How would we design and build differently if we learned to live at multiple time scales? How would human communities respond to global challenges if the short-term mindset of contemporary life was expanded to encompass new dimensions of past and future — diving into the depths of geological history and projecting forward to imagine the consequences of our actions today?
These are questions that Cristina Parreño Alonso addresses in her practice as an architect, artist, and senior lecturer in the MIT Department of Architecture. Her field of research, which she has termed “Transtectonics,” explores the cultural and environmental implications of expanded temporal sensibilities in architectural material practice. A building, Parreño argues, is a “material event,” part of a process of construction and deconstruction that is shaped by the past and directly impacts the future — an impact that has become all the more apparent in the epoch of the Anthropocene, in which humans have become the dominant force influencing the physical composition and regulating systems of the planet.
Parreño’s classes at MIT have included design studios that position architecture in relation to geological processes, and historical surveys of building practices that embrace traces of time and rhythms of maintenance. She recently devised a new class, 4.181 (The Deep Time Project), which launched in fall 2022 with the support of a 2022 Cross Disciplinary Class Grant from the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST), in addition to the d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education.
Learning deep time literacy
“The course proposes that architects must develop deep-time literacy if we are to become true planetary stewards,” says Parreño. “Rather than attempting to identify solutions, the course is intended to provoke new ways of thinking that lead to greater accountability — a recognition that we, as architects, are intervening in something larger than ourselves, and that the consequences of our actions extend far beyond the timescales of our human lives and civilizations.” The class, which was offered to master’s students in the School of Architecture and Planning and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, culminated in a series of “material essays” that seek to bring deep time into contemporary consciousness. These multimedia projects — which include physical prototypes, text components, sound, and video — are on display until March 24 at the Wiesner Student Art Gallery.
“Being part of the exhibition has made me realize the advantages of belonging to a collective that recognizes the urgency of addressing the idea of time at different scales,” says architecture master's student Christina Battikha, whose material essay “Plastic Time” imagines a future when plastic is integral to the geological structure of the Earth. Envisioned as a jagged plastic “rock,” the sculpture interprets the ubiquitous synthetic material as a natural phenomenon, a human-made product that far outlasts a human lifespan.
Taking the form of a clay “Rosetta Stone” inscribed with multiple languages, architecture student Tatiana Victorovna Estrina’s material essay explores how the evolution of language impacts the built environment. “My project identifies a gap of imagination in deep time research,” she explains. “The installation became a futuristic exploration of opportunities for the adaptive relationship between the human body and its prosthetic additions of language and architecture.”
“Developing the class here at MIT grants us the capacity to hold conversations across disciplines,” says Parreño. “That’s all the more necessary, because deep time literacy requires a very holistic way of thinking; it raises awareness of the fact that we are inherently interconnected, and makes it clear that we can’t afford to operate in compartments.”
This attention to interdisciplinarity is exemplified by the guest speakers invited to share their ideas with the class, each providing a new way of accessing the deep time paradigm. Among the speakers were Marcia Bjornerud, a structural geologist and educator who argues that a geologist’s temporal perspective can empower us to make decisions for a more sustainable future. Richard Fisher, a senior journalist at the BBC, and Bina Venkataraman, journalist and author of “The Optimist's Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age,” both shared their experiences of engaging the public in the perils of short-term-ism and the positive effects of taking the long view in daily life. The historian of science Jimena Canales provided a philosophical background to the conundrums of time perception, citing the renowned debate between Albert Einstein and the philosopher Henri Bergson.
Alongside these large-scale thinkers and academic researchers were practitioners who directly apply planetary perspectives at a local level. Joseph Bagley is Boston’s city architect, investigating the layers of time that constitute the urban fabric. Faries Gray, the sagamore of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, advocates for Indigenous ways of knowing that recognize the continuity between human cultures and the living history of the land. Together, these different ways of relating to deep time offer a toolkit for contemplating a concept too large to be held in the human mind.
Thinking through art
Parreño’s own way of conceptualizing deep time is informed by her artistic and philosophical inquiry into the paradoxes of time, tectonics, and materiality. Exhibited at the Schusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow, her installation Tectonics of Wisdom focused on the typology of the library as a way of demonstrating how architecture is intertwined with geological and civilizational history. Carbon to Rock, shown at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, explores new artificial manipulations of the geological timescales of the carbon cycle, rethinking igneous rocks as a resilient material for high-carbon-capture architecture. In addition, Parreño has published several essays on the subject of deep time for journals including Strelka Magazine, Log, and JAE Journal of Architectural Education. Her work as a writer and theorist is complemented by her art installations — or material essays — that serve as a research methodology and a means of communication.
Likewise, the exhibition component of the Deep Time Project is a way of giving thoughts physical form. Estrina’s installation was initially prompted by the need to communicate the presence of buried nuclear waste to future generations — or even future species. Battikha’s sculpture is a response to the vast buildup of plastic generated by cycles of supply and demand. However, rather than making value judgements or condemning human actions, these works are intended to disrupt conventional patterns of perception, experimenting with longer-term perspectives that have the potential to change ingrained assumptions and daily habits. “There needs to be a paradigm shift before we can effectively address the enormity of the challenges ahead,” says Parreño. “The Deep Time Project is about taking a step back, reframing these problems in ways that will allow us to ask the right questions.”