The Matter of Memory: Thoughts on the Value of Architecture in Support of Collective Memory
Ask a child to draw their memories of summer holidays and they will more than likely include the house they stayed in, the landscape around it and the things they played with. The act of selling a family home is often emotionally traumatic, at least in part because of the memories considered to be held within the rooms of the house, memories that somehow become less accessible when access to those rooms is permanently removed. In that particular case, there is a fear of losing touch with the past, and with good reason; memory recall is strongest for those memories that are most frequently accessed. The setting of memories, in objects or architecture, is also complementary. For a child, a bucket and spade might recall a beach, or a beach might recall the toys with which to dig it. For an adult, a dining room might bring to mind countless years of Christmas dinners, or Christmas dinner will forever be linked to one particular dining room.
Human memories are intrinsically linked to the objects and structures that make up the everyday world which we inhabit. We accept this unquestioningly. “Emotional value” is an assessment we usually rely on (consciously or unconsciously) when choosing to retain an object whose function may have become obsolete. The item may no longer be “useful” for its original purpose, but its purpose has now changed. How then, should we choose to act in the case of a building in the same scenario? What is the value by which they should be judged?
Questions of value as they relate to architecture span a multitude of positions from the economic to the social through aesthetics, cultural and historical significance, and so on. In this case, however, the interest lies in the value of a building as it pertains to supporting memory, both personal and collective.
The emotional ties that link humans to buildings differ greatly among us; what is of little import to one person can be hugely emotionally significant to another. This significance, or lack thereof, is a result of many factors, including the amount of time spent and the number of important, or at least memorable events that took place within or near the building. The result is a world understood through a “plurality of perspectives”[i] ‒ an experience mediated by the objects and structures with which we choose to surround ourselves. It is a world similar to that created by Hannah Arendt’s homo faber, where objects (“things”) allow us to assess and understand our (political) roles in relation to the wider world. Arendt is also interested in dining tables, in her case as a facilitator of individual awareness.[ii]
As with the story of the Christmas dinner, each person at the dining table will experience and later retain different memories of the event, as each person occupies a unique space in relation to the “things of the world”[i] around them. In the case of buildings, this plurality of perspectives allows the structure to accumulate a vast range of memory over time.
As with any act of collecting, the accumulation of memories over time starts to build an average of experience, whereby the opportunity then arises for the reading of alternative narratives related to place. The history of a building, its atmosphere, its influence, even its function can be reassessed by calling up the memories and lived experience of the people who inhabited or interacted with the rooms within it. In a sense, this is a process of pitting memory against matter, of testing the validity of a building against the story of its users.
The practice is of particular importance when approaching buildings with dark histories, where lived memory does not correlate with the official story of what occurred. In these cases, it is eyewitness testimony (memory) that is used to establish the truth ‒ with the individual memories of a large group of people providing an “average” that is legally accepted as evidence. The other, often neglected evidence at hand is the building itself; a physical, measurable witness to abusive systems and power structures. The built environment is a constant protagonist in every human memory; it exerts influence on lived experience and therefore functions as a silent actor in the events that direct human lives. For those who engage with analysis of architecture, this should serve as a reminder that “the material world that surrounds us is rarely neutral.”[ii]
[i] Hannah Arendt (1958), The Human Condition, p. 136.
[ii] Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Rochberg-Halton, E, The Meaning of Things; Domestic Symbols and the Self, (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1981) p. 16.
[i] Hans Teeds, Christoph Grafe, Catherine Koekoek, “Four Themes for Architecture in the Writings of Hannah Arendt”, OASE, #106, Table Settings. Reflections on Architecture with Hannah Arendt (online/print version journal publication), Amsterdam: Idea Books, 2020, p. 15.
[ii] Hannah Arendt (1958) in Hannah Arendt., The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018, p. 52. First edition printed in 1958.
My interest in human interactions with architecture springs from the stories of Georg Perec, the drawings of Daniel Spoerri, the films of Lacaton Vassal; moments where the built structures that enclose space are prodded, manipulated, consumed by the “stuff” of daily human existence. I believe that architecture’s success is measured by its ability to absorb the particularities of our interaction with it, to give way when necessary, to push back in support of us. Conversely, it also can oppose us, oppress us, or limit our potential.
In the making of objects (Hannah Arendt’s “things”), human beings set out to create a new order by “first creating and then interacting with the material world”.[i] If we include architecture in the definition of “things” (buildings are, after all, very large, complex arrangements of lots of smaller things), we can start to see the world as a place entirely made by humans, and therefore also charged with the making of humans. The “things” which we produce and surround ourselves with help to establish order, at the level of the self and of the community. Conversely, perversion of that order creates the conditions for “hindrance to the development of the self”.[ii]
[i] Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, The Meaning of Things; Domestic Symbols and the Self, p. 16.
[ii] See note 4.
“There was bars on the windows and over the walls, there was barbed wire, and it was kind of like … there was kind of bar … steel bars and in between all them steel bars there was barbed wire …”[i]
The quote above is taken from the transcript of a 2013 interview with a survivor of a Magdalene Laundry in Ireland. It is one of 84 interviews conducted by the group Justice for Magdalenes Research as part of their work to educate the public on the Magdalene Laundries. Twentieth-century Magdalene Institutions differed from their predecessors because they were carceral institutions run by Catholic religious orders in which socio-economically vulnerable women and girls were held for indefinite lengths of time, against their will. The reasons for their incarceration were that they were judged to have broken Catholic precepts relating to sexual behaviour, or it was decided that they were vulnerable to commit such “failings”. As penance for their sins, the girls and women were forced to work, unpaid, at laundry or needlework. There were ten Magdalene Laundries in the Republic of Ireland; the last Laundry closed its doors in 1996. The human rights abuses related to the women’s time spent in the Laundries have been extensively documented and acknowledged by international human rights agencies. However, the Irish Department for Justice still denies that there is any factual evidence of systematic torture or criminal ill-treatment within the Institutions, even though there was a national apology and an ex gratia restorative justice scheme was established for survivors. Many of the women (about 800) are still alive, and there is a large interdisciplinary community (including JFMR) in Ireland still actively pursuing a greater level of justice.
What is the role of the architect in a case such as this? In a scenario where the state does not accept thememories of the survivors of institutional abuse, what evidence can a building offer to support the testimonies of the abused?
A careful study of the buildings on the site of the now disused Magdalene Laundry on Sean MacDermott Street in Dublin reveals something of the true function of those spaces; of doors with multiple locks, of barred windows and high walls. A fuse-box that once powered the electricity in the front building partially covers a mural proclaiming redemption. A yellowed CCTV is mounted in the corner of the entrance hall. The dormitories of the women are located deep within the plan, without access to the streets or the city.
The Magdalene Laundry on Sean MacDermott Street in Dublin occupies half of an inner-city block, includes a convent, chapel, dormitories, a dispensary building, and (before they burned down) the halls, outhouses and other built apparatus needed to facilitate the running of a commercial laundry. The visitor’s experience of the site, however, was usually limited to an encounter with the front entrance.
[i] O’Donnell, K., S. Pembroke and C. McGettrick, “Oral History of Lucy”. Magdalene Institutions: Recording an Oral and Archival History. Government of Ireland Collaborative Research Project, Irish Research Council, 2013, pp. 1-88.
The front door of the convent building is made up of a double-leafed, reinforced wood, painted bottle green. Above the door is a transom window of crown glass. A small hatch is built into the right-hand door at eye level, covered by a timber panel which slides away to allow the viewer a temporary vignette of the street outside. The entrance hall is small, square; roughly two metres in length, and is covered in complex patterns of painted tiles. On each side of the entrance hall a timber partition wall and door open into a tiny room; same floor, same crown glass windows. The rooms mirror each other; the only object in each is a straight-backed wooden chair. A cross is etched along the top of the backrest. Located directly across from the front door is another set of double doors, this time made in ornate stained-glass. Both sets of doors leading from the hallway are secured with numerous sets of locks.
The entrance described above can be read as a perversion of order: what is presumed to be a sequence of entry into a building is actually a security threshold, two interview rooms, and a controlled exit. In February 2020 we set about surveying a series of these spaces within the Laundry, together with Masters students from the School of Architecture at University College Dublin as part of a semester conducted in collaboration with the Open Heart City Collective. Many years after the laundry closed, the constructed, physical evidence of this architecture of control is still present within the building. Using the skills available to all architects, we were able to measure and draw everything from suitcases to staircases, locks to electrics, and in doing so we noted a clear and legible change in scale, generosity and quality between the representative spaces of the chapel and convent against that of the women’s dormitories. We worked as archaeologists, treating every object as valid of attention and documentation, from the electrical panels to tiled floors, the peeling wallpaper and the shuttered windows. The aim is to continue this “forensic” analysis for as long as possible, to grow a bank of architectural “evidence” using the tools of architectural drawing to support and reflect the lived experience of the one-time inhabitants and embodied memories of this place.
Architecture is not neutral territory. It is intrinsic in establishing order in the lives of humans and can be made complicit in the perversion of that order. It can also, however, be called upon as a witness against the systems that created it. It can provide evidence; in the proportion, sequencing and layout of the rooms, in the “useless” objects which occupy them but which, when documented, begin to reveal something of the memories of humans held within the walls. Arendt noted that the “reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors”.[i] With time, the permanency of architecture and the objects within it becomes key in its ability to present matter in support of memory. Buildings, with their vast stores of collective and individual memory, are crucial as evidence of lives lived. Their value is defined by the extent to which they help or hinder humans in their task of navigating through life.
[i] See note 2, p. 95.
lives in Berlin
Jennifer O’Donnell is an Irish architect and co-founder of plattenbaustudio. She studied architecture at University College Dublin and KTH Stockholm, graduating with first class honours. Her work focuses on the inhabitation of architecture, using architectural drawing as a means of studying and comprehending the complexities of the built environment. Her interest lies in the everyday realities of architecture in use; in the appropriation of space by the body and by objects. Her ongoing interest in architectural drawing includes its potential as a tool for communication within the wider public discourse around architecture. Jennifer’s work has been exhibited at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the London Festival of Design and the Irish Embassy in Berlin.More about Jennifer O’Donnell