Skip to Content

On "Memory" (Fall 2012)

Hubert Murray’s thoughtful essayPulverizing the Past” juxtaposes the annihilation of Bosnia’s Ferhat Pasha mosque and Boston’s West End as cautionary tales. Jane Jacobs deplored the top-down, big plans that led to the destruction of the West End. From her home in Toronto, she sub-scribed to and read every issue of The West Ender, the only living remnant of a once-vital community.

Jacobs’ legacy lies not in offering up any formula for city building but in her method of observing and of thinking broadly and comprehensively about specific situations. Since she posited that cities, like plants, grow naturally, maintaining the status quo or preserving the past were not her goals. Change is an inevitable part of the process, and residents of a neighborhood will know best what works and doesn’t work. In accordance with Jacobs’ ideas, Toronto got rid of most zoning regulations along King Street near its downtown, thus allowing many individuals to naturally and sensibly reuse old warehouse buildings for new purposes. At a Boston College symposium in her honor in 2001, Jacobs advocated “knitting up holes in the [urban] fabric and adding density. Scattered small infill sites add up, yet one of their beauties is that typically they don’t interest big wheel developers with deep pockets.”

With small-scale changes, there is less chance for giant forces of destruction —  with historical memory as collateral damage — to prevail.

Glenna Lang
Coauthor, Genius of Common Sense
Cambridge, Massachusetts

What seems at first blush an outrageous comparison between ethnic cleansing and slum clearance [“Pulverizing the Past”] is thoughtfully explored here. The “aggressive utopianism” that seeks to improve society through modern architecture is surely not as reprehensible as the obliteration of an iconic religious landmark in order to shatter the collective will of a people. But the resulting erasure of a context for daily life and the question of who are the intended beneficiaries — the original inhabitants or “more suitable” newcomers — remain in any case.

Whether by meticulous historical reconstruction or old-fashioned networking, surviving communities assert “we are still here.” At the home-grown District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, a tribute to the nonwhite neighborhood displaced by the politics of apartheid, one of the simple and powerful exhibits of shared memory is an obelisk of orphaned metal street signs rising from a pile of construction rubble and flanked by a floor cloth map of the neighborhood, annotated with handwritten reminiscences.

As to the “allure of modernity,” we know from alterations made over several decades to Le Corbusier’s housing estate at Pessac that transformation of an architect’s original vision into a real, lived-in place can represent maturation, rather than repudiation, of the vision.

Jack Glassman
Chair, BSA Historic Resources Committee
Charlestown, Massachusetts

Jane Whitehead’s articleForget Me Not” provided an interesting peek into the complicated evolution of the Armenian Heritage Park’s creation. In many Boston neighborhoods, the motivation to activate an underutilized public space is initiated by the desire to memorialize a community event or beloved individual. When designing those spaces, finding a common point of view to articulate can have the added advantage of unifying the different points of view within the community. Combining the aesthetic preferences of a neighborhood with the expertise of an artist/architect team can seamlessly incorporate the wide-ranging scope of the art with the practicalities of public safety, handicap accessibility, and commercial interests.

When planners are willing to use the memorial concept as a stepping-off point instead of an end, it can lead to some interesting solutions. For example, on the Hanover and Blackstone cross streets, Mags Harries’ inspired bronze trash (Asaroton) celebrates the produce vendors of the centuries-old Haymarket. Just blocks from the Greenway, nestled behind 100 Cambridge Street, is the remarkable Garden of Peace, a collaboration among artist Judy McKie, landscape architect Catherine Melina, and the planning committee, created as a memorial to victims of homicide. The atmosphere of solitude brings a primordial comfort to anyone sitting within this somber setting. With his Armenian Heritage Park, Donald Tellalian should be congratulated for finding an amicable architectural solution for this emotional event placed in a complex area of the city.

Sarah Hutt
Friends of the Public Garden
Former Director of Visual Arts, City of Boston

There is no doubt that “reproduced” interiors or the “Disneyfication” of public spaces [“Fauxstalgia”] do not push architecture or design forward (or, for that matter, backward) in the attempt to duplicate another period, space, or time. It is the judicious use of authentic, period, or salvage objects — designed and modified with a nod to local history, (re)imagination, functionality, and the newest technologies — that gives signifi-cance and makes us care about the spaces where we spend our time.

Steampunk design does exactly that. It infuses modern technology into period objects that celebrate the personal and local history of the space, and those that lived or worked there before our time. It’s the next step up from simply reproducing or repurposing the past. Part philosophy and part aesthetic, steampunk offers solutions to larger conflicts in society through recycling, reusing, and managing issues relating to ecology and the limits of natural and financial resources. We believe steampunk design is about fusing the best of two worlds — repurposing and marrying form and function — to make sure we preserve the past while remaking our future.

Many of us are frustrated with poorly made goods, cheap imitations, black box technology, planned obsolescence, and rampant consumerism. Steampunk design has become an alternative, a design solution to these difficult challenges that encourages repurposing resources and pride in craftsmanship. Many architects and designers have found a particular resonance in these principles and have incorporated them in their own projects and practices. Clients appreciate and will pay for the real luxury of these innovative design solutions. Maybe by thinking a little differently, architects and designers will get to see the world in a whole different steampunk light —  to remake and improve the world around us.

Bruce Rosenbaum
Sharon, Massachusetts

Mark Landsberg
MLA Consultants
Newton, Massachusetts

With regard to Karen Weintraub’s “Memory Palaces” article: Even though there may not be studies of the spatial memories of architects, there’s plenty of research evidence that graphic artists have superior visual-spatial imagery capacities. We don’t know whether this superior performance is due to genetics, to practice, or to some combination of those factors.

We live in the age of smart digital devices. Whether or not we are endowed with strong visual-spatial skills, our online access to all kinds of spatial information can make all of us into visual-spatial geniuses. (Analogy: whether or not we have good verbal memory, all of us have access to any phone number that we need.) And so, going forward, the questions arise: Will architects now come from a much wider proportion of the general population? Or will those with stronger visual-spatial skills still be more attracted to architecture and still have the edge over the rest of us?

Howard Gardner
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Cambridge, Massachusetts

In exploring the subject of “Memory,” ArchitectureBoston understandably focused on some of the interesting extremes, including public memorial design, where the objective is a design that is faithful to a specific collective memory and, at another extreme, comfort design, where the general associations required to escape the present require only faux memories. I hope this high altitude discussion sets the stage for a future issue that will delve into the many complexities of architectural practice between the extremes, including technical, cultural, regulatory, and aesthetic. Well-informed and nuanced interpretations of authenticity and integrity are essential, and are especially challenging today as modern buildings are forcing a shift in our thinking about historic significance as it relates to building fabric and the underlying original design idea. Intensive collaboration is always required. Add to all that, the complex application of sustainable practice in the context of historic structures — the most sustainable design being that which not only leverages the embodied energy from the existing structure’s original design and construction, but [also] creatively engages its embodied memories and cultural legacy.

William G. Barry, Jr.
John Canning Studios
Cheshire, Connecticut/ Cambridge, Massachusetts