To what extent have contemporary architects successfully designed collective memory into spaces, and what debates can this cause?

A particular aspect many architects are interested in approaching when designing a space is collective memory. When we travel around the world to visit famous spaces such as memorials and monuments, we are experiencing that space in relation to that city’s culture or past events. They are all telling a story, we use our five senses to experience the story that building is telling us, such as a church represents a certain religion or a memorial represents a past event such as war. We experience this sensation of memory in our own frequent spaces such as our local high street or homes. When designing these spaces, architects use factors such the size of the space, color, textures, light and shade in order for the narrative of the building to be displayed. Architects have attempted to design a particular collective memory into certain spaces. This is similar to narrative design, in which a space is constructed to tell a story, to make you think, feel and experience a certain type of sensitivity.

The theory of collective memory suggests that memory bonds people together because of the physical spaces and events they share.  Sociologist Maurice Halbwachs argues that ‘While the collective memory endures and draws strength from its base in a coherent body of people, it is individuals as group members who remember’ (Halbwach and Coser, 1992, p.22). This suggests that although we as people have individual memories, it is time that we share as groups such as events celebrations we remember. Halbwachs also argues that ‘When a group is introduced into a part of space, it transforms it to its image, but at the same time, it yields and adapts itself to certain material things which resist it. It encloses itself in the framework that it has constructed. The image of the exterior environment and the stable relationships that it maintains with it pass into the realm of the idea that it has of itself.’ (Halbwach, 1950, page unknown). This infers communities share experiences of a space, making them closer therefore they identify with each other. For example, many of our childhood memories that we remember, are identified by either the space that we experienced that memory in such as school, or by the people we were surrounded by such as our friends. When designing a space such as a memorial architects whether intentionally or unintentionally, will be designing that space based on that particular memory of the event, therefore the collective memory of those who experienced it.

One example of this type of architecture would be the Jewish Museum opened in 2001 designed by Daniel Libeskind in Berlin. The building was designed to represent the social, political and cultural history of the Jews in regards to the Holocaust. ‘The Jewish Museum is based on the invisible figures whose traces constitute the geometry of the building.’ (Libeskind, 1999, pg. 17). Libeskind explains that the space attempts to give users an insight into the collective memory based on the events of the holocaust and how the Jews shared that experience. It emphasizes the need to bring Jewish presence back to Berlin after World War 2, reestablishing the identity of the Jewish culture and how it was lost and became vacant and suppressed during the war. The zig-zag extension attached to the Prussian Court of Justice embodies the violence and aggressiveness of the raptures of the Jews in Germany. Inside, there are narrow, slopping ceilings with no straight walls. There are several ‘voids’.  The manifold interlocking the interpretation of the buildings convolutions with the straight lines of the voids is based on an idea concerning the relationship of Jewish history to that of Berlin and Germany in general. (Libeskind, 1999, pg. 57). There are parts of the museum which are designed to not be accessed; it is designed to make the user feel the void and the absence of normality. It pushes the user into feeling and thinking in a certain way, representing the gruesome reality of the Holocaust. The design attempts recreate the memories of the Jews that experienced the Holocaust through strong architectural features and the use of uneven space.


Another example of a space designed to exhibit a collective memory would be the World Trade Centre memorial in America designed by Michael Arad in 2011. When the twin towers stood tall, they were a massive part of America’s western culture. For many American’s, they represented the American dream, they stood tall and proud and successfully. When the towers came down, American’s described it as losing their home, the lives that were lost and the memories that were created needed to be remembered.

This memorial proposes a space that resonates with the feelings of loss and absence that were generated by the destruction of the World Trade Center and the taking of thousands of lives on September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. It is located in a field of trees that is interrupted by two large voids containing recessed pools. The pools are set within the footprints of the Twin Towers. A cascade of water that describes the perimeter of each square feeds the pools with a continuous stream. They are large voids, open and visible reminders of the absence. (911memorial, 2016). This infers that the memorial was created two reflecting pools indicating a void, however, still providing a sense of serene space. It’s over whelming being there as it reflects upon the destructive shared collective memory of that event.

However, when studying these buildings, the issues that are raised by designing based on collective memory have to be considered, such as whether or not they create artificial memories because we have not actually experienced them. It also has to be considered whether or not it is morally acceptable to design spaces based on trauma events, therefore turning them into a spectacle.  For example, Libeskind is a Polish-American architect. He himself, did not experience the holocaust, therefore his design is based on other people’s memories that he is not part of as a collective. ‘The biggest challenge for designers generally is whose history and memory are represented and what gets forgotten’ (Hirsch, 2013). The building is based on his own opinion of what the holocaust was like, and what it meant to the Jewish people through his eyes. It also raises the question in whether it is or isn’t acceptable in the first place for an architect to design a building based on a traumatic experience such as the Holocaust, for tourists to visit and spectate. ‘The city of Berlin is sometimes criticized over making a tourist industry from the memorialization of the Holocaust’ (Hirsch, 2013). It becomes a piece of art. In my opinion, a building that is designed based on the collective memory of an event such as the Holocaust needs to be designed by a community or an individual that has experienced that event; therefore, the design is not based on fabricated memories.

On the other hand, one could argue by designing these spaces that create a sensory experience means that the memory itself is more powerful and memorable. For example, if the memorial for the twin towers was never built then in the future, the tragic event would only be remembered in History books or from stories passed down in American families. The Twin Towers memorial is a popular tourist destination known by many people over the world, thousands visit America to visit the destination every day. By building spaces designed on collective memory, it allows the user to gain insight into the memory, being able to feel it and experience it rather than just reading it off a page. For example, reading about a car crash on the news is a lot less shocking and memorable than if you witness it. In my opinion, if memorials and buildings based on past events didn’t exist then a lot of them would be forgotten about them, or the historical significance of them would die out.

Overall, contemporary architects such as Daniel Libeskind that have designed collective memory into their spaces have been successful in creating sensory experiences for the pubic to understand the history of past events in their designs. It means the user in the space can think and feel certain emotions about the memories of that particular event, creating a unique way to them to remember it. Additionally, a building in theory will last forever as a physical object, whereas a memory is only mental, therefore the collective memory of the event is carried on forever. However, it does have to be considered whether or not these spaces create artificial memories and whether or not it is morally right to create spectacles and grand buildings out of these tragic events. As humans, we all think and feel different emotions, for example a Jewish person that was part of the Holocaust may feel like it is wrong for a space to be dedicated to the tragic event, and that the space itself does not represent the gruesomeness of the event.


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