Herbert Wright clocks on
It looks like an obelisk rendered by a cubist, it chimes the hour and yet it is out of time. The brand new 25m-high asymmetrical clock tower of Dixie State University, Utah, by local architect VCBO, should be finished this month. It’s the latest in a typology that once proliferated around the world, but which architecture has almost forgotten.
Who needs a public clock when you can whip out your mobile phone to check the time? Some may remember when we relied on wristwatches. Every now and then, when they stopped or had been left in the bathroom, those with a schedule suddenly needed that otherwise-ignored network of public clocks out there. Few things would be more annoying than a stopped public clock.
Mediæval time had drifted vaguely with the sun across the sky until the hour was pinned down, at least locally, by mechanical clocks on churches. But the church’s time was to pass. Perhaps Newton and Descartes’ rational universe, defined by absolute time and space (a sort of infinite über-Miesian matrix), had something to do with it. Certainly by the 19th century, the state controlled public time. Clocktowers proclaimed prosperity from town halls and authority across empires. The real time lords, however, were the railway companies, whose timetables depended on nationwide consistency, their termini making the clocktower sublime. In the early 20th century, US capitalism took clocks to new heights on skyscrapers. As for academia, the peak was Birmingham University’s Aston Webb-designed Chamberlain Clocktower (1908), aka Old Joe, which is four times higher than Dixie State, and higher even than St Stephen’s Clocktower, aka Big Ben.
But public clocks have had their time. True, the world’s second tallest building happens to be the Abraj Al Bait’s clock tower in Mecca, completed just two years ago, but this 601m-high monster designed by Dar al-Handasah Architects is an exception, a symbol of Saudi custodianship of Islam. Stylistically, it is pure postmodernist bling, in this case a weird style mash-up of Charles Barry with Islamic and Soviet wedding-cake architecture. Outside Arabia and the Far East, historicist PoMo is just sooo yesterday. A twee little clock on a gabled roof was one of the architectural clichés of the eighties. At 200 California Street, San Francisco, a metal-plated PoMo clocktower is being reclad in beige just so it won’t look so dated. The city demolished a unique 57m-high digital clock tower in 2005 for luxury condos. ‘Go ahead, mark my day’, local cop Dirty Harry might have said to architects. Nowadays they get the bullet.
Perhaps time in the public realm should reflect the long term, and make us stop and think before it falls away like sand
The problem with passing styles and developers’ plans is short-term thinking. Perhaps time in the public realm should reflect the long term, and make us stop and think before it falls away like sand. The Long Now Foundation is building a monumental clockwork clock that should tick for 10,000 years, but though it will be accessible, few will see it in its Texas mountain location. Long-term clocks need renewable power to futureproof against the collapse of the grid. Laura Williams’ Aluna project proposes a 40m-wide tide-driven timepiece for the Greenwich Meridian- it would tell not the time of day, but ‘Moon time’, related to its phases and position. Stonehenge has functioned as an astronomical clock for five millennia.
Perhaps the next time a cluster of towers is proposed, we should configure them to cast special shadows or throw slits of light at key times like moonrise, solstices or tax return deadlines. And to shake up short-term thinking occupants, and save them looking at a clock, let’s play with mass-damping technology so that on the hour, the tower cores physically go ‘BONG!’
Trained physicist Herbert Wright is an architectural writer, historian and art critic
Foster+Partners’ Crossrail station and retail complex is emerging at Canary Wharf. Its end evokes a great fish with jaws open, and its side suggests an ocean liner berthed beside the offices. Good to challenge the estate’s unremitting blockiness, pity about losing yet more open dockwater.