Monthly Archives: April 2017

Place, Time, Heritage, Temporality

The past and the future are places
Place is infused with time. Indeed, from perspectives such as those suggested in these two illustrations, place and time are apparently the same thing. The future is a place, and the past is a place. (Carillion is a construction company. Stephen Harper is a former Prime Minister of Canada, and this quote is from an interview in 2016 after he had lost an election and had resigned)


More conventionally we usually think of ourselves as living in places in the present, looking toward the future with the past behind us. This conforms with the abstract idea of time as a linear flow in which we are immersed as though in a river, a conviction that has long prevailed in English speaking cultures and is implicit in ideas of progress.

An accidental manifestation of temporality in a sign on a farm market near Toronto

Temporality and alternative notions of time
This is, however, not the only way of thinking about time. In Ancient Greece people thought of themselves as having their backs to the future, never sure what was coming next, while looking back to the relative certainties of the past. And according to the physics of relativity time is not smoothly linear, but distorted by motion and gravity. Similarly in our everyday experiences of places time is neither constant nor linear. What we experience is “temporality,” a continually shifting blend of memories and things inherited from the past, intentions, expectations, and occasional moments of dejà vu. (The idea of temporality has several origins, one of which is of particular importance to students of place – Heidegger’s Being and Time).

In his book What Time is This Place? Kevin Lynch investigates what he calls the “temporal collages” of superimposed pasts, present and future as they are manifest in built environments. He examines the diverse manifestations of time in cityscapes – clocks, parking signs, rhythms of movement such as rush hours, evidence of preservation and continuity in architecture, and various intimations of the future. His conclusion (p.241) is that: “…space and time, however conceived, are the great framework within which we order our experience. We live in time-places.” Time-places, he suggests, are consonant both with the structure of reality as we experience it, and with the nature of our minds and bodies. They are, in other words, manifestations of temporality.

Ideas of past, present and future only come into the foreground when we choose to think about them or when we experience abrupt changes, for instance when familiar old buildings are demolished, our personal fortunes suddenly shift, or war or natural disasters destroy somewhere. Then the question arises whether old ways of doing things should be continued or whether they should be replaced by innovative approaches. How should places respond to change? Should they be added to and rebuilt much as they were, or replaced with something new that acknowledges transcendence over adversity and progress?

The Origins of Heritage
In spite of its title and conclusion Lynch’s book is mostly about time rather than place, and it is mostly about the past because place-time collages are everywhere dominated by an enormous inheritance of names, street patterns, monument and buildings that are decades or centuries old. He discusses strategies of conservation, preservation and restoration for protecting these historical remnants. But he does not mention heritage.

Pre-Heritage historical plaque in Buffalo, New York

From the current perspective of how to treat old cityscapes this seems like a remarkable omission, yet the reason for it is simple. The idea of heritage as we now think of it is a relatively recent one. Lynch’s book was written just before 1972, which was the year of a UNESCO Conference on the Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage that brought the notion of heritage into popular attention. Before then heritage meant little more than family heredity, or perhaps putting a plaque on a wall to acknowledge that famous politician been born or visited there. In the 1950s and 60s architects, planners and developers had come to regard almost everything old as obsolete whenever the opportunity arose had replaced it with something new. The UNESCO conference was a response to an international concern that was destroying environments, buildings and places of great cultural value. It established the idea of World Heritage Sites and encouraged participating nations to pass legislation to preserve and protect their own heritage sites. Most of them did. The result has been that since 1972 built heritage has become an integral part of city planning, a major attraction for tourism, a concept whose merits are assumed to be self-evident, and something that should be protected whenever possible.

Place and Heritage
This rise of interest in the protection of heritage is almost exactly contemporary with the rise of interest in and writing about place. This may not be altogether coincidental. One of the strongest motives for writing about place appears to be that both spirit and sense of place were much stronger in the past and now deteriorating. This is implicit in my own writing about place and placelessness, and in Marc Augé’s notion of non-place. It is explicit in the British RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts) website on Heritage, Identity and Place, and the American National Trust for Historical Preservation website Saving Places. The consequence is that while it is possible to discuss place in theoretical and philosophical ways without much consideration of heritage, it is now impossible to consider the identities of geographical places with paying attention to their heritage.

Heritage is a Jumbled, Malleable Amalgam
For all its popularity, heritage is a problematic idea. David Lowenthal, who considers himself a devotee of preservation, has suggested that heritage has now become such a sacred cow that it few are willing to question it critically. While it is the basis for preserving artifacts, buildings and townscapes that have huge cultural and aesthetic merit, and identifies some links to our cultural roots that might otherwise be lost: “The heritage past is,” he suggests, “a jumbled, malleable amalgam.”

           Heritage Town (the largest in America!) is a reproduction old-style Chinese food court on the second floor of Pacific Mall, a modern Asian shopping mall in Markham, in Toronto’s outer suburbs. The photo on the right shows the tiled entrance gate underneath exposed ducting.

Heritage is not history, which explores and explains a past that has grown opaque over time, but the selection and clarification of bits of the past that somebody or some group has identified as important in order to infuse them with present purposes. Heritage distorts history for reasons of education, to attract tourists, or to promote some political agenda. Even when its practitioners strive for authenticity, for example by using the same sorts of tools and methods that were used in the original construction, heritage sites are fragment of an old time-place that are set apart and often fenced off from the time-place of the present.

Signs at the Oelsner Mound in Florida, and for a new housing development in Toronto.

New suburbs generally don’t have much heritage; old European cities have a lot of it. In North America the heritage of First Nations was displaced by the imported heritage of British and other European colonists who imposed the names and architecture and customs of the old country. But many of the towns and landscapes those colonists created are in turn now being take over by groups with entirely different cultural backgrounds. In Toronto, for example, streets in Chinatown have Scottish names, and the Sikh Heritage Centre is in a gothic revival farmhouse in the urban fringe. And as advocates of heritage preservation move their deadlines for selection closer to the present it becomes increasingly paradoxical. Modernism is an architectural ideology based in a rejection of the past and a celebration of the future, yet iconic modernist buildings, such as Lever House in New York, are now being preserved.

The Horton Building in suburban Toronto and the Lever House, the first (1952) modernist skyscraper in New York City, undergoing restoration about 2001. 

A Critical Perspective
Heritage seen through the lens of time-places is not easy to unravel. One possible approach is to regard it as merely one element of the temporality of place. This is so regardless of whether we are primarily interested in geographical places, place attachment, place embodiment, place as gathering and openness, or places as nodes in networks of relationships. All of these are infused in various ways by histories, memories, expectations and future intentions. Yet, as far I can tell and with the exception of some consideration of the role of memory in place experience, for instance by Dylan Trigg, there has been relatively little attention paid to temporality.

Lynch, Kevin 1972 What Time is this Place? MIT Press

Trigg, Dylan, 2012 The memory of place: a phenomenology of the uncanny.  Ohio University Press