Photo: Kurt Lavenson

Photo: Kurt Lavenson

Fallow [fal-loh]
1. (of land) plowed and left unseeded for a season or more; uncultivated
2. not in use; inactive

Let Everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.
— Rainer Maria Rilke

The economic downturn has hit my architecture business rather hard. For years, decades actually, I had a running list of clients waiting for me to design their projects. Now the backlog is gone. I have large blocks of unscheduled time. I live and work only in the present tense, unsure of the outlook next year or even two quarters ahead. This can be awkward to discuss with friends and colleagues. I see pained looks flicker across their faces when I answer the ubiquitous “so how’s business?” with an unequivocal “really slow.” Apparently, I have offered more than they really wanted to hear, violating an unspoken rule by giving voice to loss. Occasionally, I go further, adding, “…and I like it.” Perhaps I am expected to say business is OK, or at the very least picking up again; it is apparently safe to talk about loss in the past tense but not the present. Some colleagues are relieved to discuss loss in the open, taking comfort that they are not alone, but most react as if loss may be contagious and pull away. For my part, I am learning to embrace the slowdown for its cathartic qualities. The stillness has within it another kind of wealth—one of reflection, grounding and opportunity. I have come to appreciate the fallow period.

Until the modern era of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, it was common practice for farmers to let alternating sections of their fields go fallow to regenerate. This gave the soil and organisms a chance to rebuild the land’s nutrient base for subsequent crops. However, as emphasis shifted toward maximum production, the soil was never allowed to rest. Nutrient flows were subsidized and accelerated by artificial means, leading to depletion and pollution. I see a metaphor here for the construction industry and the economy as a whole. The boom cycles are not sustainable without artificial subsidies, and they become unhealthy when pushed past their natural limits. An economy which primarily measures success in terms of speed and quantity of production will eventually become toxic. It is time to take another look at the elegance of processes that appear inefficient, like those fields left unplanted and uncultivated for a season. When we think with a longer-term perspective, not doing can be as valuable as doing. There is regenerative opportunity in stillness.

Recently, I spoke with Sim Van der Ryn, architect, author and leading proponent of sustainability and whole-systems thinking before most of us knew the words. I asked him to discuss the fallow field metaphor. After hours of conversation, I had only one word circled on my notepad—presence. We always came back to presence. If ambitious, hyper-multitasking is a skill of the head, then mindful presence is a skill of the heart. Valuable knowledge and insight reside in the heart, where they are often ignored in the rush to success or the panic of crisis. Taking time to pause, to lay fallow, allows us to connect with that wisdom and reach a fundamentally new kind of productivity.

Endings are required before we can have new beginnings. Frank Gehry has been quoted describing a period in 1978 when, at the age of 49, his work came to a halt. During a conversation with his biggest client, he admitted to not really liking the projects he was designing. The two parted ways amicably, and the work was suddenly gone. A few days later, Gehry had to cut his staff of fifty down to three. He called the experience “seeing the devil” and said it was neither the first nor the last time it happened. However, that moment was a turning point at which he committed his attention to design work that aroused his passion. He is now one of the most notable and celebrated architects in the world, having fundamentally redefined building form and process. Gehry acknowledged his sense of loss and disappointment. He spoke from the heart. He stopped what he was doing, took the hit and remained present. Then he became available to use his gifts in new and more meaningful ways.

Many now claim their design practices to be focused on sustainability. I’m not convinced, however, that specifying bamboo floors and solar arrays is enough to deserve that moniker if the underlying business paradigm requires constant production. Perhaps design itself would be more sustainable if it allowed, or celebrated, pauses in the economic cycle. They are natural inflection points. For some the consequences of a slowdown are more dismal than others. However, the need to become less afraid of stillness and loss is universal. How many of us have said that we learned more from a test we failed or a job we lost than from an easy victory? Clearly, we don’t need to seek sadness or emptiness; we just need to stop pretending they can, or should, be eliminated. The cusp of profound change is similar to the demolition phase in a construction project. Before building something new, it is necessary to destroy old structures that are interfering—to clear the ground. We have to accept loss, and sometimes destruction, in order to grow. Releasing the past and its hold on us allows for new opportunities.