Issue 1
ISSUE
STORY TYPE
AUTHOR
10
PERSPECTIVE
June 17, 2024
We Need More Than Fewer, Better Things
by Deb Chachra
10
PERSPECTIVE
June 3, 2024
An Ode to Garages
by Charlie Weak
10
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
May 28, 2024
In Search of Domestic Kintsugi
by Edwin Heathcote
10
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
May 13, 2024
The Perils of the Landscapes We Make
by Karrie Jacobs
10
PERSPECTIVE
May 6, 2024
Using Simple Tools as a Radical Act of Independence
by Jarrett Fuller
9
PERSPECTIVE
April 29, 2024
Why Can’t I Just Go Home?
by Eva Hagberg
9
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
April 22, 2024
Why Did Our Homes Stop Evolving?
by George Kafka
9
ROUNDTABLE
April 8, 2024
Spaces Where the Body Is a Vital Force
by Tiffany Jow
9
BOOK REVIEW
April 1, 2024
Tracing the Agency of Women as Users and Experts of Architecture
by Mimi Zeiger
9
PERSPECTIVE
March 25, 2024
Are You Sitting in a Non-Place?
by Mzwakhe Ndlovu
9
ROUNDTABLE
March 11, 2024
At Home, Connecting in Place
by Marianela D’Aprile
9
PERSPECTIVE
March 4, 2024
VALIE EXPORT’s Tactical Urbanism
by Alissa Walker
8
PERSPECTIVE
February 26, 2024
What the “Whole Earth Catalog” Taught Me About Building Utopias
by Anjulie Rao
8
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
February 19, 2024
How a Run-Down District in London Became a Model for Neighborhood Revitalization
by Ellen Peirson
8
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
February 12, 2024
In Brooklyn, Housing That Defies the Status Quo
by Gideon Fink Shapiro
8
PERSPECTIVE
February 5, 2024
That “Net-Zero” Home Is Probably Living a Lie
by Fred A. Bernstein
8
PERSPECTIVE
January 22, 2024
The Virtue of Corporate Architecture Firms
by Kate Wagner
8
PERSPECTIVE
January 16, 2024
How Infrastructure Shapes Us
by Deb Chachra
8
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
January 8, 2024
The Defiance of Desire Lines
by Jim Stephenson
7
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
December 18, 2023
This House Is Related to You and to Your Nonhuman Relatives
by Sebastián López Cardozo
7
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
December 11, 2023
What’s the Point of the Plus Pool?
by Ian Volner
7
BOOK REVIEW
December 4, 2023
The Extraordinary Link Between Aerobics and Architecture
by Jarrett Fuller
7
PERSPECTIVE
November 27, 2023
Architecture That Promotes Healing and Fortifies Us for Action
by Kathryn O’Rourke
7
objects and things
November 6, 2023
How to Design for Experience
by Diana Budds
7
CHRONICLES OF CULTURE
October 30, 2023
The Meaty Objects at Marta
by Jonathan Griffin
6
OBJECTS AND THINGS
October 23, 2023
How Oliver Grabes Led Braun Back to Its Roots
by Marianela D’Aprile
6
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
October 16, 2023
Can Adaptive Reuse Fuel Equitable Revitalization?
by Clayton Page Aldern
6
PERSPECTIVE
October 9, 2023
What’s the Point of a Tiny Home?
by Mimi Zeiger
6
CHRONICLES OF CULTURE
October 2, 2023
A Book Where Torn-Paper Blobs Convey Big Ideas
by Julie Lasky
6
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
September 24, 2023
The Architecture of Doing Nothing
by Edwin Heathcote
6
BOOK REVIEW
September 18, 2023
What the “Liebes Look” Says About Dorothy Liebes
by Debika Ray
6
OBJECTS AND THINGS
September 11, 2023
Roy McMakin’s Overpowering Simplicity
by Eva Hagberg
6
OBJECTS AND THINGS
September 5, 2023
Minimalism’s Specific Objecthood, Interpreted by Designers of Today
by Glenn Adamson
5
ROUNDTABLE
August 28, 2023
How Joan Jonas and Eiko Otake Navigate Transition
by Siobhan Burke
5
OBJECTS AND THINGS
August 21, 2023
The Future-Proofing Work of Design-Brand Archivists
by Adrian Madlener
5
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
August 14, 2023
Can a Church Solve Canada’s Housing Crisis?
by Alex Bozikovic
5
CHRONICLES OF CULTURE
August 7, 2023
In Search of Healing, Helen Cammock Confronts the Past
by Jesse Dorris
5
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
July 31, 2023
What Dead Malls, Office Parks, and Big-Box Stores Can Do for Housing
by Ian Volner
5
PERSPECTIVE
July 24, 2023
A Righteous Way to Solve “Wicked” Problems
by Susan Yelavich
5
CHRONICLES OF CULTURE
July 17, 2023
Making a Mess, with a Higher Purpose
by Andrew Russeth
5
ROUNDTABLE
July 10, 2023
How to Emerge from a Starchitect’s Shadow
by Cynthia Rosenfeld
4
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
June 26, 2023
There Is No One-Size-Fits-All in Architecture
by Marianela D’Aprile
4
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
June 19, 2023
How Time Shapes Amin Taha’s Unconventionally Handsome Buildings
by George Kafka
4
SHOW AND TELL
June 12, 2023
Seeing and Being Seen in JEB’s Radical Archive of Lesbian Photography
by Svetlana Kitto
4
PERSPECTIVE
June 5, 2023
In Built Environments, Planting Where It Matters Most
by Karrie Jacobs
3
PERSPECTIVE
May 30, 2023
On the Home Front, a Latine Aesthetic’s Ordinary Exuberance
by Anjulie Rao
3
PERSPECTIVE
May 21, 2023
For a Selfie (and Enlightenment), Make a Pilgrimage to Bridge No. 3
by Alexandra Lange
3
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
May 8, 2023
The Building Materials of the Future Might Be Growing in Your Backyard
by Marianna Janowicz
3
BOOK REVIEW
May 1, 2023
Moving Beyond the “Fetishisation of the Forest”
by Edwin Heathcote
2
ROUNDTABLE
April 24, 2023
Is Craft Still Synonymous with the Hand?
by Tiffany Jow
2
OBJECTS AND THINGS
April 17, 2023
A Historian Debunks Myths About Lacemaking, On LaceTok and IRL
by Julie Lasky
2
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
April 10, 2023
How AI Helps Architects Design, and Refine, Their Buildings
by Ian Volner
2
SHOW AND TELL
April 3, 2023
Merging Computer and Loom, a Septuagenarian Artist Weaves Her View of the World
by Francesca Perry
1
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
March 27, 2023
Words That Impede Architecture, According to Reinier de Graaf
by Osman Can Yerebakan
1
CHRONICLES OF CULTURE
March 20, 2023
Painting With Plaster, Monica Curiel Finds a Release
by Andrew Russeth
1
PERSPECTIVE
March 13, 2023
Rules and Roles in Life, Love, and Architecture
by Eva Hagberg
1
Roundtable
March 6, 2023
A Design Movement That Pushes Beyond Architecture’s Limitations
by Tiffany Jow
0
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
February 7, 2023
To Improve the Future of Public Housing, This Architecture Firm Looks to the Past
by Ian Volner
0
PERSPECTIVE
February 7, 2023
The Radical Potential of “Prime Objects”
by Glenn Adamson
0
SHOW AND TELL
February 20, 2023
Xiyadie’s Queer Cosmos
by Xin Wang
0
CHRONICLES OF CULTURE
February 13, 2023
How Michael J. Love’s Subversive Tap Dancing Steps Forward
by Jesse Dorris
0
SHOW AND TELL
February 7, 2023
Finding Healing and Transformation Through Good Black Art
by Folasade Ologundudu
0
BOOK REVIEW
February 13, 2023
How Stephen Burks “Future-Proofs” Craft
by Francesca Perry
0
ROUNDTABLE
February 27, 2023
Making Use of End Users’ Indispensable Wisdom
by Tiffany Jow
0
OBJECTS AND THINGS
February 7, 2023
The New Lessons Architect Steven Harris Learns from Driving Old Porsches
by Jonathan Schultz
0
PERSPECTIVE
February 7, 2023
The Day Architecture Stopped
by Kate Wagner
0
OBJECTS AND THINGS
February 7, 2023
The Overlooked Potential of Everyday Objects
by Adrian Madlener
0
ROUNDTABLE
February 7, 2023
A Conversation About Generalists, Velocity, and the Source of Innovation
by Tiffany Jow
0
OBJECTS AND THINGS
February 7, 2023
Using a Fungi-Infused Paste, Blast Studio Turns Trash Into Treasure
by Natalia Rachlin
Untapped is published by the design company Henrybuilt.
PERSPECTIVE
02.07.2023
The Radical Potential of “Prime Objects”

Introduced by art historian George Kubler in 1962, the concept champions pursuing essence instead of novelty, and leaving the well-enough alone.

A chacmool sculpture in Mexico
A chacmool sculpture in Mexico. (Photo: M. Timothy O'Keefe)
A model for Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure” (1951)
A model for Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure” (1951). (Photo: Rick Ligthelm)

Are things moving fast enough? To that provocative question, designers have typically answered, “no.” They are, after all, agents of acceleration, who use the tools of their trade—planning, prototypes, projection—to arrive at the best possible solution by the shortest possible path. They believe in speed (though they usually call it efficiency). When industrial designers first established themselves as a profession, around the 1920s, they immediately began streamlining everything, making trains and cars and toasters seem to lean forward into the future, as if to arrive there just a little before everything else did.  

There are other ways to think about design, though. A few decades before the industrial designers arrived in their sharp suits, the homespun protagonists of the Arts and Crafts movement had taken an opposite point of view. They thought things had already moved too far, too fast. It was time to take stock and protect what was being lost, and to develop new ways of using those traditions in a contemporary context. Today, too, many designers would align to this contrarian perspective. They believe there is no way to decouple capitalist innovation from climate disaster, that humans have outpaced our own ability to handle change, and that what we need is a general slowdown. They agree with the novelist and environmental activist Wendell Berry, who wrote in his 2017 book The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings, “I grant you that the future (probably) is coming, but I am not setting out to meet it somewhere between now and then. I will wait and let it come to me.”

What is the role of design from such a vantage point? Certainly not to embody progress, a principle that slowdowners generally regard with suspicion. Instead of pressing relentlessly forward, on to the next, they are thinking longer-term, within frameworks that look not just ahead but also backward, into deep history, into tradition. They are learning from Indigenous communities, many of whom see knowledge as something to pass down, not to discover. They would like to emulate Gothic builders, who knew they would never see the completion of the cathedrals they spent their lives constructing—nor would their children, or even grandchildren—but worked nonetheless, in the light of higher purpose. 

There are a few guides out there for this big shift in perspective, among them botanist and Citizen Potawatomi Nation member Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose popular 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass offers an insightful exploration of Native American ecology, and philosopher Roman Krznaric, whose 2020 book The Good Ancestor introduced “cathedral thinking” to a wide readership. There’s a less well-known title that can be added to this short shelf: George Kubler’s The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, in which he introduces the visionary concept of the “prime object” and its profound connection to our lives. 

Famous in its day—the book was published more than 60 years ago, in 1962—it is not much read by designers now. And it’s easy to understand why. First of all, Kubler was an art historian, not a design specialist. He also inhabited the rarefied precincts of academia: He trained at Yale University, under the French medievalist Henri Focillon, and went on to teach there for almost five decades. Yet in some ways, Kubler saw himself as an outsider. His main area of research was the civilizations of ancient America, and he was deeply dissatisfied with the Eurocentric art history of his day. The romantic ideal of creative genius, which cast individual artists in a heroic leading role, was anathema to him. It was also useless, because the artifacts that he was studying were entirely anonymous. Nor were they even intended as art—and here’s where design comes in, for while those objects might be more or less outstanding in their conception and craftsmanship, they were first and foremost pots, jewelry, votive figures, temples. Could art history encompass such a miscellany in its full diversity, not just among the Maya and the Aztec, but everywhere else—amidst all of the “useless, beautiful, and poetic things of the world,” as Kubler puts it?

The Shape of Time, then, is essentially a book about methodology. Kubler was attempting to cope with an object-archive that was incomplete, authorless, and all but undocumented. The solution he came up with was both bold and ingenious. A given artwork might seem to derive its value from its singularity, the way that it embodies a “point in space, time, and feeling.” But Kubler argued that this was an illusion. The true nature of artistic creativity, he wrote, is vast, elusive, and above all, the work of many countless hands. It is an extended chain in which particular works are merely links, a “network of incoming and outgoing influences.” It is a shape in time. And that shape is what the art historian should be trying to understand.

As mentioned, Kubler’s teacher in graduate school had been Henri Focillon, and The Shape of Time bears the strong impress of his mentor’s work. Even its title echoes that of Focillon’s most important work, La Vie des Formes (usually translated as The Life of Forms in Art), published in 1934, which advanced the novel argument that artworks, in a sense, make themselves. Focillon thought that materials such as clay, linen, stone, and paint “are subject to a certain destiny, or at all events, to a certain formal vocation.” That is, their qualities led naturally, perhaps even inevitably, to specific techniques and aesthetic effects. (Nowadays, a design theorist might say that each material has “affordances” that prompt particular solutions.) The same could be said for lexicons of ornament, functional considerations, and other factors. Form is animated by many forces, Focillon thought; artists are simply the willing participants in that unfolding realization.

Interestingly, this idea anticipates recent intellectual trends in design studies, such as thing theory, object-oriented ontology, and what political theorist and philosopher Jane Bennett has called “the vibrancy of matter”—all of which are ways to imaginatively bestow agency on the inanimate. Kubler, though, was thinking along different lines. He was interested not in the person-like qualities of individual things, but rather in long trajectories of artistic development and how they were structured. It was only natural that he wondered how these cross-temporal shapes began in the first place, and what stood at their points of origin. It was with this question in mind that he formulated his most fruitful idea: that of the prime object.

Cycladic form (1976) by Hans Coper with marble female figure (2600–2400 BCE) attributed to the Bastis Master
(From left) Cycladic form (1976) by Hans Coper; marble female figure (2600–2400 BCE) attributed to the Bastis Master. (Photo: Ben Williams. Courtesy Sainsbury Centre; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

He borrowed the term from mathematics. A prime number has no divisors, apart from itself and the number one. Just in this way, prime objects cannot be reduced to their precedents; they cannot be “factored.” They therefore constitute a genuine rupture in history, an interruption to a creative flow that may otherwise proceed over generations, even centuries, unabated. “No conclusive rule is known to govern their appearance, although such a rule may someday be found,” Kubler wrote. “Their character as primes is not explained by their antecedents, and their order in history is enigmatic.” 

What further distinguishes a prime object is that, once brought into being, it serves as a model. It inspires subsequent works that Kubler described as its “replicas.” (He compared this to the handwritten draft of a crossword puzzle, which is subsequently rewritten by countless people on the subway and at their desks, killing time.) Initially, this may sound quite similar to the usual art historical ideal of genius, particularly given that Kubler named as prime objects such major monuments as the Parthenon Marbles and Raphael’s Vatican frescoes. Yet his theory differed in important ways from the traditional notion of a canon. First, he was not thinking at all in terms of excellence, like a museum curator. Many prime objects were unpretentious things—like those pots and votive figures—and were doubtless long gone. Even if they did still exist, they were likely hiding in plain sight, “disappeared into the mass of replicas.” Tracking them down would be like trying to identify the very first animal in a newly emergent species. Kubler even went so far as to say that a prime object was something like a genetic mutation in biology. It is not so much a feat of invention as a freak of nature. 

The prime object, then, is not necessarily distinguished by its superior quality. Nor does it arise from conscious originality, or even intention, on the part of its maker. It just sort of … happens, leaving the world a different place. This is why the idea still has radical potential. If Kubler de-emphasized qualitative hierarchy and individual authorship, he cared deeply about the way artistic cultures organize themselves around archetypes. His focus was not, as one might expect, the magical moment in which a prime object emerges—that was simply a mystery—but rather, the unifying effect it has on subsequent creativity, which is made coherent by virtue of its shared origin. 

Kubler’s idea of the prime object helps us understand the all-important role that things play in our lives and the way they anchor our collective identities, even at a great distance from their sources.


As it happens, The Shape of Time was published the same year as Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book that makes a strikingly similar argument. Kuhn’s equivalent to the prime object was the “paradigm shift,” a conceptual sea change that opens up totally new avenues of research. Again, this is easily misunderstood as a version of the “great man theory” of scientific development: Einstein comes up with relativity, and physics is never the same. But Kuhn was not all that interested in the achievements of individual scientists, nor did he believe in linear progress. Rather, like Kubler, he was principally concerned with how and why consensus is formed around a new idea. He wanted to understand why some hypotheses recede from view, while others become dominant, as if they too had a life of their own. 

Kuhn was writing about science, and Kubler about art. But both were interested in the way communities shape themselves over history, gathering themselves around whatever they find most generative. Hence the relevance to contemporary design of The Shape of Time (and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, too, but that will have to wait for a different article). Kubler’s idea of the prime object helps us understand the all-important role that things play in our lives, the way they anchor our collective identities, even at a great distance from their sources. This crucial value that we find in material culture has nothing to do with egocentric notions of creativity, conspicuous consumption, or the dictates of the marketplace. And if anything, the idea of the prime object has only gained in potency. Although Kubler was writing when globalism was far less advanced than it is today, he bequeathed us a beautiful way to think about cross-cultural exchange. Ideology, religion, and economic interests may divide us, but the archetypal power of a prime object can transcend it all, forging connections across both time and space.

When it comes to the question with which we began—Are things moving fast enough?—Kubler’s book has no specific answer, but one imagines he would counsel patience and humility. Things move of their own accord, at their own speed. At any rate, there is no reason to think that the prime objects that most matter to us today are anything like brand-new. More likely, they are incredibly ancient, the opportunities they offer for attachment undimmed. 

In an interview conducted long after the publication of The Shape of Time, Kubler mused, “I think of prime objects more and more as black holes—black holes of immense energy, but it really is invisible. Perhaps we don’t have any prime objects. We only have reflections of them.” That does seem possible. It’s equally possible, though, that someone reading these words right now could create a new prime object at any time, without even realizing they have done so. If that should happen, it will enter the creative flow. Other things will follow in its wake, and it will thereby give partial shape to the future: the tomorrow into which we will all arrive together, but only when it is good and ready for us.