Wired JULY 11, 2014 - by Joseph Flaherty


The Long Now Foundation is a non-profit that is trying to promote the benefits of thinking with a ten-thousand-year time scale in a society with a hundred-and-forty-character attention span. As part of their mission to combat short-term approaches, the Foundation's leaders commissioned the fabrication of an amazing mechanical clock that will be able to tell time for the next ten millennia and act as a symbol for this worldview - then promptly stashed it in a cave in west Texas.

In an effort to broaden the reach of their message beyond spelunkers, the Foundation's directors decided to create a meeting space in their San Francisco headquarters. Called the Interval, it's equal parts salon, bar, restaurant, and museum where one can ponder the fragility of human civilization over a cappuccino.

To help give this café form, the Foundation approached Oakland-based design/build firm Because We Can to drive the look and feel of the buildout. "Our goal was to support and showcase the Long Now's amazing artefacts and mission, without overshadowing it with the design of the space," says Because We Can co-founder Jillian Northrup. "A great deal of this project was getting our designer egos out of the way, and letting the story of the Long Now intuitively drive the aesthetic."

A miniature version of the clock's chime mechanism serves as a focal point in the space. This prototype is essentially a mechanical computer designed by musician Brian Eno and a team of engineers and machinists from the foundation, with funding provided by Jeff Bezos. It's comprised of a series of twenty Geneva Wheels and ten bells which will work in concert to produce a different melody every day for the next ten-thousand, over three-and-a-half million songs total.

"It was a fixture in the Foundations offices, but didn't get the attention it deserved," says Jeffrey McGrew, Because We Can's other co-founder. "It still keeps its mystery, such that people become intrigued about what this strange artefact is, and begin the conversation."


A ten-thousand year time horizon creates unique design challenges, like should the space reflect the trends of the moment or try to predict what the future might hold?

To address this uncertainty, Northrup and McGrew first looked to the building's history as a machine shop during the Second World War as a guide. "That time period served as the jumping off point," says Northrup. "A pre-plastics time, we jokingly described it as 'Dieselpunk' within the office, which led naturally to the use of woods, metal, and stone." It's a smart choice; Walnut, aluminium, and marble will all likely exist in ten-thousand years, but high-density polyethylene resins might not. Even in the span of a few years, the wood will darken with exposure to the sun while the metal and stone will take on a beautiful patina.

Designing the space also meant finding homes for massive, custom-fabricated objects, like an orrery and the "Library of Civilization," a curated selection of books that could be used by post-apocalyptic survivors to rebuild our world.

Despite an earthy appearance, the Long Now Foundation is largely supported by Silicon Valley's tech elite, including Tim O'Reilly, Chris Anderson, and Esther Dyson. As a result, robots will work alongside the human employees with a gin-mixing drone that will deliver Martinis with android-like aplomb while another automaton artfully updates the daily specials on a chalkboard.

The Interval is like a theme park for the cognitive elite with every detail possessing an interactive trick or a quirky, story-rich provenance. Addressable LEDs will filter through drinking glasses suspended in the ceiling, helping patrons find their reserved drinking glass while pulling double duty as a dynamic light fixture. Hidden doors will reveal secrets to the initiated.

Clever thinking even extends to the lavatory. A single, tiny bathroom serves the entire space so to prevent dawdling Northrup and McGrew built in a timer that counts the time between the door closing and reopening, creating an orderly experience while also providing a bit of a warning in the case of an extended stay. Of course, the display comes in the form of Nixie Tubes.

The space is filled with curios like a Victorian trophy room with the mid-century style of Eames. "As a married architect/designer/artist couple working and living in California, we stand in the long shadow of the Eames," says Northrup. "We adore not only their aesthetics, but their sense of 'serious whimsy', a certain high sense of humor that to us is very human."

If you'd like to hang out where you can get a side of melancholy with your mixed berry parfait, the Long Now Foundation is raising funds through a "Brickstarter." Support ranges in price from $10 to $25,000.