us breath and breadth.

We have written a Mission Statement for the office: Whatever we design must be of use, but at the same time transcend its use. It must be rooted in time and site and client needs, but it must transcend time and site and client needs. We do not want to develop a style or specialize in any project type. It is our hope to continue to work on only a few projects at a time, with intense personal involvement in all parts of its design and construction. We want the studio to be a good place to work, learn, and grow, both for the people who work in the office and for ourselves. The metaphor for the office is a family. Each person must take responsibility for their own work, but as well must be responsible for the good of the whole. We do not believe in the separation or specialization of skills. Each architect in the office will work through all aspects of a project. We would like to be financially stable, but this will not outweigh artistic or ethical beliefs, which will always come first. The work should reflect optimism and love. The spiritual aspect of the work will emerge if the work is done well.

Slowness of Design 

In a public forum we were asked, “What is your design strategy?” We were at a loss for words. There is no strategy for either an ascendant career, or more importantly, the way that we design. It is so easy to use the cushion of past thoughts to soften the terrifying free fall of starting a new project. It is inevitable that, as we accumulate a longer design history, we repeat things unconsciously. Still, perhaps naively, but in earnest, we try to start each project with a blank slate. The design is incremental—small steps that are made in response to the site, the client, the builder, and our own intuition. We try to fight through what we have learned, toward the freedom found in innocence. The design is a slow and often uneven accumulation of stitches, that are often ripped out part way through while we struggle to make clear, or to understand, what the pattern and organization might be, even as we avoid as much as possible knowing what the final image might be.

So, the first intuitive drawings are usually very rough plan forms which might demonstrate the gesture of the body’s movement and how that is expressed by a mass in relationship to the land. We always show these drawings to the client because we want them to understand the intuition or gesture that is the genesis of the design. It is also a way of saying, “I don’t know what I am doing yet, but I do have a feeling about it.”

Often, as the plans are worked through, an idea about a section or a detail or a piece of cabinet work will come to mind. And for a while the plans are put aside and the stray thought is pursued. Progress is a stutter step, not a forward march: three steps forward, two to the side, and one step back. It is a choreography that somehow pulls itself together. With each project, it feels as though we are infants learning how to walk. We pull ourselves up, wobble, take a few steps, and fall down.

This way of developing the design mirrors the working method of the office: moving back and forth between advancing the particular task and attending to the myriad details that are the sidetrack. One generally thinks that to be “sidetracked” is a bad condition, but we think that it is enriching. The sidetrack is simply a parallel route. It has been said that architecture is the mother of all the arts; meaning, one supposes, that it is the generative root. We prefer to think that architecture is like a mother caring for a toddler: she must keep hold of the larger vision of the adult whom the child will become, while stopping to clean up fingerprints and wipe noses.

For us, elevations are always the last part of a building to be developed. Often we are at the end of design development before we even begin to rough out the elevations. This is because elevation drawings close down the process of questioning by making the image of the building too clear, too “graspable,” and therefore too final. Clients, magazines—in fact, we as architects and human beings—all want an easy and clear answer. But it is better not to provide one before the interior habitation and the structure of the building has been given enough time to develop as the logic for the facade.

In our current practice, the construction drawings are produced on 30” x 42” mylar sheets using pencil and ink. Notes are typed up on the computer and Xeroxed onto what we call “stickyback,” which is an acetate with an adhesive surface. This is glued to each page. The working drawings consist of the typical site plan, plans, reflected ceiling plans, wall sections, and general details. At the same time, and continuing through almost the entire construction process, is a sketchbook. The page size is 11”x17,” which is the largest sheet size that our Xerox machine can duplicate. Divided into sections of cabinetwork, miscellaneous metals, window details, roofing details, and miscellaneous building details, the sketchbook can often run up to two hundred pages. Based on previous experience we try to have the contractor set an allowance for certain trades like cabinetwork or metal fabrication. There are several reasons why the sketchbook is useful. It allows several people to work on parts of a specific section at the same time. It means that questions can be answered quickly by issuing a sketch sheet rather than by going back to the large drawing set. Most importantly though, it means that we don’t have to stop designing at the issuance of construction documents. It allows us to continue to develop drawings and details even as the project is being built and constructed.

Finally, during the construction period, the project architect—who has been involved since the beginning intuitive drawings—supervises the construction. Often on larger projects, the project architect has moved to the site for as long as a year and half. In this way as questions come up during the course of the project, the choices that are made are made with a sense of the history of the idea and they are true design decisions that accrue to wholeness. They are not simply the result of expediency in the field.

This position of “not knowing a priori” is antithetical to the general model of the architect as hero. This is a damaging model because it discourages the slowness of process that comes from the patient search. Certainty is a prison.

Slowness of Perception 

As our work matures, the perception of it is less and less understandable through photographs. One can only understand it by being there and moving and staying still. One reason is that we have been trying to integrate our buildings into the landscape. Thus, often the most important space is the empty space that is contained by the built forms. This empty space is the heart of the project at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla. It is the invisible magnet that holds together the separate buildings, and provides the coherence that makes the project feel whole. So what is not there is equally important, perhaps more important, than what is there. How does one photograph nothing? One experiences it.

And because we develop our facades as late as we can, we are not relying on a flat plane to carry the strength of the building or to transmit a sense of the place. So it is difficult to shoot the facade of a building because it is only seen by itself, and not, as your eyes see it, in relation to the buildings next to it, in relation to the empty space next to it.

So there is no quick take on our work; no singular powerful image that is able to sum it all up. We are not sure how to present our work. We know that the answer is not a computer-generated “fly-through,” or even a video of the real thing. The pacing and the viewpoint of these methods are still too consistent. They are cold, machine-like lenses that follow a too-logical sequence of movement. A human eye scans panoramically, and then suddenly focuses down on a tiny point. You see the ocean, and then you see a grain of oddly colored sand. The boundaries of what one chooses to perceive are constantly expanding and contracting. And of course there are the myriad of stray thoughts, memories, and images that are called up by what you see in the color and shade of an actual space. There are the distractions (and perhaps one can also see them as positive additions) of sound, smell, shifting light, and the conversations of passers-by. This can only happen when you are there. So, we suppose we can only offer this monograph of our work as a suggestion of what we do, or perhaps even as a pack of lies, which must be proven or disproven by your own feet and eyes.