Time Travel vs. Nostalgia

In what must surely be a sign of a certain 'thesis fever' setting in, I watched National treasure this weekend. I must confess, in addition to faceted surfaces, mushrooms, matte black finishes on just about any object, and music with lots of bleeps and bloops I really like secret society myths. The specific breed of Illuminati/Templar story that has been so present in our culture lately is particularly interesting because each telling is a variation on a clear theme: a group of smart people leave clues spread out in time and space for someone to connect and find the treasure. The two key assumptions embedded in these myths are that the founders of the secret society were all knowing and that secrets don't become outdated (sounds disciplinary to me).

In these stories the present generally has very little to offer to the past. Limitless riches and the highest of technology are always employed on the quest to discover the secrets, but ultimately these modern accoutrements get the protagonist in trouble. Stranded, trapped, wounded, the hero must interpret the clues using only their mind- inevitably a cocktail of intellect, ancient languages, and factual recall. We begin to understand these stories as deeply nostalgic- not simply because the hero is looking to the past for answers to today's problems, but because every attempt to bring those historical solutions into the present day results in catastrophe. The ark always slips back into the sea, the path to the treasure room always closes, the guardians of the secret always prevent its complete unraveling.

Nostalgia, the longing for something now past, is a one way exchange which tethers objects through time, adding friction to an otherwise fluid progression and forming bridges between then and now. For this reason, nostalgia is the lazy person's time travel. Stern's building on Central Park West is not anachronistic, it's literally visiting from another world: it seeks to bring with it into our world all of the connotations, memories, quirks, and, ultimately, the subjectivity of a different time.

If nostalgia drops objects from the past into a foreign context, time travel does the opposite: it brings a foreign context (the mind of the time traveler) to existing objects. This question of time travel is interesting precisely because it offers a way of both discussing objective nostalgia (and by extension perhaps the desires that wrought histopomo) and issues of subjective awareness. The time traveler, as an individual in a new land, must both confront material differences and be curious about the mental framework (consciousness, subjectivity, design intentions) that put this material into that world.

Nostalgia is passive, time travel is active. Hijacking an object or aesthetic from another time is to rip it out of context. Fair enough. Time travel, however, as a mode of working requires that you move people (and their ideas) into a new time and then force them to adapt to their new setting. This is an active process that must evolve as a conversation between then and now. Time travel uses primary sources and thus tends towards literalness instead of abstraction. As a conversational, even argumentative method of working, it requires the resolution of multiple systems (then, now, tomorrow) into (approximately) one thing and thus also cannot be imitative. Time travel is an imbricative act that forces the time traveler to become an agent of synthesis.

Next: Open competitions as the pulse of architecture, time travel, the "just in time"
And then: Time travel as Constitutional understanding