On Memory and Architecture
Even the Futurists had to react against something; history, memory, the past, the present. Memory/history is an inevitable part of every cultural artifact. While the artist may invent entirely new expressions, the architect is inextricably bound to memory.
It is not simply the continuity of context (we all build on a site, and few sites are virgin ground) but the continuity of technique, materials, process that informs all architecture. We still communicate designs in drawings and models, even though we may transmit them electronically. We still build in concrete, glass, wood, stone, masonry, metal; every one of these materials is millennia old. Just as the modern painter is linked to all painters, even though he may use acrylics or collage or airbrush, the act of applying paint or drawing is part of a tradition that one cannot ignore, but can only supercede.
And so it is true in my own work. I love history but never mimic it. I live in a house more than 100 years old, but live as a thoroughly modern man. I have a level of comfort with context that produces work that acknowledges history as it attempts to reshape memory.
Identity, not ‘the new’ is my focus when shaping form; how does form/building mesh with the identity of the user/owner? How can materiality be a tool of personal expression? How can referential gestures be co-opted to create a new sense of attachment and new memories?
Two of our favorite projects serve as examples:
For a 100-year old motorcycle company we built a thoroughly modern museum campus that at once defined the future of the brand and acknowledged its legacy. Harley-Davidson may create motorcycles that extend the legend of the past, but they do it in a way that is technologically advanced and reshapes the past. When we designed their museum, the first building they had ever commissioned for public use, we spent years absorbing the ethic of the company, the community and the brand. We rode to the biggest rallies. We visited every factory and design studio. We steeped ourselves in the remarkable archive. But when it came time to create a formal expression for the brand, we invented a modern language with ‘embedded mnemonics’
The buildings sit on a classical city grid, but with a bulls-eye center creating a culminating moment of arrival. Though the buildings reference a factory complex, they avoid the obvious tropes of history. And by modeling themselves on the deep concept of the bikes they manage to feel bound to the image of a motorcycle without a single curve or obvious formal plagiarism.
The Harley-Davidson buildings don’t do what so many ‘branded’ buildings do; shine a spotlight on how ‘new’ and ‘different’ and ‘cool’ they are trying to be. They respect the idea of ‘city’ and the identity of the owner and users. They manage to feel familiar without being copies of the past and in doing so they become instantly comfortable for the thousands of visitors who would never claim an affinity for modern buildings or radically new form.
In shaping buildings as artifacts of Identity, we avoid using memory as a crutch and use it as an asset. The memory of the visitor is engaged with the embedded mnemonics of the form, without consciously connecting the past and present. We try to force user exploration without user disorientation, and try to connect ideas to forms rather than attempt to make forms substitutes for ideas.
For an oceanfront residential complex in the Hamptons, we used a collection of mid-century furniture as the point of departure for our designs.
The owners had amassed a nearly unequalled collection of furniture of the mid-twentieth century. As part of our research for the project we visited 25 mid-twentieth century modern houses in southern California: Gill, Schindler, Neutra, Koenig, Eames, Lautner, Saarinen, Ellwood, etc., etc.
The trip gave us a common language, something rare in a professional/client relationship. The houses we designed after that trip (and there were 10 homes that we designed for this one client) used the trip as a point of departure. The newly designed houses were related to the California Case Study Houses, without being in any way copies. And the renovations and urban apartments used the furniture collection as a way of producing continuity.
While the houses were often newly constructed, the furniture was always vintage. Even though some of the pieces were still in production, the collectors chose pieces with real embedded ‘memory’ rather than newly manufactured items. One could say that this is about intrinsic monetary value, rather than the memory (or age) of the pieces, but this collection was not simply an investment. The collection was a living companion for the owners, and their choice to use vintage pieces was entirely conscious.
Whether embedded or newly invented, memory is an inevitable part of all design. The only question is whether one uses it as a tool, ignores it’s power, or attempts to deny it’s existence.