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Memory bank

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Sub-Urbanism and the Art of Memory By Sebastian Marot. AA Publications, 2003. £15

Reflecting upon a life growing up in the 'boring' suburbs of upstate New York, the filmmaker and ex-Python Terry Gilliam suggested that this was why he was able to invent imaginary worlds. The tumult of the city is not a prerequisite for creativity to flourish. Indeed some, including JG Ballard, would argue that the suburbs are where real life is located, as opposed to the mediated - and more insubstantial - reality of urban centres.

Such an argument may well accord with Sebastian Marot. In his introduction to SubUrbanism and the Art of Memory, he asks why the concept of urbanism has been almost religiously tied to models of the centred city. He suggests that at the heart of the usual attitude to urban design is the unchallenged 'mimicking' of the image of the metropolis. In any given project, the overriding influence of such a programme overlooks the importance of site. (Marot calls this influence 'super-urbanism' and its 'ghostwriter' is Rem Koolhaas. ) Rather, Marot claims, all sites have now, in fact, been 'subsumed, in one way or another, by the suburban condition'. It is not the centred city but suburbia - 'the third territorial estate, found between city and country' - that is where most of us experience the 'unfolding of daily life'.

More importantly for Marot, it is where architects and designers are most likely to be asked to intervene.

It is not clear whether Marot would celebrate this third territory as the inspiration for flights of Hollywood fancy or a place to delve into a darker side of life. He recognises the inevitability of suburbia as a condition of the contemporary world, but for him it is a condition whereby the metropolitan urban can be most positively subverted and site be reinstated as the 'regulatory idea' for a design. The way that the existing 'hierarchy' of reasoning for a given project is inverted is through an active regard for the memory of the site.

Marot is a distinguished landscape architect and, like many landscape architects, he is something of a romantic. While, judging by its cover, the book is a quite aggressive statement of intent, his references are much less direct and more poetic. In subverting the urban (hence 'sub-urban'), Marot wants to reposition the 'concrete utopia' garden design as the place from which the world can be 'envisioned' and transformed locally. But his 'manifesto' is not so much a plan of action but a cerebral meandering - a set of reflections on an overriding theme.

For his thesis, Marot brings together four discrete but interrelated observations on memory and attitudes to landscape. These are Frances Yates' 1966 book The Art of Memory, in which it is suggested that, in the absence of visual reproductions, memory was developed and practised as an art by ancient civilisations; Freud's analogy between Rome as the classic model of a palimpsest city formation and the workings of memory; the artist Robert Smithson's revisiting of his childhood in suburban New Jersey; and Swiss landscape architect Georges Descombes' design for a small park in the Geneva suburb where he spent his childhood.

While Yates' account of memory and Freud's analysis are interesting in themselves, more instructive in respect of Marot's thinking are the chapters on Smithson and Descombes. Both Smithson and Descombes succeed for Marot because of their ability to revisit childhood places and make them manifest in their respective work as artist and landscape architect. But there is an important distinction between the two of them as well.

In his design for the Geneva suburb, Descombes claims people are encouraged, like himself, to reflect not only on the past but, through memory, also experience the present. Totally 'undesigned', Smithson's childhood landscape in Passaic, New Jersey, evolved with no consideration whatsoever for the memory of present or future generations, and yet Smithson himself - through memory and imagination - transforms this otherwise 'non-place' into something meaningful.

This example of Smithson reveals both the strength and weakness of Marot's proposals. It is not that Descombes' park will necessarily stimulate memory (nor, for that matter, that a banal environment will directly encourage the imagination, as with Terry Gilliam). More important is the rich and complex reading of an environment that evolves as successive generations revisit and reinterpret it.

The action that needs to flow from Marot's 'manifesto' is perhaps less a matter of future design, but a rethinking of attitudes to suburban environments that already exist.

Andrew Cross is an artist

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