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Buildings have a memory – because of their users

Paul Finch
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Time invests architecture with a very particular symbolic meaning, says Paul Finch

The Queen’s 90th last week, Stuart Lipton’s 50th in the property industry this week, the Brick Development Association’s forthcoming 40th – all a reminder of the way we mark time and interval, frequently with the aid of architecture.

The patina of time, both physical and metaphorical, is something that invests architecture with a very particular symbolic meaning. It is almost impossible not to be impressed by, say, a visit to the Pantheon, or the great medieval cathedrals, or the Moscow Underground. The late, great Richard MacCormac’s remark that ‘building is memory’ takes on added emphasis as one contemplates the histories encompassed by the Tower of London or the Acropolis.

It is recently fashionable to discuss the nature of ‘immersive environments’, as though they have necessarily ever been anything else, but you sort of know what is meant. Having visited Ronchamp when nuns were singing at an evening service, I realised the difference.

This in turn raises the question of what we remember about buildings and built environments, and why (or how). This was one of the fascinating subjects covered at a recent event organised by Thinkspace, the new programme being run by my World Architecture Festival colleague Jeremy Melvin, in conjunction with University College London and the Bartlett. Earlier this year Thinkspace heard from, among others, Ian Ritchie, architect of the marvellous new UCL neuroscience building on London’s Howland Street, where architectural brainpower has been exercised in pursuit of the study of the brain itself.

The activities of the brain, as understood by the UCL’s Nobel Prize-winner John O’Keefe, are complex, to put things at their most banal. At the latest Thinkspace event, just how complex was explained by speakers who covered a range of territory including how we remember routes and how we interpret space as a system or as phenomenon, and how the brain tries to interpret what it ‘remembers’ if elements of the memorised state change.

Discussion of the Garden Bridge is based largely on emotional reaction

I couldn’t help thinking that the discussion of the Garden Bridge is based largely on emotional reaction to the publication of two-dimensional images available only to pigeons, a view confirmed by a heated discussion of the bridge’s merits at last month’s Venice Biennale, courtesy of the indefatigable Robert White’s trouble-making Dark Side Club late-night debates.

Is it possible to disentangle architectural and design analysis from political considerations, or personal beliefs? That was a question posed by Patrik Schumacher. For Patrik, the important thing is that architectural discourse can and should take place irrespective of political considerations, in the same way that lawyers can discuss law, or poets poetry. Independent discourse as a symbol of intellectual virtue was not something that appealed to all in the Palazzo that evening, not least the chief architect of Barcelona, Vicente Guellart, who launched a furious attack on the failures of the profession to get to grips with ‘real’ urban problems besetting us today.

But Patrik surely had a point about the extent to which it is desirable for intellectual pursuits to have a degree of autonomy. That point was reinforced last week at the Reform Club Barry Society annual dinner, by Hugh Pearman, editor of the RIBA Journal. In an excellent lecture on literature, cartography and architecture, he reminded us how the way we think about lines on paper, whether via drawings, maps, or edits of a TS Eliot text by Ezra Pound, we are engaged in a process of creating worlds which are automatically related to memory of one sort of another.

The phrase ‘what you see is what you get’ ignores the fact that what you see is also what, however inadequate, you remember. Memory has consequences.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I'd argue that, as buildings can have a considerable history while they're still just images, memory can sometimes be informed by a great deal more than two-dimensional images - and that the garden bridge is an example of this, with all the politics and shenanigans surrounding its gestation surely very much in the minds of critics - not simply 'emotional reaction to two dimensional images available only to pigeons'
    And, regarding Ronchamp, where the architectural pilgrims seem to vastly outnumber the more traditionally faithful, if I can put it like that, it's remarkable that the information in the visitor centre that feeds the memory seemed to exclude any reference to whoever took on the construction of Corbusier's chapel - and surely, in the early 1950s, this must have been quite a challenge for anyone.

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