• Thursday , 5 December 2019

Merzbau – Theatre of Memory


‘Buildings and towns enable us to structure, understand and remember the shapeless flow of reality and, ultimately, to recognise and remember who we are. Architecture enables us to perceive and understand the dialectics of permanence and change, to settle ourselves in the world, and to place ourselves in the continuum of culture and time.’

– Juhani Pallasmaa, Eyes of the Skin, 1996.

The ‘Living Archive’, a concept in the tradition of Stuart Hall[1] and Michel Foucault, is the collection of a knowledge and a culture, a continuously changing social nexus through which an object can begin to be curated and re-interpreted through reflection and anticipation of alternative futures. This theatre of objects, a locus of memory and knowledge, is a construct of both the seemingly mundane heirlooms (such as Richard Wentworth’s Making Do and Getting By) and of singular artistries. In architectural practice, we could anticipate such re-interpretations through an acknowledgement of the shapeless flow of such memories and knowledges. This is a deconstructive approach to architecture which anticipates the temporality of our environments and of the human condition, an approach can be best exemplified by the collage works of Kurt Schwitter and his magnum opus, the Merzbau.

The Merzbau, ostensibly a physical manifestation of Schwitter’s changing relationship with his craft, was a gradual architectonic dramatisation of the apparent discontinuities of thought, knowledge and memory in his ongoing work, and an architectural means to ‘understand the dialectics of permanence and change’ in his life itself. Destroyed by a bombing raid on Hannover in 1943, but abandoned by Schwitter when he fled Nazi Germany in 1937, the Merzbau was an expression of Schwitter’s obsession with Gesamtkunstwerk – the total work of art. A three dimensional collage of fragmentary objects and surfaces, constantly in flux (unlike the later reconstruction of it within the Sprengel Museum), the Merzbau operated both as Schwitter’s personal studio, and a gallery within which the visitor would gain a brief insight into Schwitter’s working process and curated pieces by himself and others. In the Merzbau, he obsessively collected found objects, and formed temporal architectures for these pieces; a dialectical relationship between threshold and grotto which reflected Schwitter’s social and political belief in the transformative power of immersive cultural experience.


‘As work is produced, one is, as it were, contributing to and extending the limits of that to which one is contributing. It cannot be complete because our present practice immediately adds to it, and our new interpretations inflect it differently.’

– Stuart Hall, Constituting an archive, 2001

Schwitter’s theatre of objects, a deep relief of sorts formed by niches and viewing slots containing artefacts and debris within, formed Schwitter’s gestus.[2] Here, the artworks and architecture were at once (and continuously) a physical, social and epistemological dramatisation of the changes in Schwitter’s outlook. This spatialised a ‘triple dialectic’,[3] wherein the body of the viewer could re-interrogate, and re-situate, itself. The objects of this process (i.e. the collection both of architectural form, artefacts, and debris) thus formed a sort of discontinuous syncretic rupture. This could be interpreted as the progressive actualisation of the phenomena of ‘self’, of both the curators and visitors, and of curation lasting no longer than Schwitter’s process dictated.

The Greek Theatron is both a space for contemplation and a time set out for participation; a space of recognition.

– Alberto Perez-Gomez, Built upon Love, 2006

The manner in which this theatre of objects, the Merzbau, began to re-read, and to re-configure, these pieces in new architectures in the pursuit of a ‘Living Archive’, reflects Schwitter and Walter Benjamins theories on the continuing interaction with form. This is our actively lived appreciation of culture, as a type of epistemological image, wherein our tacit reception of scale becomes a utility through which we can reflect upon ourselves, and upon our beliefs. This interaction between the object and subject (the visitor), can be inferred to be an intellectual (and somewhat literal) fragment of the object’s intended agency. That is to say that Schwitter accrued a knowledge from the ephemeral spatial arrangements of the Merzbau, which would influence his further collage works. He would also have had a pre-existing knowledge that had become clarified (in part) in the creation of this piece. From this, he re-configured the Merzbau to re-situate the subject/object relationship in such a configuration as to purposefully infer a different reading. This process is in itself one of ‘truth’, the Merzbau becoming a protean ‘Living Archive’, a representation of his outlook and idiosyncrasies. The Merzbau became a Living Archive which embodied both the knowledge of its creator and upheld a knowledge towards the visitor – a knowledge of the spatial arrangement of the space, the intended and actualised character of the artworks, and the process of Schwitter’s work. Through the visitors’ engagement, cultural or historic agencies could therefore be read from the piece, and through this discursive formation of thought he could re-configure his process. Here, the Merzbau, becomes a mnemonic device representing the prevailing discourse, ie. a ‘Living Archive’. Schwitter’s work thus progressed not from the completeness of the Merzbau, but from its ongoing incompleteness, a ‘Living Archive’ embodying his experiences in physical form, and as with Derrida, inaccessible to consciousness, a phenomenological pursuit of architectural flux.


‘We are subject to certain illusions about who and what we are, and about the world in which we find ourselves – caught within representation as it were.’

– Simon O’Sullivan, Towards a Bergsonian Production of Subjectivity, 2013.

Schwitter’s Merzbau formed a kind of building through collection, or more accurately a multiplicity of deconstructions. This architecture became a theatre of objects and bodies, reflective of his thought process, more so than a studio. These ideals can be contemporaneously projected through buildings such as Peter Zumthor’s Kunsthaus Bregenz, wherein narrative and memory curate artefacts, supplemented by a minimalist architecture, which not only encourages but embraces the curatorial flux of a live museum. Here, polished concrete and steel create a minimalist atmosphere of diffusion, realising the intent of Schwitter’s Merz method more so than the deconstructive school of architecture. Within Kunsthaus Bregenz, the spatial composition of galleries, whether through light or fragmentary form, projects a constantly changing atmospheric collage with the artworks themselves, more than a mere container.

Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses.

– Juhani Pallasmaa, Eyes of the Skin, 1996.

‘Living Archives’ advocate an architecture cognisant of continuous change and the multiplicity of histories, as does Pallasmaa, as did Schwitter’s art, and of the continuously changing nature of the human condition. Schwitter’s work exemplifies the possibilities of architectures of synchronic curation. This is an ideal which envisages perpetual alternative futures through the recognition of the transient nature of our societies and our buildings. It is an ideal which could be replicated through a tactile mediation of histories, the construct of memories, and a more robust acknowledgement of the human condition through architectural practice.

In 2015/2016, my M.Arch Design project thesis was formed around the notions of Greece’s approach to its cultural heritage, relived on paper through a Living Archive within and around ‘The Cinema Attikon’, on Klafthomonos Square in Athens. My thesis advocated an active appreciation of the transient perception of architectural works and our cultural heritage. This text is a partial extraction, and expansion upon such advocacies through Schwitter’s Merzbau.

[1] ‘The very idea of a ‘ Living Archive’ contradicts this fantasy of completeness. As work is produced, one is, as it were, contributing to and extending the limits of that to which one is contributing. It cannot be complete because our present practice immediately adds to it, and our new interpretations inflect it differently. An archive may be largely about ‘the past’ but it is always ‘re-read’ in the light of the present and the future: and in that reprise, as Walter Benjamin reminds us, it always flashes up before us as a moment of danger. Thus it is extremely important that archives are committed to inclusiveness, since it is impossible to foretell what future practitioners, critics and historians will want to make of it. The archive has to insist on a certain heterodoxy.’ (Hall, S. (2001). Constituting an archive. Third Text, 15(54), pp.89-92.)

[2] ‘Benjamin understands the gestus as a momentary re-coupling of the semiotic with the mimetic, out of which a connection between body and sign is suddenly evoked through human perception. Here the gestus does not assign a preconceived cause or meaning to events, but points rather to the occasion which brings them together in a collision which gives off its own impetus through this productive juxtaposition. Here, however, it was not the event itself for the occasion on which he learned of his grandmother’s death, but the unexpected gesture of bending to tie his shoes which finally gave Proust the impetus to express his mourning. It is not the mere listing of events with their causes that constitutes the red thread of but their set arrangement as gestus, which has the greater potential to set things into motion by subverting our attention away from their cause and it instead toward their occasion directing and impetus.’ (Asman, C. (1994). Return of the Sign to the Body: Benjamin and Gesture in the Age of Retheatricalization.Discourse, [online] 16(3), pp.46-64.)

[3] ‘To summarise, presaged by Lefebvre’s triad of perceived-conceived-lived and Foucault’s heterotopology, Thirdspace has these two meanings: the first arising from an ontological argument about the co-equal privileging of the spatial, the historical, and the social; the second derived from a critique of the binary logic that has dominated traditional ways of thinking about space and geography for at least the past century for all spaces can be seen as Third- spaces or heterotopias.’ (Borch, C. (2002). Interview with Edward W. Soja: Thirdspace, Postmetropolis, and Social Theory. Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, 3(1), pp.113-120.)

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