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NEW YORK TIMES CAPSULE / NEW YORK, NEW YORK



CLIENT: New York Times

SITE: initial proposed location is lobby of New York Times offices.

PROGRAM: Time capsule to preserve selected digital and physical artifacts for one thousand years.

SIZE: 10ft 3

COST: $50,000

COMPLETION: Fall 1999 (competition)

NOTES: Milled from solid blocks of alloy steel, with only a single seam (eventually welded) at their doors, miscellaneous (sacrificial) support equipment in various materials, to be supplemented over time.

PUBLICATIONS: C3 Korea 0309, no. 229; The New York Times Magazine, 5 Dec., 1999;



PROJECT TEXT:

From the competition boards: “A millennium is a long time. In this case, the spatial adjective is appropriate: it is a distant future that the Times Capsule will try to reach. The vehicle that will survive this endurance contest will be hardy, but because of the budget, it will not be a contest of sheer muscle. It will be a test of cleverness.

Fast, good or cheap. Pick two. The present project is constrained in several ways that are particularly significant for the task at hand. First, the budget is of a different order of magnitude than the aspirations. Second, there is no site yet chosen—and the best candidate, in terms of survival properties (the Belvedere, in Central Park), is not easily available for so private a venture, while the best for emotional reasons (Times Square), has low survival value. Finally, and ironically, there is not much time for overcoming these other problems.

Our proposal addresses each of these issues.

There are two basic attitudes that can be taken towards the issue of survivability. The capsule can be designed from the outset to assume the worst possibility, so that upon inauguration it is equipped to survive anything man or nature can throw at it. This is certainly the safe, conservative route. But also the expensive one. The other approach would be to gamble on the existence of a foreseeable future, during which the capsule could be protected by other means. Such a scenario would allow its contents to be viewed—and would also spread the preservation efforts out over a more appropriate time frame, allowing such strategies as investing a portion of the budget with a view toward using the earnings in, say, 100 years to provide a proper building to house it. This would be the route of faith, sending a message of confidence and trust to future generations, rather than the paranoid dare assumed by designing for the worst-case scenario. This is also the clever path, since it allows the present generation, which has launched the capsule, to enjoy the event and marvel at its significance for a while, without paying the full freight or hogging all the authorship. It invites the participation of the future, ensuring a continuing care without creating some highly artificial and ultimately embarrassing obligation of ritual or priesthood.

The capsule is a satellite sent into the future, complete with various stages of support equipment that will fall away over time, ultimately to leave the twin capsules themselves, unadorned, yet also un-violated. The budget can be concentrated on the payload capsules, ensuring for them the highest quality, but consoling itself with the temporary nature of the attachments, trusting to their ultimately inessential nature in comparison to the payload they serve, hoping for their own maintenance and even upgrading by future generations, but not depending on it.

We felt that any attempt to capture the millennial spirit through grandiose design or cosmic allusion—however complex or austere—would be misguided. Confronted with the scarcely appreciable reality of this span, any effort to represent or even evoke this magnitude of history would be unworthy, betraying the seriousness of the intentions behind it. In ten years our current fashion cycles must make such efforts embarrassing; in a thousand years they could only appear pathetic.

Better to stick to the facts, to be strictly utilitarian and solve the problem of durability and legibility with the verve demanded explicitly by the budget and (ironically short) time frame. In fact, if it remains an interest that the capsule reflect the spirit of the age and people that launched it, there could be no better pre (pro)-scription than these budget and time limitations. Except for certain parts of California, this is not an age of cosmic reference, but of new humility before the natural. This is, ultimately, the age of the instrumental, and America is the place where pragmatism has been most celebrated. [how ironic that that aspect of technology of which we are most proud—the digital revolution—is least capable of being useful to us in this endeavor. This prevents us from a shortsighted preference for a technology that is still maybe too new to be considered truly millennial—a technology that may more properly prove to be representative of the next millennium rather than the last, which had been building up to the enframing perfected in the latter half of this century]. The budget and time frame can be seen in this light as positive restraints against the millennial hysteria that would erect titanium pyramids or silicon/polymer crypts.

Yet it is also in the nature of such pragmatism to value cleverness, and to push against those constraints in order to squeeze out just a bit more than expected.

The utilitarian nature of the capsule should then be celebrated. Our design has taken this as its second major directive: to render the capsule capable of surviving continuous display in an unsecured public location, such as the lobby of the New York Times offices.

Though (respect for a sense of) utility has been the main formal influence, we have not ignored the rhetorical dimension of this influence. We have gone beyond the strictly pragmatic to its celebration, and all the irony and paradox that entails—the celebration of the un-celebrated. As perhaps the farewell concept to a millennium marked at its end by the achievements of technology, we are well aware now that form cannot be exhausted in function. There is always a residue (of choice) in even the most ruthlessly pragmatic design process. We have deployed this residue to reinforce or celebrate the utilitarian sense of the capsule. Ironically, this has introduced an element of the anti-conservative to our otherwise strict preference for durability, though still well within the tolerance for millennial survival. Thus, for example, the capsules, even when completely en-turtled, are held up to exposure by the frame that joins them. They never have a low profile.

There are two permanent capsules—one holds HD Rosetta reproductions of the two-dimensional material created and assembled by the Times, and the other holds three-dimensional material. The two containers for this material are milled from solid blocks of alloy steel, with only a single seam (eventually welded) at their doors. Inscribed all over their surface, in a deep vee-bottomed relief (to avoid edges) is a text describing their purpose and contents in two languages.

These capsules hold the payload intended to travel the full distance. Everything else—the motors, viewers, frames, pumps, railings and supports—are assumed to fall away over time unless maintained. The capsules are thus constructed to be virtually indestructible, even while on display, while everything else is, to a greater or lesser extent, sacrificial. The “temporariness” of this supporting equipment is not uniform, though. This equipment may be ranked in order of decreasing permanence, from the motors that slam the doors to the pumps which evacuate the air and replace it with argon, to the main structural supports, and the viewers and their supporting structure, and finally the guardrails.