Drawing on memory
The thesis of this book is that we all have archetypal placeexperiences; particularly in childhood, whose experiences become very memorable. They are of places which may be secret or shared, solitary or gregarious, enclosed and womblike or expansive and limitless. For most of us these experiences remain simply part of the woven fabric of memory. But for those of us who grow up to be architects, they become the raw material which we draw on, consciously or unconsciously, when designing new places.
A good architect will have a memory bank of such place-experiences, is able to observe, analyse and manipulate them, and through design has the ability to transform a personal experience, saturated with subjective meaning, into one which which can develop meaning for many other people.
For myself, I know quite clearly that the big toplit room surrounded by small rooms, embedded in the centre of an urban block that I was designing last weekend is a version of Berlage's Beurs in Amsterdam, that I first experienced as an impressionable student in 1966, and which is now embedded in me. We work typologically, constructing mental categories of places that adapt to different circumstances.
The mention of the Beurs brings up a distinction that Frances Downing makes in this book, between the personal experience of place and the formal archetypes which are taught in architecture schools.
The latter are useful and necessary, but if you haven't been there and felt the place experientially through your senses, your capacity to use the place transformationally is limited.
Downing suggests, though, that architectural education, with its emphasis on formally taught models, tends to devalue the individual's own subjective memory bank of place-experiences, and that its importance is often only legitimised and recovered later in life.
The ways that architects employ their memorable personal experiences of place when designing is a fascinating subject, and this should be a fascinating book. But I found it frustrating.
The subject surely demands a serious exposition by case study, relating and comparing architects' early archetypal place-experiences with built projects; but Downing is content to treat her subject in a very abstract and theoretical way, never getting to the concrete realities of built form and space.
The theoretical treatment of the argument is often interesting. It brings in most of the names one would expect - Proust, Heidegger, Bachelard, Charles Moore, Rossi - and has some provoking (if sometimes contradictory) points to make. But there is not a single illustration of a real place in the book. Instead there are drawings, many of them knowingly cute, by some of the 150 architects and students whom Downing interviewed for the book (none of whose names meant anything to me at all).
The nearest that the book gets to a serious examination of an architect's design process is in a series of sketches by Kallman, McKinnell and Woods.These employ and develop such intriguing place-types as Shady Hill, The Paradisical Hut and Tree House.But maddeningly, we are then given no information on how the architects transformed these ideas into built form, or even whether anything was built at all.Michael Brawne's book From Idea to Building (1992), which covered some of the same ground, did it much better. Any serious claims to scholarship that this book might have are further undermined by the absence of a bibliography.
Joe Holyoak is reader at Birmingham School of Architecture and a partner in Axis Design Collective