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The Way We Were

My father was a photographer, long before the days of digital cameras. There was something magical in the way images floated to the surface of what looked to be ordinary white paper while he worked in the darkroom, bathed in red “safe” light. A certain wizardry was also implied in the materials he’d send out to brides-to-be or the parents of graduates, promising to “capture precious moments” — as if the shutter on his old Graflex had the power to stop time.

We can’t, of course, stop time, any more than we can parachute into the future. But we do carry fragments of photographic images with us into every encounter with the present, even if we don’t paste them into books stamped in gold leaf. We call this bit of time travel “memory.”

It’s a slippery thing, memory, changing a little bit every time we take one out to play. In his elegiac novel The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes describes memory as a mercurial, unreliable narrator for our lives. “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed,” he writes. “Time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.”

Experience colors memory; cultural or political developments alter what — or whom — we decide is worth remembering. In 2009 the Patrick O’Hearn school in Dorchester, dedicated in the 1950s to a former city building commissioner, was stripped of its title and renamed for a pioneering principal. It is, for now, the William W. Henderson Inclusion Elementary School. All is not lost, though; at the rededication, officials also unveiled a small plaque near the entrance. It reads: “Welcome to the Patrick O’Hearn Foyer.”

Memory offers only fugitive images, and subjective ones at that. It’s no wonder we turn to physical repositories for what we cherish, whether a spiral notebook or the pyramids of Giza.

Fashions come and go — monumental or minimalist; titan or barefoot boy — shaped by society’s moods and self-regard. We memorialize the places, people, or events that possess the values we want to project into the future: bravery, selflessness, community. But too often the monuments glorify less lofty emotions, such as vengeance, or clannishness. Why not a memorial to a perfect summer day? We can build that with our own senses.

Memory is often referred to metaphorically as a skein, a fabric — a tapestry — and indeed many architects employ old materials to evoke associations with the past. Sometimes the effect is haunting, as with Pritzker Prize–winner Wang Shu’s use of recycled tiles from demolished traditional houses in his exemplars of the “new” China. But what, pray tell, are pieces of the Coney Island boardwalk doing in the floor of the Barnes Foundation’s new Philadelphia location?

Whole communities have been designed explicitly to evoke somebody’s concept of “the good old days:” Celebration, Disney’s dream town in Florida, or Poundbury Village outside of Dorset, England, championed by that country’s chief architect manqué, Prince Charles. Some people love its town green and country lanes; some consider it a kind of cultural necrophilia.

Each of these built memorials is, in its own way, an effort to stop time, a hedge against mortality. But as the designer Julian Bonder observes elsewhere in these pages, memory is an action that is always occurring in the present. This is as obvious as it is profound, since the present moment is all we ever have.

It is up to us whether we make it precious.