In Praise of Fallow Fields

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Jon Han /

The economic downturn hit my architecture business hard. For years, I had a running list of clients waiting for me to design their projects, but now the backlog is gone. I live and work only in the present tense, unsure of the outlook next year or even next month. This loss can be awkward to discuss with friends and colleagues. I see pained looks flicker across their faces when I answer “How’s business?” with an unequivocal “Really slow.” For my part, though, I am learning to embrace the slowdown for its cathartic qualities. The stillness holds 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. As emphasis shifted toward maximum production, however, 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 they are pushed past their natural limits. An economy that measures success primarily 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. There is regenerative opportunity in repose.

If ambitious hyper-multitasking is a skill of the head, then mindful presence is a skill of the heart. Valuable insight resides there, often ignored in the rush to success or the panic of crisis. Taking time to pause, to lie fallow, allows us to connect with that wisdom and reach a new kind of productivity.

The celebrated architect Frank Gehry described a period in 1978 when, at age 49, his work came to a halt. During a conversation with his biggest client, he admitted to not 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 50 down to 3. He called the experience “seeing the devil.” That event was a turning point at which he committed to design work that aroused his passion. Gehry acknowledged his sense of loss and disappointment. 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.

The consequences of a slowdown are more dismal for some than for others. But the need to become less afraid of stillness and loss is universal. 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, interfering structures–to clear the ground. We have to accept loss, and sometimes destruction, in order to grow.

Kurt Lavenson is an architect in Oakland, California. Excerpted from ARCADE (Spring 2011), a magazine that provides independent dialogue about design and the built environment, published by the Northwest Architectural

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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