Past and Present
by Martin Kastner
Topping out a skyscraper – installing the last major piece of the building’s structure – is usually marked by a ceremony. In 1968, the ceremony of topping out The John Hancock Center included the installation of a time capsule. In May of this year, the capsule will be opened and a new one installed in its place for the next half century. 360 Chicago, the observation deck owners, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architecture firm behind the John Hancock Center and many of the world’s tallest buildings, organized a competition for the new time capsule and invited me to be one of the judges.
Notion of time as a medium – as an active ingredient – is something I continuously consider in my design practice. In addition to that, thinking of time capsules for future generations brings to surface many childhood experiences. I grew up in Cheb, a medieval, multicultural city on the edge of two distinct yet intertwined nations and historical streams in the center of Europe. A town where time’s passing seems physically present at every turn, it’s full of reminders of past centuries and our fleeting presence. In my early teens, I was a member of an archeological club, going on medieval location digs - uncovering various fragments of the human past, other times looking for Trilobites - little fossilized imprints of life on our planet from millions of years ago. These experiences were a part of a feedback loop that fueled my obsession with permanence. I ended up training to be a blacksmith because of my desire for leaving a lasting fingerprint. It seemed to me that permanence countered the ephemeral nature of human existence. Interestingly, it didn’t last long for the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction - from permanence to sensory experiences and the most subjective and cursory stimuli became my primary interest. Now a large portion of my work revolves around experiential design and food, quintessentially ephemeral subjects. While I do design physical objects, they are intended as tools for experiences. They are vehicles, not the endgame. The objects might last but their function and meaning transform or disappear with the changing context.
Last night, I was looking for a few-year-old sample in the studio archive. In light of the time capsule competition and of the fact that this year Crucial Detail will turn 20 years old, I couldn’t help thinking of the project boxes as little time capsules. I did not create a time capsule 20 years ago to be opened this year. It would have felt overly optimistic, even arrogant, to plan that far out. But we do have all these little time capsules of projects, some stretching over years in their process. I do know that in just about every aspect of what I might have thought two decades ago Crucial Detail would evolve into, I would have been wrong. And maybe that is the value of a time capsule that can be opened in our lifetimes - understand and accept how little we get right about the future.
The original 1968 Hancock Center capsule design itself is very indicative of its time. Its name is Skystone and the form makes a direct reference to space exploration - it screams 1968. It appears designed to survive a nuclear attack, disintegration of the Earth, or a space launch of the tower. It’s a telling mix of design trends of the time, the 1968 notion of futurism, human expansion, and ideology.
From Today’s vantage point, 1968 ended up being a momentous year. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated within two months of each other. It was the year of student riots and protests against war and oppression around the world. The Prague Spring in my home country was crushed by the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies led by the Soviet Union. Apollo 8 circled the moon with humans on board. The Beatles recorded The White Album... None of this was known to the people assembling the time capsule and its contents. They were living in their present. Just as we have no idea how 2018 will be viewed 50 years from now and which of Today’s events will be relevant to future generations.
The results of the Hancock Center time capsule competition will be announced by 360 Chicago on March 13, followed by a public vote on the contents of the capsule to be installed in May. The contents of the existing capsule will not reveal anything new about the world of 1968 but they should spark a conversation about what gets lost despite our meticulously recorded existence, what is worth safeguarding and passing on.