An Abundance of Glass

Going through some old notes, I found this great line from architect Kengo Kuma’s 2008 book Anti-Object, describing the conceptual ambition—and ultimate anticlimax—of modernist architecture. “Modernism set out to connect time and space,” he wrote, “but ultimately managed only to create objects that used an abundance of glass.”

The London Time Ball

timeball[Image: The London “time ball” at Greenwich, courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich].

Thanks to the effects of jet lag getting worse as I get older, I was basically awake for five days in London last week—but, on the bright side, it meant I got to read a ton of books.

Amongst them was an interesting new look at the history of weather science and atmospheric forecasting—sky futures!—by Peter Moore called The Weather Experiment. There were at least two things in it worth commenting on, one of which I’ll save for the next post.

This will doubtless already be common knowledge for many people, of course, but I was thrilled to learn about something called the London “time ball.” Installed at the Greenwich Royal Observatory in 1833 by John Pond, England’s Royal Astronomer, the time ball was a kind of secular church bell, an acoustic spacetime signal for ships.

It was “a large metal ball,” Moore writes, “attached to a pole at the Royal Observatory. At 1 p.m. each day it dropped to earth with an echoing thud so that ships in the Thames could calibrate their chronometers.” As such, it soon “became a familiar part of the Greenwich soundscape,” an Enlightenment variation on the Bow Bells. Born within sound of the time signal…

timeball1[Image: Historic shot of the time ball, via the South London Branch of the British Horological Institute].

There are many things I love about this, but one is the sheer fact that time was synchronized by something as unapologetically blunt as a sound reverberating over the waters. It would have passed through all manner of atmospheric conditions—through fog and smoke, through rain and wind—as well as through a labyrinth of physical obstructions, amidst overlapping ships and buildings, as if shattering the present moment into an echo chamber.

Calculating against these distortions would have presented a fascinating sort of acoustic relativity, as captains and their crew members would have needed to determine exactly how much time had been lost between the percussive thudding of the signal and their inevitably delayed hearing of it.

In fact, this suggests an interesting future design project: time-signal reflection landscapes for the Thames, or time-reflection surfaces and other acoustic follies for maritime London, helping mitigate against adverse atmospheric effects on antique devices of synchronization.

In any case, the other thing I love here is the abstract idea that, at this zero point for geography—that is, the prime meridian of the modern world—a perfect Platonic solid would knock out a moment of synchrony, and that Moore’s “echoing thud” at this precise dividing line between East and West would thus be encoded into the navigational plans of captains sailing out around the curvature of the earth, their expeditions grounded in time by this mark of sonic punctuation.

Comparative Astral Isochrones

[Image: Isochronic map of travel distances from London, from An Atlas of Economic Geography (1914) by John G. Bartholomew (via)].

“This is an isochronic map—isochrones being lines joining points accessible in the same amount of time—and it tells a story about how travel was changing,” Simon Willis explains over at Intelligent Life. The map shows you how long it would take to get somewhere, embarking from London:

You can get anywhere in the dark-pink section in the middle within five days–to the Azores in the west and the Russian city of Perm in the east. No surprises there: you’re just not going very far. Beyond that, things get a little more interesting. Within five to ten days, you can get as far as Winnipeg or the Blue Pearl of Siberia, Lake Baikal. It takes as much as 20 days to get to Tashkent, which is closer than either, or Honolulu, which is much farther away. In some places, a colour sweeps across a landmass, as pink sweeps across the eastern United States or orange across India. In others, you reach a barrier of blue not far inland, as in Africa and South America. What explains the difference? Railways.

Earlier this year, when a private spacecraft made it from the surface of the Earth to the International Space Station in less than six hours, the New York Times pointed out that “it is now quicker to go from Earth to the space station than it is to fly from New York to London.”

[Image: From Twitter].

In the context of Bartholomew’s map, it would be interesting to re-explore isochronal cartography in our own time, to visualize the strange spacetime we live within today, where the moon is closer than parts of Antarctica and the International Space Station is a shorter trip than flying to Heathrow.

(Map originally spotted via Francesco Sebregondi).

2 architectural suggestions for stopping time

While not ‘architectural,’ really – though I’m reminded of Norman Foster’s assertion that the 747 airplane is the single most important architectural design of the 20th century (giving a whole new perspective to September 11th: it was an architectural competition, and the skyscraper lost) – two architectural suggestions for stopping time are as follows:
1) Build a solar-powered airplane and fly it at exactly the speed of the rotation of the earth, against the earth’s rotation. Do this at high-noon, over the equator. The plane will always be in the glow of the sun, never leaving its precise and comfortable position at high-noon. Having become a geostationary structure in a low-atmosphere orbit, the airplane, barring mechanical failure, will never advance forward in time. It will always be noon, technically on the same day. It will be architecture that’s seceded from the aging of the universe.
2) Build a box of perfectly reflective internal surfaces. Light will never be absorbed or dissipated, but endlessly recycled and returned through the box’s mirrored interior. Whatever moment it captures – that is, whatever was happening when the box was sealed: the event, or location, that bounced its reflective way into the box’s hermetic closure – will remain in a constant state of cross-reflection, never dissipating or fading. The image, a kind of 3-dimensional holograph of the event it refers to, can then be sent floating outward from the earth, drifting through space, reflecting, never aging, one moment stuttering through itself over and over again till universal heat-death does us in.
And in both cases – within those two spatial instances, those two pieces of ‘architecture’ – time will effectively be stopped.
(Or so he tells himself.)