Matters of Memory

Matters of Memory

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.[1]

Fragile but more enduring tales embedded within buildings can survive long past the end of physical lifespan of buildings themselves. These stories are planted by the author, or the architect, during the process of construction, and the architect’s intention initially guides the path of the narrative. If the origin of the narrative is linked to a dialogue that started on the site long before the formation of the building, the narrative acquires a broader meaning that transcends its immediate time and space. Instead of an aesthetic or technical agenda, an architect who works with matters of memory studies the non-material, cultural context of a building, and manages, through patient editing and revision of the inherited narrative, to re-establish a sense of continuity between the past and the present. The point of departure for the architecture of memory is not site analysis or precedent research. The seeds of history that can grow into an enduring cultural dialogue among various participants can only be found within unsubstantial ruins, within the walls saturated with persistent collective memory.

The most direct means of re-materializing fragile memory through a building is restoration and reuse of old structures. In dealing with such projects, it is important to maintain a flexible attitude toward history; to recognize that the stories contained within old buildings are not monologues that long ago reached their conclusions, but rather open social conversations that must be resumed. A structure of recollection that spans across gaps of time can be erected if we actively uncover foiled narratives buried within ruins. A designer’s impulse to shape things before ideas are formed needs to be restrained. We must first observe and learn as the multiple layers of stains get scraped off the walls, and the recollection of the past and the imagination of the present are folded into each other. 

But a building is often more than just a mere repository of memory. A building may become a catalyst for a new story as it takes an active part in the formation of new narratives. This approach is more relevant in Asian cities that often appear to be devoid of memory, or towns without a past. Having lived through a breathless process of urban transformation within a short period of time, many Asian cities suffer from a dismal discrepancy between the present reality and the past narratives. The enduring vividness of past memory passed down over thousands of years aggravates the pain. Our cities, however, are not void of memory but in fact profoundly saturated with invisible memory that shapes and dominates the collective imagination. Without an intimate understanding of these mythical memories, an architect cannot make buildings that resonate with the past. 

Whereas restoration of old buildings or theatrical representation of mythical imagination can appear overly nostalgic, the third means of materializing memory is more regenerative and rational. Recognizing that forgetting is as important as remembering for a society to maintain its vitality, we at times need a new beginning. In the process of change and renewal, buried treasures often get discovered, and removal of a physical structure sometimes leads to unshackling of a forgotten story from its lifeless container. 

Cities like Seoul, where vivid memories from the past continue to dominate our collective imagination, desperately need to restore a sense of historical continuity. A civic conversation that intimately engages with the past must be resumed with every new construction. Moving beyond the hypocritical call for an architecture that reflects the spirit of the age, which is often no more than a stylistic preference, we need to search for a historical meaning embedded within each site of construction. Historical knowledge leads to a strong sense of identity, which in turn allows the new generation of architects to speak on equal footing with the voices from the past. History is too often used as a shortcut for jump-starting an architectural project through imitation of precedents, or as an embellishment for adding a false patina of sophistication. Instead, it should serve as a solid foundation for strengthening our cultural identity, and as a platform for participating in a conversation that will continue regardless of an architect’s intention. 

[1]Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, trans. by Terence Kilmartin