Memories of Buenos Aires Edited by Max Page University of Massachusetts Press, 2013 Reviewed by Matthew J. Kiefer
The devoted ambler visiting a foreign city yearns to decipher the myriad messages the city unconsciously sends. This is a particular challenge in Buenos Aires, home to one-third of Argentines and the compelling yet bewildering capital of a country with a complicated past.
The usual way to start is with a guide- book. The special genius of Memoria Abierta (“Open Memory”), a nonprofit founded in 2000 to foster social memory about Argentina’s “Dirty War,” was to publish a literal street guide to the country’s darkest chapter. Argentines still wrestle with this terrible episode, not really a war but a largely secret and systematic oppression of leftists during the military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983. Some 30,000 people were kidnapped and tortured or killed.
Framed by an incisive introduction by Max Page, an architectural historian at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, and a provocative epilogue by Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American cultural studies at Amherst College, the heart of this book is organized like a conventional guide. Thoroughly researched (family members of the victims were consulted), it divides the city into nine sectors and describes 240 sites with maps, clear-eyed descriptions, and photos.
Commemorative sites such as plaques, baldosas (street tiles marking the homes of the disappeared), and more spontaneous memorials by grassroots activists are interspersed with the everyday loci of state terror: secret prisons and other clandestine detention sites. (These are astonishingly numerous.)
In the immediate aftermath of the dicta- torship, Argentine leaders tried to erase its memory, much as the dictatorship had tried to erase its enemies. Inspired by the persistent defiance of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo — a self-organized group of mothers of the disappeared, who have marched weekly in front of the presidential palace since 1977 — Memories of Buenos Aires seeks to “reveal the suppressed history buried in every location where the last dictatorship focused its reign of terror.”
Visiting Buenos Aires today, it seems deeply incongruous that the “Paris of South America” could be the scene of such recent barbarism. Mapping it with this degree of precision raises provocative questions about the role of physical place in preserving memory. And why preserve the memory of atrocities at all?
For many, the struggle to come to terms with tragedy is rooted in place. Witness the “ghost bikes” placed at the site of bicycle fatalities or the spontaneous Boston memorial to the actor Robin Williams that appeared on the Public Garden bench he occupied in a memorable scene from Good Will Hunting.
When the tragedy is an organized one, the struggle to understand it is necessarily a public one. The impulse to reveal the physical places where tragedy occurred and let them speak for themselves has similar resonance to marking an actual locus with a memorial. It socializes individual memories and helps them endure beyond the lives of those who experienced the events.
Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, and the Holocaust memorials in many US cities, this is memory with a purpose. In addition to honoring the victims and their families, in Argentina, building awareness of these sites has fostered a political climate of support for reparations and for bringing those responsible to justice at long last.
In his epilogue, Stavans asks whether memorials institutionalize and thereby trivialize the past, making it harder to face the present forthrightly. But using this guidebook in Buenos Aires, he found that it gave order to the “chaos of memory,” concluding that “the act of remembering is a duty we all share, no matter where we live.” We can only hope it will make it harder for history’s mistakes to be repeated.
Matthew J. Kiefer is a land use attorney at Goulston & Storrs in Boston.
Brain Landscape: The Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture John Paul Eberhard Oxford University Press, 2009 Reviewed by A. Vernon Woodworth FAIA
The social, physical, financial, and political investments in great works of architec-ture defy easy explanation. Take Gothic cathedrals, for example. Can these magnificent structures be explained in terms of religion, or pedagogy, or civic pride alone? How do we understand the sense of awe, of being transported, that cathedral space so predictably inspires? Were the master builders experimenting as a form of one-upmanship for artistic expression, or was there another motive informing their manipulation of space and light? Could their concerted effort to master the spatial harmonics of worship have been deliberately intended to produce specific neuronal responses in the human brain — responses at a primal level that alter mood, evoke emotion, and restore a cohesive sense of identity in relationship to the world?
An exploration of how the brain works through the discipline of neuroscience has, over the past few decades, allowed scientists to determine the biological source of memory, emotion, and percep- tion. This extraordinary field of discovery came to the attention of architect John Paul Eberhard in 1995 when he was the “director of discovery” at the American Architectural Foundation. Eberhard went on to become the founding director of the Academy of Neuroscience for Archi- tects, and he remains the only architect member of the Society for Neuroscience, the world’s largest organization of scientists and physicians dedicated to understanding the brain. In 2006 Eberhard published Architecture and the Brain: A New Knowledge Base from Neuroscience, outlining the neurological bases of sensory experiences as well as emotions and behavior in architectural settings.
Brain Landscape continues down the same path, describing implications for the design of educational spaces, the workplace, and facilities for the aging. Eberhard is clear that he hopes to entice neuroscientists to explore the relation-ship of the brain to the built environment, but he also intends to promote an under- standing of neuroscience within the design professions. He sees this as an antidote to the disintegration of a coherent architectural paradigm, as evidenced in “starchitecture” and the vanities of Postmodernism. His goal is to make the findings of neuroscience a centerpiece in evidence-based design: the use of scientific methods to predict and measure outcomes such as user satisfaction, physical comfort, learning, and healing. Eberhard believes that this could lead to a momentous shift in our approach to the design of the built environment. But he also suspects that a deeper under- standing of our synaptic responses to environmental stimuli will uncover the bases for our aesthetic responses, intuitively manipulated by artists and architects since the dawn of civilization.
The implications of Eberhard’s inquiry are infinite. If understanding neuroscience can make patients heal more quickly with fewer complications, if it can increase productivity in the workplace and learning in the classroom, then could it not facilitate creativity, promote positive social interaction, and improve our overall sense of satisfaction with our lives? The answer is a qualified yes, but a yes all the same.
We can understand the impact of the urban environment in a new way through the lens of neuroscience. The synaptic dynamics of exercise, medi-tation, and psychopharmacology can also be manipulated through light and space, form and composition. Class-room design has the potential to address learning disabilities. Nursing home design can minimize cognitive decline. The workplace can be an inviting space for creative collaboration.
Master builders of the past likely understood the neurological impact of architecture at an intuitive level; now a sound scientific understanding can inform every aspect of the design profession. Along with the tenets of sustainability and physical health in the built environment, neuroscience has the potential to inform an archi-tecture of substance in a challenged world. If this should come to pass, John Eberhard will be among those to have made it possible.
A. Vernon Woodworth FAIA is a code consultant with akf Group in Boston and a faculty member at Boston Architectural College. He co-chairs the Boston Society of Architects’ Committee for the Advancement of Sustainability.
Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani Metropolis Books, 2014 Reviewed by Joseph P. Kahn
Outer Cape Cod in the 1950s and ’60s attracted an eclectic mix of artists, writers, shrinks, and academics. One subset of this summer migration was a group of architects and designers for whom the landscape held a powerful attraction. Drawn to its beauty and remoteness, and because real estate was relatively cheap, they built scores of houses there, creating a community of like-minded intellectuals pursuing a free-spirited lifestyle.
Although the houses were as idiosyncratic — and whimsical — as their creators, they shared several noteworthy characteristics. Inexpensively built (many costing less than $10,000), they employed low-slung, modular designs that opened up interior spaces to the natural elements, relied on readily available materials, and incorpor- ated majestic views of the sea-scapes and kettle ponds that lend the Outer Cape its rustic charm.
These houses seemed to float above the land rather than be anchored to it. Living in one such ’50s-era Modernist house, tucked deep in the Wellfleet woods, was “like being on a ship in the forest,” one summer resident later recalled.
Over time, many of these dwellings fell into disrepair — if not completely off the architectural map. In Cape Cod Modern, a meticulously researched, lavishly illustrated book, their historical and aesthetic legacies get a richly deserved reconsideration.
The book begins with a history of Cape architecture from the 1600s onward, then shifts to the 1940s and ’50s, when construction of Route 6 opened the Outer Cape to vehicular traffic. With the arrival of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, among others, the Modernist movement was under way.
Following in their footsteps came the so-called Brahmin Bohemians, among them Jack Phillips, a Harvard-educated artist who inherited 800 acres of land in the Truro-Wellfleet area; Jack Hall, a self-taught architect, painter, and carpen- ter; and Nathan Saltonstall, a blue- blood architect who designed The Colony, a grouping of Wellfleet cottages that survives to this day.
The Europeans who landed on the Outer Cape were artistic pilgrims of another stripe. Among the most colorful was British expat Serge Chermayeff, a teacher and designer whose property became “a laboratory for design exper-iments,” the authors note, including his own boldly imaginative use of chromatics. His mini-biography is one of several that give Cape Cod Modern its piquant flavor, elevating it beyond a mere compendium of projects and buildings. Chermayeff, the authors write, was “obsessed with noiselessness,” yet was himself a “walking volcano, often demanding peace for himself while shattering it for others.” Writerly touches such as these, coupled with dozens of architectural renderings, period photographs, and up-to-date color plates, give readers a nuanced sense of the personalities behind the movement.
Beginning in 1961, nearly 45,000 acres of Outer Cape land were put under federal protection by the Cape Cod National Seashore Act. Houses built between 1959 and ’61 were granted a 25-year lease, then threatened with demolition — until preservationists such as McMahon came along and rallied to save many of these structures. By then, the movement had seen its last phase come and go, led, in the late ’60s and ’70s, by figures such as Charles Zehnder, a maverick, self-taught architect, and Charles Jencks, a leading theorist of architectural Postmodernism.
Cape Cod Modern ends on a wistful note, recalling a landscape now largely grown over and an era before the Outer Cape building boom fell victim to what the authors call “richification.” These days, they write, “Nearly everyone wants a nice kitchen.” Thankfully, a half-century ago other, more interesting priorities took precedence.
Joseph P. Kahn is a freelance writer who spent his childhood summers in the 1950s and ’60s on the Outer Cape.