• Friday , 22 November 2019

Memory Boxes

Portlaw_abandoned (1)

‘Cities are in reality great camps of the living and the dead where many elements remain like signals, symbols, cautions.’1

Everywhere in Ireland, from the scale of a city to a townland, holds memories and stories. To the local, architecture can trigger therecollection of a specific event or experience, while to the stranger, the historical layers of the built environment provide clues to the development of place over time. This element of time enlivens a space. It is a reminder that something existed before and that something will become in the future.

It is also worth noting that each participant in the exercise of remembrance brings their own experiences to bear on what it is they are viewing. As Gaston Bachelard put it, ‘Great images have both a history and prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend…to which the personal past adds special color.’2

Take for example the shell of the cotton mills/ tannery at Portlaw, Co. Waterford. What does one see? Is it a painful reminder of industrial closure or a repository of happy memories of a life once lived? An eyesore or a site with potential? It can be guaranteed that no two people will look at this image and feel the same way.

In the recollection of space, details can become distorted over time. Despite these inconsistencies of the mind, some coherence may be found in spaces with a strong phenomenological quality – which have proven themselves to be easier to remember accurately. Memories, experiences, and our perception of space, all play a huge role in how a city expands and evolves. Collectively, they form a metropolitan identity. It may be that strong identities can result in cities becoming caricatures of themselves, while weak identities become diluted.

According to Koolhaas, ‘Paris can only become more Parisian – it is already on its way to becoming hyper-Paris…London – its only identity a lack of clear identity – is perpetually becoming even less London, more open, less static.’3

It is up to us as citizens, and designers, to decide what we wish the places in which we live to become. Whatever we choose, the spaces we create ought to be capable of aiding the development of future memories. Christopher Alexander wrote about what he calls ‘the quality without a name’. He describes it as being something which occurs ‘when an entire system of patterns, interdependent at many levels, is all stable and alive.’4 Perhaps this is what happens when we experience successful spaces, be they intimate or expansive. It is here that the patterns of memory are collected and shared.


1 ROSSI, A (1981) A Scientific Autobiography, MIT Press.

2BACHELARD, G (1994) The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Massachusetts.

3KOOLHAAS, R (1995) The Generic City, The Monacelli Press, New York.

4ALEXANDER, C (1979) A Timeless Way of Building, Oxford University Press, New York.

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