The transformation of buildings with time

I was very excited for our visit to the Providence Public Library this week, and greatly enjoyed the hard hat tour. It was very interesting to see a building in progress—in this case, being half torn down and rebuilt—rather than the finished products that I usually experience. In particular, seeing the inner structure of the building helped me think about how the bare frame relates to the space that it will eventually become.

Exposed concrete beams in the library

A partially finished empty room in the library

Seeing a grand building under renovation was also an important reminder that buildings are far from static creations—rather, they change over time, both on a smaller time scale (e.g. lighting and activities change throughout the day) and a grander one (a library is renovated after about 30 years). During a short visit, I think a person’s understanding of a building is, by default, a more static one: the memories kept from that visit assume that it always looks the same way, despite the capability to imagine it otherwise. It takes several hours in a building to experience the shorter time scale changes, and frequenting a building for several years to experience the larger changes. Because of this, I think it was amazing to visit the library for the first time while under renovation: in a short visit, the state of the building easily conveyed the long-term changes it’s undergoing.

These are bookshelves which are structurally supporting the unfinished building. One can easily imagine both what the room looked like before they were put in—large and empty—and how the room will look when these shelves are filled.

Reflecting on the relationship between buildings and time led me to recall Room 1680, a building at a farmhouse in southwest Iceland whose renovations Gavin Lucas analyzed. This building underwent several phases of renovation over a period of about 150 years (c. 1630-1785), so is a key example of a structure that changed on a large time scale.

Plan of Skalholt – building 1680 is circled

Seeing all of the organization, work, and time that goes into renovating the library is a good example of what kind of logistics and activities are necessary to alter a building. This can be related to any time we’ve discussed the changes or upkeep of a palace, but I’ll stick with the smaller and more recent Room 1680 for now since we know so much about its history. For example, the floor of Room 1680 “revealed a very regular and continuous cycle of maintenance” with added layers of trampled ash and flagstones (Lucas 2016, 6). This information lets us think about how the activities of the building would have been disrupted for a time: the space would presumably have to be cleared out, and multiple people would have to haul in stone. Once the initial work was finished, the room would feel dramatically changed from before, as the flooring would be new and the ash probably less well-packed. Then, over time, the ash would become more packed and the room would see a more gradual, and therefore less noticeable, change to the worn and well-packed floor. All of this would, of course, be magnified in the case of a palace: how much work did it take to constantly change the rushes covering the floors of the Burnt Palace? Apparently, they were often replaced (Lloyd 1965), which would require a higher magnitude of organization and labor—more akin to what we saw at the Providence library.

– Maria Ronchi


Lloyd, S. and Mellaart, J. (1965) Beycesultan Vol. II Middle Bronze Age Architecture and Pottery. Occasional Publications of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara 8. London, William Clowes and Sons.

Gavin Lucas, G. (2016) “Archaeological modes of enquiry and architecture,” In Elements of Architecture: Assembling archaeology, atmosphere and the performance of building spaces. Taylor and Francis.