What Makes Architecture “Timeless?”
by Raffi Arzoumanian
"If there is an approach to creating 'timeless architecture,' it should be steeped in the present, but also forward-thinking."
As I reviewed a recent RFP for a new institutional project, one requirement stood out to me: “The design should be timeless.” I kept wondering what it meant in the context of architecture.
Those of us who are trained in this profession know that excellent design should always be “timely.” Good or bad architecture is closely tied to the social, environmental, economic, and aesthetic preferences of a given time. I could not reconcile these deeply instilled principles with the idea of timelessness.
I thought perhaps I was missing something in the language or intent. I scoured the internet for interpretations and discussions of “timeless architecture.” After spending several hours sorting through different research papers, blogs, and chats, I came to a realization that I was only absorbing opinions based on individual tastes. Personal perspectives on past well-known buildings seemed to justify these structures as “timeless architecture.”
In the end, I am not convinced that such a thing exists.
A friend explained to me that the RFP must have meant traditional, classical design and materials. Based on my knowledge of the institution, this may be the case. Perhaps they wanted a building reflective of a time gone by, composed of aesthetic elements that we associate with endurance, style, taste, and longevity.
Is that all we should strive for in designing a brand-new building?
We as architects have a social and professional responsibility to be keenly aware of the forces that move our time forward. We need to observe and understand the past, be curious and engaged with the present, and actively create the environments that will propel us into an awakened future. You cannot move forward by only copying and repeating the past.
An architectural masterpiece is great if it tells us the story of its time in a very clear and focused fashion. We experience it in the context of our time, but we are acutely aware of the era in which it was created. And we also understand, as a technical artform, that it leapt ahead of its own time to make what seemed impossible possible. It shows us a new way of understanding and seeing that we had not considered.
If there is an approach to creating “timeless architecture,” it should be steeped in the present, but also forward-thinking.
It may start with a comprehensive understanding of the possibilities of today – our current social, technological, psychological, economic, and environmental state – and be woven into the prevailing way we conceive and create space. These are the spaces that will tell a vivid and compelling story today, but also resonate in the future.