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Pace layers

19 May 2003

Yesterday I spent some time at the Barnes & Noble Public Library, as I usually do on Sunday afternoons, and I sat down with Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. It’s a pretty fascinating book about how buildings evolve over time and are adapted to new forces and realities. He says that change happens within a given building at different paces, depending on which layer you observe. You might picture concentric circles moving around each other at different speeds. Or maybe, I don’t know, multicolored concentric houses:


(Adapted from peterme’s version)

Some aspects of a building, like its structure, rarely change, if ever. Within that structure, medium-term changes happen on levels like Services: plumbing, wiring, ventilation, etc. As you get closer to the surface (“stuff”) level, there is almost constant flux. The faster layers allow for innovation; the slower layers provide stability.

In Brand‘s later book, The Clock of the Long Now, he extends the same idea from architecture to all of society, all of civilization. Here he is at this year’s Information Architecture Summit, standing in front of a diagram with these layers:


(photo by Mike Lee)

First, there is Nature, an extremely powerful, extremely slow force, which grinds away over millenia. At the other end of the spectrum is Fashion, which changes constantly, on the order of months. Recognizing these layers and the shearing effect at their edges is important, because each of the lower, slower layers sets the constraints on those above it. In a building, the site creates the parameters for everything else. The same is true of pace layers in civilization. Brand says: “In a well-tempered civilization, each of these pace layers respects the others. When commercial interests try to rush nature and threaten to break it, government has to step in. If commercial interests own the government, you will have serious problems.”

At church last night we talked about the importance of stability, permanence, and commitment in the face of a neophilic culture. Consumerism and information glut, two major forces in our current time and place, both work against this goal: both of them value the new over the old, and coarse vulgarity over thoughtful consideration. But at what cost do we follow fashion and seek after stuff?

Brand says: “a building is not something you finish, a building is something you start.” At church, Tim made a similar observation when he talked about the old cathedrals of Europe that took multiple generates to build: “People gave their whole lives to doing something that they wouldn’t see the fruit of. What if God has a vision for our community that is bigger than what we would see happen in our life? … I want to be a church that is building cathedrals.”

I wonder if the concept of “pace layers” can be applied to a church community? What would the layers be? And then, how can a community of believers spur and support stability over time, and what can we expect to see as a result?