The City and the Passing Minute

Nicolás Delgado Álcega (MArch II ‘20)

The city is, by nature, in time. It is an interminable, cyclical process that is constantly mediating between what was, what is, and what might be. And yet, the city only exists now. There is no city of the past; no city of the future. These are just delusions of the mind.

Like ourselves, everything in the city lives and dies. However, something has come into being, it generally exists only as long as it has a ‘use value’. It's only further claim to survival is its capacity to be a repository for some sort of meaning, and thus enjoy some sort of ‘exchange value’. For this to happen, it has to speak a language that, here and now, we can understand. It has to communicate value to us. If it doesn’t; if it has nothing to say, or we simply cannot understand it any longer, it turns back to clay and makes way for something else. This allegedly rational process is quite idiosyncratic, but it is ultimately what gives cities richness and a human quality.

The city has no end goal, regardless of how much we may want to impress this quality upon it. This would imply the need for permanence, and in the city, there is no such thing. Material, form and meaning are constantly evolving, and the city, at every corner, reminds us of this. The city is about multiplicity; about the coming together of a complex web of forces, actors and experiences. It categorically rejects any one vision or idea. It denies domination by a single actor or time. In the city, only contributions are acceptable, and it is a prerequisite that they are willing and able to enter into the lyrical play and struggle of coexistence.

As such, we can attempt to understand the city and its formal qualities as a pure manifestation of the exercise of mediation and negotiation amongst parties. It is an essay about how and who we agree to share space with, be it an ancient man, a force of nature or another creature. When we look at a city, we simultaneously look at the whole of time as well as at the specific way in which we cope with it here and now.

To understand this means being able to find a space for ourselves in the city where, by reducing friction and accepting the flow of the current, meaningful action is possible. As finite actors with a limited agency, we can only get a glimpse of the city; and yet if we accept our perspective, this can be an immense, rich field. Only by operating intensely within a small, constrained scope, can we establish true, meaningful contact with the immense complexity and unknowability that characterizes the city.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180) writes:

“Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore that he can have no other life except the one he loses. (...) [The] passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, nor yet what is still to come – for how can he be deprived of what he does not possess?”

Our minds are such that they constantly convince themselves that they can perpetuate the past or impose the future. They misguide us into believing that the present, constantly flying by us, can or will conform to this misconstruction. They let us down when time is running out and things, fundamentally, seem pretty much unchanged.

To practice meaningfully means accepting our individual point of view and coming to terms with our hyper-specific time-place circumstance; it means understanding the smallness of the space which we truly own as the only point of access we have into the awesome complexity of the city and the immensity of time.


Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Translated by Maxwell Staniforth. London: Penguin Books, 2004.
Colquhoun, Alan. “Typology and Design Method.” Perspecta, Vol. 12 (1969): 71-74.