WAF Newsletter - In Practice - February 2020

In Practice

Paul Hyett, 19 February 2020


Time, distance and geography are shrinking fast

The COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak reminds us that the world continues, metaphorically, to shrink. An epidemic that might have taken decades to spread around the globe mere centuries ago now takes only hours as unwitting travelers act as host and courier alike.

In his wonderful essay ‘The Monastery and the Clock’, Lewis Mumford suggested that the clock effectively gave ‘human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not only merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men’. John Harrison’s clocks – now permanently exhibited in all their splendor at the Greenwich Observatory in London – enabled 18th century sailors to set time differentiation between ‘true position’ and ‘start position’ and thus facilitated modern navigation.

But setting an internationally accepted meridian – a zero longitude – itself took time. It wasn’t until the International Meridian Conference of 1884, called courtesy of US president Chester A. Arthur, that agreement was finally reached for the prime meridian to run through Greenwich in England. The French continued using their own line for timekeeping purposes until 1911, after which the Paris Meridian was forgotten -- until 1994, when France’s capital sponsored a Dutch artist’s installation of 135 bronze medallions in city pavements to mark the ancient line. In 2000, work started on the ‘Méridienne Verte’, an ambitious plan to plant a 600-mile line of trees marking the French meridian’ path throughout France.

‘Zero longitude’ resulted in the world’s clocks being set to pre- and post-Greenwich ‘mean time’. Thus Shanghai and Beijing are, unsurprisingly on the same time as Perth Australia (Greenwich plus eight hours), while Melbourne is three hours ‘ahead’ of Perth, or alternatively 11 hours ahead of Greenwich. (Confusing? If you want to see a wonderful sketch on the subject, Google Dave Allen ‘teaching your kid time’).

In China, some 750 miles wider west to east than Australia, the state has kept the entire country to one time zone. In the USA, Los Angeles is three hours behind New York. But the westerly Chinese city of Kashgar, with a longitude west of Delhi in India -- yes: look at your atlas -- is 2.5 hours ahead of Delhi and on the same time zone as China’s most easterly major city Fuyuan. The latter, incidentally, is home to 130,000 people on the Russian border just north of Vladivostok (albeit two hours behind in time).

Kashgar, an important trading post on the old Silk Road, will no doubt soon be massively developed as China’s most westerly urban centre on the new Silk Belt and Road Initiative that is now well under way, and will see high-speed Chinese railways linking through Istanbul directly into Europe. Shrinking world! Will this eventually result in adjustments to Chinese time zones?

Such issues used to fascinate my old boss Cedric Price, who was much preoccupied with the impact of changes in our perception of ‘time, interval and distance’ on design and architecture. It took me a long time to get my mind round this subject - a theme that would recur in many of his talks. Ultimately, I grasped it and so, for my AA diploma essay I explored that theme myself. Little did I realize that the exploration would have such relevance to my work – some three decades later - on sports projects, most notably stadiums and arenas.

These buildings and modern communication technologies have become increasingly melded, with the expectation of spectators that time and distance within the facility will be constantly distorted, with sequence interrupted and rescheduled for what Price referred to as ‘convenience and delight’. Think about it: how often when watching an amateur match do you look up to the non-existent screen to see the replay? Information is now ‘streamed’ to our seats and indeed throughout the modern sports venue: apart from the huge centre board screens at the Dallas Cowboys stadium, each 60 yards long, there are 3,700 smaller video screens across the facility.

The First Formula 1 Grand Prix of the season was, in the 1950s, flown on reel to the UK and played in cinemas. Today we watch it live, or when we wish; we see the pit-stops, fast-forward to the action, then ‘pause’ it all while we have breakfast. Thus we distort time (watch later, not now); distance (here, not there, or even view the race from the on-board lead car’s camera); and ‘sequence’ (let’s watch the finish before the start!).

As to the impact of all this on architecture, think about programme, intensity of use, and revenue. When Wales played Australia in the Rugby World Cup semi-final in New Zealand back in 2011, 61,500 fans packed the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff to watch the match on big screens live. Why? The ‘beingness’ of being there; same time with friends but without teams. Communication technology uniting great moments across the globe, and distorting distance. And the building was a high-revenue generator without a game, becoming a cinema in lieu of a stadium. Cedric would have loved it!

All of which was far too much for one of my early clients: he used to tend his roses while his wife recorded the Wimbledon final. He could only watch after he knew the result. Couldn’t take the pressure.

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