Spaces in play


Martin Gledhill

Where, how and why do we remember and forget?

The Greek goddess of memory was (and is) Mnemosyne. A mythological excursion maybe, but as the daughter of Gaia (earth) and Uranus (heaven) as well as the mother of the nine muses, she constitutes an intriguing, symbolic figure. Her genealogy involves the meeting of the above and the below. When read psychologically, the partnering of groundedness with airiness (read ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’) is a union of mutual benefit. Furthermore, in giving birth to the muses whose guiding voices form the kernel of human ideas, inspiration and memory are inherently linked.

Arguably the practice of architecture is one of recalling, forming and at times reconstituting memory. I am probably not alone in feeling profoundly saddened by the devasting fires which consumed the Medieval roof of Notre Dame and almost the entirety of the Glasgow School of Art – clearly more than their fabrics were lost. The destruction of memory is the subject and title of Robert Bevan’s investigation into the psycho-cultural consequences of ideological acts which destroy buildings and therefore cultural memory as a military tactic.[5] 5 - Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War.Reaktion Books, London, 2016.This amplified condition affirms the sense that buildings have a profound capacity to embody memory. This embodiment inevitably evokes an inquiry into our collective relationship with the past where the counterpart of destruction is preservation. Having completed her first degree against (in both senses of the word) the historic backdrop of the city of Bath, Ardeshana and myself are all too aware of the paralysing effect of architectural nostalgia[6] 6 - The etymology of the word renders it as ‘a longing for home’. and the ‘shock of the new’. As with our first theme, we find ourselves in a second stand-off, one in which the past is pitted against the future (and vice versa) with no clear consensus of how to meaningfully intervene, add and renew in creating a sense of place. Do we preserve or demolish?

Whilst the discussion above is perhaps culturally extreme, it does however illuminate a more intimate dilemma implicit in the project. More often than not, the architect endures a kind of double ignorance when facing a site and its potential programme. Firstly, in having no innate knowledge or memory of ‘the place’ in which they are being asked to work (possibly for the first time), the ‘helicopter architect’ is really only a fleeting visitor. And secondly (and really this is a manifestation of the first state), the place maker is faced with a more intangible absence when beginning a project – ‘the blank sheet of paper’ or the ‘green (in our case, brown) field site’. In this place of not knowing, we begin the desperate flailing for something to recognise, to hear, to find and to notice in order to begin – something to remember. From a literal perspective of course, the project is located in what appears to be an urban lacuna – the playground not only of the Roma children but also the bulldozer. Into this void the architect steps, bewildered, lost and maybe even alienated and so begins the task of remembering. In the reversing of a kind of cultural and topographical dementia, Ardeshana turns to the second of her three gazes – the ruins of the site.

The phenomenology of ruins held a particular fascination for the Picturesque and Romantic movements as it still does for many of us today. As the expression of time, nature, memory, mystery, imagination, human mortality and at times hubris, the ruin is an alluring and enduring trope. In exhuming the imprints of lost houses, lost monasteries and by implication, lost memories a second set of traces emerge from the project’s site. These traces in effect rise up from the ground and complement those of the Roma which, though starting above ground, eventually leave their mark in the ground. By this means, the site can be understood less as void but more so as a ‘charged void’[7] 7 - A term I have borrowed from the monograph of the work of Peter and Alison Smithson – The Charged Void: Architecture. Monacelli Press, New York, 2002. where nothing is something and absence becomes presence. In what might be termed the aesthetics of incompletion (or decay) through an act of creative engagement, we seek to restore and complete the ruin in our minds. The ruin then is in a state of both becoming and unbecoming: by choreographing the various processes of change, transience and decay, the architect performs an act of physical and psychological healing. The Institute of Memory is both constructed of memory, and constructs memory. Here then memory is not so much recapitulated, remade or preserved but reformed and transformed in an ongoing, living and therapeutic process of assimilation through which a new identity is liberated.

Of the many conceptual divergences which have come to characterise the relationship between the one-time colleagues Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) and Carl Jung, one is especially relevant to our discussion. Jung’s development of Freud’s notion of the personal unconscious to include a ‘deeper layer’, which he termed the collective unconscious, implies a wider notion of shared and even archetypal memory. This concept constructs the human psyche as a palimpsest or series of strata moving down ancestral time but also through the common psyches of human groupings ranging from and including family, community and nation. This psychic model is especially apposite for us in that it derives from Jung’s ‘house dream’ of 1909 in which he finds himself descending down through a house comprising successive architectural styles ranging from a Rococo salon to primitive cellar.[8] 8 - C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections; An Autobiography. Recorded and edited by Aniela Jafffé, and translated by Richard and Clara Winston. London: Collins and Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1961/62/63.At the risk of literalising, the resonance of the project’s multi-layered methodology with Jung’s psychic model suggests something profoundly innate in the working method. If memory in this sense is ever present, the question is – is it repressed or expressed? That dilemma is as much a psychotherapeutic issue as it is an architectural one.


TU Delft / Faculty of Architecture