Memory and Place: the phenomenology of space

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“Sometimes they come upon me unbidden, these images of places…At other times I summon them” (Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, 2006, Birkhauser)

Place and memory are intrinsically connected- a place gives us the experiential and behavioral intentions that drive our understanding of it.  But what is a place?  Is it simply a basic space for prospect and refuge?  Is it about the sense of place connected to the sense of security we derive from it?  Is a place about the sense of mastery we get from being safe? Does memory lead to the space? What happens to places when people leave and when voices are stilled?

A place is an experience- a space where we do something and that recollection forms, re-forms and informs our memory.  Without that experience, there is no memory.  ‘This the place where I felt sad because I remembered the good times I had there’- the emotion of the place becomes our memory or ‘I remember the fragrance of jasmine in the garden as I strolled across the lawn that night’.  That said memory is timeless or perhaps suspended in time. What you remember as a child, you can remember as an adult- when you recall that memory, it is as if you were a child again. People can bring memories with mementos to a space when they arrive. Places and memories are inseparable.

Memento mori

 ‘And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. He knows that the space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our night dreams.’ (Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard, 1958)

‘…it seems impossible to distinguish between architecture and life, between spatial situations and the way I experience them.’ (Peter Zumthor, 2006)

Spatial phenomenology is the study of the structures of experience and consciousness in a space (as opposed to the Cartesian system, which perceives the world as a collection of disparate objects, influencing or reacting to each another). Our home is the first place of our memories. Often we seek to create what we lost as we grew up and as designers, often our output is the result of recollections- not deliberately, but almost subconsciously. We may not remember details because details are not important- impressions are.

In an age of technology, we can restore memory to a place through photographs and videos. When I look at a photograph of a wall in my house in Delhi, I remember that I picked the lime wash paint and the plaster from it one hot summer afternoon, while listening to a story. The evidence to corroborate that story falls bit by bit even today, swirling bits of lime flakes. I remember how the lime was mixed with water in empty oil drums, the loud noises as the lime slaked, the wiry brown men who climbed up ladders to get at an errant spider or gecko, making wet slapping noises with their straw brushes and the earthy smell of the newly painted walls. The naughty child’s hands, which plucked the walls have been replaced by an adult’s, but the memory of the lime washed walls remains. People who lived, loved and worked in that place are gone and the memory of their death lingers on.

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