Loss, Impermanence, and the Trace in Design

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Parallels between architecture and psychology fascinate me. Not in the sense of environmental psychology, or the psychological effects of space (which are also interesting, but not the subject for now). A recent thought had me investigating the fear of loss, and how it drives decisions I make and have made. It certainly seems human to want to hang on to people and even things in our lives. We fear losing material, our jobs, our reputation, and of course people; spouses, parents, children, friends. We want permanence, we don’t want change. And we may act counter to our own best interest in order to maintain a feeling of permanence. In an attempt to be all things to all people, we may lose our own identity. (See my earlier post on Woody Allen and his film, Zelig.)

Of course the truth is that nothing is permanent, and change is constant. Loss is inevitable. As architects, the work we do is about change – something must be modified in order to create. And that modification is often seen as a loss. The loss of an old familiar home, the loss of the vacant lot next door that provided open space or a view. What is also true however is that with a loss, there can be gain. That much is implied in the term itself – if something is lost, perhaps something else can be found. A good example is the birth of a child. We lose something: sleep, personal time. But we gain something too: a new experience, the wonder of developing life. Each end is also a beginning, another part of the story. Ultimately, this is something we need to accept as part of the process of existing.

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In my work as both a practitioner and a teacher, I have explored the notion of the trace. I find the palimpsest interesting for the story it tells. The layers of drawing or writing bleed through the medium and reveal layers of time, work, and information. They are beautiful in their complexity and the way they obscure information as much as they are in how they reveal it. There are architectural manifestations of the palimpsest as well. Traces of work that was done in the past – the seam of an addition to an original structure, the remnant of an old roof line, filled in windows that read as ghosts of the opening where light once entered. The ruin is fascinating in this same way, where all of the architectural secrets are laid bare. And oddly enough, isn’t that what we fear the most when considering loss? Our own vulnerabilities. When we lose something we love, WE are laid bare. Our weakness exposed. It can be seen that a part of us is gone, something that made us strong. Like a collapsed structural support, our integrity has been compromised.

However, upon closer inspection, we start to see the meaning of those traces of previous existences. Perhaps what has been left behind adds a character we wouldn’t have had before. Another layer that makes us unique. This is true of both people and architecture. No two structures are the same, even in a massive tract of houses. Each has its independent stamp based on the immediate surroundings, the people that worked on the structure, and even how the individual materials come from different locations and times. The trace of a tree that was used, or a stone that came from a particular place in the earth can be evident in the architecture.

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The work we do often attempts to take advantage of the trace. Remnants from the past inform our designs. We deal with existing conditions in a respectful and appropriate manner, without allowing them to dictate our every move. We see things working in dialog together, and the new is an equal, not subservient, voice in that conversation. When an existing structure is part of our project, we have always looked to maintain the integrity of that element. If the street exhibits a continuity, we will tie our designs into the elevation. If the ground reflects the past, we mark the surface. Connections, even in intentional differentiation, are always a consideration.

And finally, it is interesting to note that these connections will be lost in time, by more layers, by modification, by removal. Perhaps it is enough to do my best to embrace the impermanence, enjoy the process of creation anew, and allow myself to imagine the great things to come as the work we do is eventually absorbed.

This entry was posted in Academic, Design, Theory.

One Comment

  1. Dana Sharp December 2, 2014 at 8:41 am #

    I really get this. I used to fight change all the time, especially in a Quality Control job I had. It was only when a college professor did a speech about it, did I understand. He said, “You have to shake the tree sometimes to get any fruit.” Uniformity is boring.