To what extent are the ‘bricks and mortar’ of a building associated with our memories and experiences of it?

07 May 24

Memory is an important aspect of how we understand and experience our townscape, and memories are often partial, misremembered and a compilation of real and fictionalised experiences. Whatever their provenance, our collective recollections of the past are important in creating a sense of place and identity and are key to creating well-loved and well used places. 

.

I am lucky to teach architecture one day a week at The Glasgow School of Art. One of my students recently presented their final fourth year project entitled ‘Industrial Amnesia.’ He asked the question – ‘What difference would it make to the built environment if memory was to become an explicit element of architecture, thinking and making?’ 

Here in Glasgow, the question is particularly poignant, as we have recently marked the ten-year anniversary of the first fire that partially destroyed Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s building for The Glasgow School of Art, The ‘Mack.’ Sadly, it was the second fire that destroyed the building in 2018. 

How much of a building can be lost before the memories that are contained within it, are just that? For the Mack, where only the outside walls remain, what will any future reconstruction provide us with, a facsimile of something lost, a pastiche? Can we hope that any new iteration of the building, if it faithfully rebuilds Mackintosh’s masterpiece, will bring back all those memories , or is there a point at which the level of destruction is so total that the cultural memory of the venue is no longer connected to the site? 

At the end of the street our offices sit on in London, at the edge of Hatton Garden, is a 1970s building retrofitted by Amin Taha and Groupwork. The façade has been reworked to upgrade levels of insulation, whilst playfully incorporating heritage and architecturally inspired elements from a bygone past. The practice describes the façade as ‘misremembered, corrupted and a trick to our nostalgic expectations.’ 

The Financial Times, in their review of the building, noted ‘It cannot be condemned, as most historical revivalism usually is, as pastiche, because this is not an imitation but rather an evocation.’   

This is an interesting take on memory as the building’s reworking conjures up associations with a built heritage inspired by a past that never actually existed! This perhaps ties into the fragile concept of memory. Our memories are nuanced and subjective and can be inconsistent. Does this give us the opportunity to be more playful and less rigorous about the memory that is being evoked?  

On some occasions we work with our clients to incorporate references to the history of a site into their developments and would encourage all to find ways of celebrating our collective memories of the past, even if the buildings themselves are no longer with us. The work of Iceni’s Built Heritage and Townscape team is an important part of the planning process. We research the history and cultural significance of our clients’ buildings and sites, to ensure that a comprehensive record of what has preceded new development, redevelopment or retrofit can be set down in writing for posterity. 

Memory is an important aspect of how we understand and experience our townscape, and memories are often partial, misremembered and a compilation of real and fictionalised experiences. Whatever their provenance, our collective recollections of the past are important in creating a sense of place and identity and are key to creating well-loved and well used places.