Architecture is constantly associated with its functional purpose, physical appearance and its amenity. However, maintains a much more inadvertent role which surpasses far beyond the physical and material world in which we live and enters the intangible realm of our existential memory. ’A mental meditation between the world and our consciousness’ . Successful architecture is displayed in the completeness, credibility and the unquestioned prestige of experience. Memory is involved indisputably throughout this, between the space and experiencing person lies an architectural resonance that I believe should be exposed and percieved by everyone.
In this essay I plan to discuss the importance of creating and preserving memories through architecture with several case studies. Memory within architecture can be interpreted in many forms with regards to time, a place or a feeling; all of which are crucial in terms of emotional gages amongst us all and therefore critical in contemporary design.
Site of memory
The Yinzhou Museum – Known as the Ningbo Museum [Figure 1] was designed by Wang Shu and completed in 2008 holds many exhibitions on the history of Ningbo City . “Originally in this area there were about thirty beautiful villages and they demolished every village” , A quote from Wang Shu informing us of how he not only knew but had acknowledged the existence and beauty of what buildings had been lost. Ironically the museum of ‘Ningbo’s history’ would in turn erase a part of Ningbo’s history… Wang Shu was faced with this dilemma and set to tackle it in a perpetuated manner.
Wang Shu explains, ‘Everywhere there are materials, beautiful materials’ with regards to the debris left after the demolition of the traditional Chinese towns. It would simply come naturally for an architect to reuse these materials to save money and time, but also in order to sustain the character of the area through a captivating brick façade. Despite being 3 storeys high in such a low surrounding landscape, almost situated in ‘inappropriate’ context [Figure 1], the museum still manages to create an exceptional response to the site by using the recycled bricks and clay tiles [Figure 1.1] in a traditional wa pan technique (multiple elements compacted together) reviving the culture and allegiance of the locals.
However, this is contemporary architecture and although there is a need to convey the past for memory redemption there is a need to be cerebral and relevant. Wang Shu pairs old with new in an act of juxtaposition by contrasting the valuable reused materials directly with structural concrete. He manages to create a uniquely modern building which questions how contemporary design should be. The outcome is devastatingly powerful and reflects Ningbo’s history very modestly despite its brutalist form. An ‘Artificial Mountain’ and an exquisite example of how keeping memory within modern design through the means of reclaimed materials can be successful.
Historic to symbolic
he purposeful timing of a building’s construction is another successful and important way in which memory can be re-established. Located in Ahmedabad, India, lies Mohandas Gandhi’s memorial museum [Figure 2] which was built in 1963 as a tribute to his political movements. Gandhi played a critical role in India’s history as he fought as a freedom fighter against the British rule through non-violent, peaceful protest methods and proved successful when India reclaimed her independence in 1947 . Despite Gandhi’s acts of reconciliation, he was killed 1 year after gaining independence.
Experiencing a world-historical turning point was a time of despair and allegiance in India; having a newly elected president, Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi’s death. The sub-continent was in a state to be pushed forward both politically and architecturally. Le Corbusier did just this, providing India with a number of contemporary buildings during the 1950s such as Neelam theatre, Capitol Complex, Villa de Madame Manorama Sarabhai [Figure 2.1]; revolutionizing and reinventing the way which architecture was perceived at this time. This period of architectural growth influenced many architects including Charles Correa who was appointed to design Gandhi’s memorial museum and s now renowned as ‘India’s greatest architect’ .
The museum impeccably reflects Gandhi’s minimalistic teachings as the spatial organisation of the site portrays a traditional, domestic style whilst combining a modest human scale and the use of raw local materials. The museum epitomizes and embodies everything Gandhi protested for and provides an exemplary reminder of India’s freedom movement . Memory withers away in our modern society and we cannot rely on history to preserve the past. Which is why the timing of this construction which was so critical [Figure 2.2] as the development of India’s architectural practises were on the rise, Gandhi’s beliefs and teachings were due commendation and there was a need to reconcile India and the world through Gandhi’s modernist principles of minimalism. The museum was timed seamlessly; connecting memory, history and beliefs still to this day.
In current day issues, preserving memory through beauty and experience are often considered to be quaint and have become some-what insignificant with the existing progressive development of practices for building production. The idea of ‘preserving memory’ within a lot of contemporary architecture has been either forgotten or unaddressed. For example, the John Nash Crescent (A Grade I Listed building) in London has recently gone under demolition to house 73 new ‘luxury’ flats.
The Park Crescent was originally completed in 1821 and designed by Architect John Nash [Figure 3] who was one of the most influential architects of the 18th and 19th century . His work was unprecedented whilst upholding a timeless appeal with Park Crescent being one of his most highly regarded projects [Figure 3.1]. Locals have been strongly against the reconstruction as a 3D proposal of the scheme was released [Figure 3.2] presenting no reflection on the classical regency architecture which was there once before.
The overwhelming number of people against the demolition meant the architects had to produce a revised proposal [Figure 3.3] which again did not satisfy the locals; “It Is too wide, too deep and too tall to be an accurate historical depiction of the original Nash Plans” . People with no architectural knowledge can recognise that the design has no qualities which respond to the site’s resonance or the memory of an admired architects work. The project continues despite the public outcry as many who were once against the scheme have been ‘mollified by offers of “very substantial” cash compensation’ . This not only brings about the destruction of historic work but also raises the question in the way which issues in contemporary architecture are dealt with unjustly. This has consequently left us in a time where the memory of famous works can be completely disregarded by the means of material compensation and poor acknowledgement in architectural practices.
Acceptance of the incongruous
Throughout these architectural practices there will always be a need for acceptance of new, contemporary and controversial design. Throughout the late 19th century, unprecedented architecture was beginning to become a “common” occurrence and appreciating the benefits and purpose of “incongruous” architecture became somewhat of the norm. However, this act of acceptance becomes more difficult to pursue when the content of the building holds sensitive, historic values.
Specifically, war memorials are faced with this issue as they traditionally uphold very conventional, respectful designs to only ever convey empathy for its visitors. In controversy, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. was built [Figure 4]. There were 58,220 U.S military fatalities and over 2 million from Vietnam . The War damaged the world; designing the place of remembrance was imperative for recovery.
In a time where people would have preferred design similar to the Lincoln Memorial [Figure 4.1], Maya Lin’s contentious design [Figure 4.2] was what won the competition – chosen by ‘8 distinguished artists and architects’ in 1981 . When the winner of the competition was announced and the design was exposed, many were expecting a typical, monumental design that exemplified honour and glory for the veterans whilst alleviating the guilt that survivors experienced, just as war memorials do. Instead they were greeted with two harsh granite walls: “‘a black gash of shame’, ‘a scar’, ‘an open grave’” . It was received brutally.
Maya Lin quotes – “It faces up to death in a way our culture, and memorials, [don’t] tend to do.” . The use of highly reflective black granite allows the visitors to see themselves emulated from within the wall, directly connecting people in this place of darkness of insufferable loss. Her honesty and intuitive exploration of remembrance architecture pushed memorial design away from its traditional forms. The memorial is now highly credited, and difficulty lies in remembering how controversial the proposal once was. For a design to exemplify such vehemence amongst all must be deemed successful and is why the acceptance of unique architecture – which may not be deemed appropriate with its current societal trends – will benefit and expand our architectural knowledge and approach towards modern design. Maya Lin was thinking ahead of her time, bringing us closer together through the exposure of real memory and educating us towards the worlds true ephemerality (the concept of things being transitory, existing only briefly) .
As discussed, architecture does not simply provide pure functional purpose or physical shelter but holds a sense of joy, identity and place amongst communities and individuals. There is not [yet] a straightforward architectural pattern that establishes what causes these impressions, but there are undoubtedly elements that modern architects have presented in contemporary architecture; we are heading in the right direction.
Wang Shu chose the use of reclaimed materials which demonstrated a dynamic technique of involving the past with the future, Charles Correa maintained Gandhi’s beliefs and principles through prudent architectural design and impeccable timing within India’s history and Maya Lin provided the wounded world with a disputatious memorial, changing and developing the entire category of memorial architecture that we see today.
It is clear that the significance of memory has been valued seriously in these case studies and is where I feel contemporary architecture should progress to be more so. When absent, we have seen the public outcry it can cause yet also how quickly the public abandon their morals through cash settlements (Park Crescent). Which raises the question, what is the level of importance of preserving memory within certain architecture? It may be hard to consider why the conservation of historical buildings should be kept for memory purpose, especially once they cease to meet their original function. So how we come to address architecture that is built further and further back into history, is at our dispense.
The importance of memory will always remain meticulous, but the value is becoming lost in our modern society. It has proven meaningful and is what gives our cities and communities character and uniqueness. Preservation of architecture that retains historic value provides economic, environmental, educational and cultural benefits all that connect intimately to the living memory of involved communities, and to one another.