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Architecture of Memory: On the Relevance of Memory in Architecture

Photo by Hélène Binet from A Feeling of History by Peter Zumthor and Mari Lending

The link between Architecture and Memory is quite ancient. Numerous accounts have been written on how architecture was used as a memory tool. We learn from stories of the Greek poet Simonides, who identified from his memory every visitor in a banquet associating them with architectural setting. This art of memory often called “memory palace” was transmitted from Greeks to Romans and then into European tradition of storytelling. It was common to rehearse speech associating it with the landscape, the porch, the steps, the bedroom or balcony. Hypneretomachia Poliphili, a fifteenth-century Italian text shows Poliphilo in a dark forest, describing ancient marvels “deserving of a place in the theatre of memory” who encounters ruins of classical buildings in search for his beloved Polia in his dream. After the invention of the printing press, with books readily available, memorization techniques were less in demand. Later, memories were distrusted and frowned upon as an unreliable source. Frances Yates claims in Art of Memory that we, moderns, have no memory at all. Giordano Bruno, a sixteenth-century Italian polymath, espoused architecture, art, and poetry as a very few special disciplines, which require disciplined imagination which sprouts from memory. I argue in our more heuristic architectural discipline, architects must depend upon their memory as a tool to imagine.

I argue in our more heuristic architectural discipline, architects must depend upon their memory as a tool to imagine.

While we tend to associate memory as a complex electrochemical process taking place inside our brain, Juhani Pallasmaa claims that memories are also stored in our skeletons, muscles, and skin. Philosopher Edward Casey argues in a similar vein concluding in his book Remembering: A Phenomenological Study, “there is no memory without body memory.” Marcel Proust’s protagonist in In Search of Lost Time constructs his own identity through this bodily memory.

I would argue that architecture alone cannot produce any emotion unless we associate it with our memory. Our childhood memory is a fertile ground for our imagination. From this seed of memory, the tree of imagination takes shape. Imagination is vital to make architecture that is essential to the lived experience. Neuroscientists have found evidence that our fundamental perceptions don’t generate in the brain alone but is produced from the encounter between the body and the world. Through our interaction with the world, we create bodily memory. Architect Peter Zumthor makes this bodily memory speak through his architecture. He believes places and landscapes act as memory banks and an architect should actively interpret the memory stored in these landscapes to design that would be responsive beyond the spectacular form.

Every landscape and building are condensed memory and with memory we associate our microcosmic experiences with the world. Our existential space is built with multisensorial perceptions. The crucial question is, standing on our time, acknowledging the circumstances of our technological world, how can one imagine a palace to store memories which would safeguard the authenticity of human experience?

The crucial question is, standing on our time, acknowledging the circumstances of our technological world, how can one imagine a palace to store memories which would safeguard the authenticity of human experience?


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