The Interpretative Imperative

Sandy Isenstadt

Architecture and the Perfectibility of Memory


Look, what thy memory can not contain
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, deliver’d from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
— William Shakespeare, Sonnet 77

Architecture endures, in at least two senses. First, of course, it is usually made of hard materials that deteriorate more slowly than do softer ones. Second, works of architecture posses the power to remain meaningful long after their creators are dead. This latter quality is what I will call symbolic persistence; I do not mean that any one particular meaning survives across time, but that a work of architecture retains its ability to prompt interpretation for generations beyond its creation. This ability has two sources: first, the specific characteristics and merit of a particular building or structure; second, the peculiar predicament of human memory. The relation between architecture and memory is the subject of this essay.

One of the great things about human memory is that it stinks: forgetting is one of the things we do best and most frequently. Not only does memory begin to unbend from the moment the mind molds it, the mind itself has mnemonic norms to which events must conform if they are to be remembered at all. Oblivion is the usual fate of those occurrences which cannot fit the departments of mental perpetuity; needless to say, there are no examples to give. Add to this the notoriously unpredictable associations that memories make—from Proust’s cookie to his lost youth, to cite one famous example—and you have a system for recording and recalling the past so faulty that it hardly seems worth the effort to use.

What’s great about this is that poor memory spurs invention. We strive continually to fix events before they dissipate, to make lives and experiences impervious to the solvent of time. In honoring “firmness,” Vitruvius was passing on what had been given him: the earliest forms of the term “endure” denote hardness and equate solidity with persistence through time. This drive to externalize memory and to make the past available to the present has resulted in works that record and stabilize something fleeting—ideas, events, emotions, etc., that would otherwise disappear. The techniques of such recording will be familiar to readers: language, writing, drawing, etching, printing and mechanical reproduction, photography, recorded sound, musical notation and perhaps even music itself, dance notation, and the electronic media of our own digital age, just to name some. Central to all these techniques is the possibility of recording experience in ways that the brain alone cannot. The attempt to extend memory may well define the species: while chimpanzees have been known to use simple tools, none has ever placed one stone atop another to memorialize a lost ancestor.

Architecture must be counted among our memory-extending inventions. Architecture improves memory by recasting it in materials more permanent than itself so that persons, events, and thoughts will endure. In this sense, durability in architecture is more than a merely material fact; it is a philosophical and epistemological proposition. Truth, or at least veracity, is based on the faith that the past can be made external and objective. Things that endure—time-honored, timeless, everlasting—seem somehow to contain more truth than do ephemera. Durability, at some point, becomes a kind of validity.

Architecture’s mnemonic powers stem not only from its material but from its spatial qualities as well. Indeed, a milestone in memory was reached, as Cicero tells it, when the poet Simonides left a dinner at which he was—in today’s terminology—keynote speaker. The roof of the dining hall then collapsed, flattening beyond recognition those who remained. But not beyond recollection: Simonides recalled where each had sat and was able to identify the crushed bodies for their grieving families. In this way, recollection of a spatial order reconstructed identities, if not lives. From this Simonides concluded that spatial relations act as a kind of mnemonic binding agent; he then suggested that those who wish to remember well might do so by ordering their thoughts in spatial fashion. Memory does indeed possess an affinity for inhabited space. As ordered space or material presence or both, architecture provides us with ways to remember. By acknowledging weaknesses and at the same time allowing us to overcome them, the creation of architecture is among the most human of activities.

Truly perfect remembrance would be paralyzing, since simultaneous moments that were spatially distributed would, in a single mind, necessarily succeed one another. What might be called processing speed would then become critical. This is precisely the lesson of Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Funes the Memorious.” Funes’s memory was so rich and commodious that he spent all his time remembering, then, of course, he recalled the hours, days, weeks, and years he had spent remembering, and all in such vivid and satisfying detail that there was no time, or desire, for anything else, especially since the pace of his memory was that of lived experience. The point is clear: action is based positively in the ability to forget. Letting go of the past is the first stage in grasping the new. A rotten memory is thus an impetus for compelling action. If history is any guide, inventing comes easier than remembering—that is, for all but Funes.

Today, given the massive storage capacities of magnetic and digital media and the networking of countless computers, very little need ever again be forgotten. More fortunate than Funes, however, we can turn off magnetic memory and find respite in the blank screen. Anything can be audio- or video-taped and preserved on some hard drive: from public speeches to wiretaps, from Nobel laureates to shoplifters, from affairs of state to backyard barbecues. Vast, if indiscriminate, knowledge can no longer be measured in “volumes,” since whole libraries may be contained on a single CD-ROM and bought during lunch hour for less than a half-day’s wages, allowing anyone with a computer to surpass even Mark Twain, who claimed in his autobiography he “could remember anything, whether it had happened or not.” Of course, quantity of information is useless without the means to access and use it, and advanced search tools routinely facilitate sophisticated explorations across vast realms of information. I vaguely recall some profound statement about memory from Shakespeare, so I visit one of several web pages and return with the Player King declaiming in Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii:

Purpose is but the slave to memory,
Of violent birth, but poor validity;
Which now, like fruit unripe, sticks on the tree;
But fall, unshaken, when they mellow be.
Most necessary ‘tis that we forget
To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt.

Thus I learn again that memories both burn and fade and, as a result, compel both action and resignation.

With memory now perpetually green (here I refer readers to Claudius speaking in Hamlet, Act I, scene ii), what is the fate of architecture? What is the future of the past when memory is complete? The question is pertinent since architecture itself, as I suggested above, is one response to frail and mortal memory. This question was most famously addressed by Victor Hugo. In the short chapter, “Ceci Tuera Cela,” in Notre Dame de Paris, Hugo wrote that the invention of printing—“the book”—undermined architecture—“the building.” Until the 15th century, architecture had been the foundation for the social dissemination of knowledge and was therefore the most prestigious platform for intellectual and artistic attention, as well as for political patronage. After Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, however, print gradually superseded architecture. Architecture would still provide shelter, but it would not serve as the tablet to which future generations would refer. Hugo deemed print more durable than architecture, in fact he thought print imperishable, precisely because the thoughts it contained were no longer material, or were cast in a material that traded firmness for ubiquity. No longer tied to materiality, thought needed no longer to be either local or prone to decay. It could exceed regional and temporal limits. Printing came to envelop and overshadow architecture just as architecture had once contained and enclosed writing.

In Hugo’s view, architecture was itself a form of writing. But the book remembered better, more conveniently, and in greater detail and variation than buildings. “Book of memory” (King Henry VI, Part I, II:iv, and King Henry IV, Part II, I:i) is the legacy of such thinking and remains to date a common metaphor. Hugo allowed that great buildings would still be erected, but they would be isolated artistically and would rely on literary allusions and procedures to suggest social meaning. Where language had once gained meaning and context within the wide embrace of architecture, now architecture required language to make sense of itself. One 19th-century result of this development was a neoclassicism that drained buildings of expressive possibilities and left only a cold and voiceless geometry. It is sobering to reflect that Hugo wrote of the effect on architecture of printing, which was then nearly four centuries old; he could hardly have imagined on-line databases or “personal assistants”—fully faxable file cabinets that fit in a back pocket. If architecture had, according to Hugo, little mnemonic role to play after the 15th century, what chance does it have as technologies of memory continue to improve? Is architecture destined to become the badly-gummed “Post-It” of the Information Age?

Paul Valery updated Hugo’s argument in the 20th century. Although he also compared architecture with writing, Valery analogized architecture with degrees of utterance. In “The Dialogue of the Tree,” “Eupalinos,” and “Paradox of the Architect,” he suggested that architecture transcends language as it approaches music. Conversely, it is most base when most mute. He continued to hope that an architect would one day “petrify and fix in the durable order of his materials the celestial clarity” of heartfelt music. For Valery, a form might be a note, a form repeated a chord, a pattern a movement, patterns entwined a fugue, and a building complexly coordinated a symphony in stone. As a kind of lithic song, though, architecture’s independence from language comes at a price, which Valery readily acknowledged: aesthetic relevance is purchased with epistemological inconsequentiality, that is, architecture would be less about Truth than Beauty.

More recently, postmodernism has taken up an ambivalent position regarding memory; this perhaps is why it both attracts and repels. On the one hand, the use of classicizing forms is another manifestation of the effort to rescue values and events from the abrasive flow of time. Allusions to a classical past would not have surprised Hugo, since they usually rest upon literary rather than upon material or tectonic logic. Architectural postmodernism is, in fact, coeval with magnetic memory extension, which suggests relations between stylistic change and new media, a phenomenon that historians have noted before. (I also recall—vaguely, of course—someone somewhere saying something about transparency becoming an explicit design goal only after architects began to use tracing paper earlier this century.)

On the other hand, and more convincingly, champions of postmodernism have made of forgetfulness and inattention a virtue. Seminal projects reminded us that, oh yes, architecture has a deep past, and, if one remembers rightly, this past had something to do with those shapes. While the classicizing shapes were indeed evocative, the grammar that organized them and made of them a system was mostly lost, forgotten. Compositional skill filled the conceptual void and replaced formal structure with a kind of graphic glue, which made sense to the eye if not the intellect. Although typically using “time-honored” ornament, postmodernism elevates the provisional; it deals in possibilities rather than certainties. As a broad cultural phenomenon, postmodernism is at least “honest” (in the good old “modern” sense) about its equivocation—although this is an oasis of vacillation in an arid landscape of self-importance. In an age of acceleration, the mind simply cannot assimilate changes as rapidly as the eye can scan them, let alone remember architectural orders past. Pleasure in the flight of form and the succession of surfaces is postmodernism’s pragmatic response to faulty memory, a Realaesthetik of forgetfulness.

One recent attempt to preserve memory through building is the competition for a World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., initiated in 1996 by the American Battle Monuments Commission. A first stage of the competition winnowed over 400 submissions down to six. The six finalists were asked to develop their proposals and the winning scheme, designed by Friedrich St.Florian, was chosen earlier this year. The site for the memorial encompasses seven acres of the National Mall near the Rainbow Pool, just east of the Reflecting Pool of the Lincoln Memorial. Though still on the drawing boards, St.Florian’s proposal, and the commission itself, have inspired both praise and scorn. [Ed. note: as this issue was being prepared, the competition administrators decided against proceeding with St.Florian’s scheme.] What stirs much of this emotion, I think, is less the specifics of the project than the site itself. The National Mall is the memory site of the United States. Comprising memorials, museums, and monuments, it is dedicated to commemoration and the creation of collective memory. It is thus an excellent place to consider how we now remember.

A striking quality of the proposals, which were exhibited this spring, is how busy, even noisy, they seem: each includes an auditorium, archive and library, exhibition areas, visitor center, “multimedia interactive educational facilities,” “halls of honor and remembrance,” and a launching pad for fireworks displays, all of which are required by the program. Besides responsibly including space for computer monitors and interactive alcoves, many if not most of the schemes are themselves organized around maps, diagrams, charts, and timelines; they abound with battle imagery and feature flapping eagles, pavilions, fire-ringed waterfalls and turbulent pools, giant globes decorated with campaigns complete with flags and arrows, and even a nuclear sunset. At least part of the conceptual din of the proposals was their obvious straining for symbols that would be widely recognizable. That the commission called for a museum as much as a memorial is clear. That so many entrants chose to organize architectural space around narrative elements suggests a consensus regarding the nature of memory today. As a whole, the proposals aimed more at creating virtual experience—call it “WorldWarTwoLand”—than at suggesting anything about the incomprehensibility of global war. In an age that can vividly, and safely, recreate such experience through technology, commemoration has been reconceived as resemblance, not remembrance. To be sure, many proposals included contemplative spaces and, to its credit, the jury selected the more restrained schemes as finalists, those that tried to balance the crowded program with reposeful space. Still, the tension between museum and amusement, between memory and reexperience, was evident.

Regarding memory, most of the submissions for the memorial seemed to me to agree implicitly with Hugo. Hugo read architecture like a book, at least partly in pursuit of knowledge. As a society we validate this view when we ask our buildings to commemorate the past primarily by narrative means. But whereas literature possesses the ability to exceed narrative, architecture is limited by such structure—it becomes confined within the range of what can be told. The central polemic of this essay, then, is this: civic imagination is crippled by its own mnemonic prostheses when it sees architecture largely as a means of recording and repeating stories.

It is instructive, in this regard, to consider the nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin—an extremely wordy memorial, with more inscription per square foot than any other. It is an unintentional monument to an era of bookkeeping; it even looks like a book standing on end: two imprinted sheets joined by a central fold. Visitors who come to remember often make rubbings of names, essentially copying them to be read again at home. The memorial even has its own index: directories at either end reorganize the inscribed names to make finding them easier. However, although book-like, the Memorial transcends any conception of construction as ledger, as visitors will recall. The wall of the Memorial evokes death: it is curious and abstract from a distance, total when close. To enter the Memorial requires descending below the surface of the earth and entering—literally—the space of the dead. Nothing is less in need of words than this willing decline. Like Simonides, the Memorial records names in the order of death but remains silent about the causes of war, about who were its heroes, and even who was the enemy. It honors sacrifice, but does not glorify war. It participates in axial relations with other monuments on the Mall, but it rewrites its axis in a minor key, and it compels us with its power to keep alive the memory of the dead.

Although extraordinary, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is not singular in attempting to evoke unearthly silence. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, across the Potomac River in Arlington National Cemetery, is guarded by a soldier standing at attention day and night, a solitary and speechless sentinel. There is, by definition, no memory of the fallen soldier, and every passing moment clarifies this with its stillness. Even the routine changing of the guard is buried deep within military tradition. Here, silence has been ritualized in recognition of acts of bravery that exceed any individual recording of them. If, in the course of everyday life, one can hardly imagine making such a sacrifice, it is well to remember that others have.

Even the Lincoln Memorial, which might have been precisely the sort of neoclassical and narrativizing pile that Hugo scorned, maintains a kind of silence. Though not a war memorial, it shares with other Washington monuments the responsibility of commemoration. The walls of the Memorial are covered with Abraham Lincoln’s words while the enormous statue of the seated Lincoln looks outward, seemingly indifferent to his own phrases. We can look out and see what he sees, but we are entirely unable to meet his gaze. Though fixed on the same sight, the gap between Lincoln’s marble vision and our own is insurmountable. It demands therefore to be explained. Lincoln’s gaze is, of course, the Mall’s monumental axis raised up and out of reach. Memory, in an architectural register, is the effort we take to make sense of why that should be so.

The National Mall is itself the best example of what I mean. Some of the most penetrating criticisms of the proposed World War II Memorial argue that the Mall’s greatest monuments are its most immaterial—its visual axes. Seeing from one point to another the distance covered, actual and metaphorical, the mind strains to fill in the steps between, to understand the relations of one monument to another. Writing recently in the Washington Post, Roger Lewis called the axis from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol a “sacred vector,” manifesting the abstract principles of democracy. The 1901 MacMillan Plan recommended removing the Mall’s 19th-century picturesque landscape in order to create this open range where vistas would be paramount. It envisioned the Mall as a broad surface that would show the assembled monuments to best effect. And indeed, generations of citizens have understood it as a surface to be inscribed; the Mall is the perennial site of protest and celebration. Literally open to interpretation by each passing generation, it is a model for memory in our times. As part of the “book of memory,” the Mall is an unmarked sheet: it is made to be marked and millions are moved to do so. A blank page, like the one that provoked Mallarmé to produce poetry dense as stone, is an arena where memory can be enacted, resolved rather than stored. It does not tell a story so much as require a story be told. It is less a symbol than a space for feats of memory.

While architecture thus belongs among those inventions that externalize and immobilize memory, its mode of remembering is its own. Architecture’s contribution to the durability of thought differs not in degree from that of a book or a hard drive but rather in kind. It is a medium less for conveying information than for provoking commitment. By doing so, by creating conviction, architecture helps determine what will be remembered. And while architecture shares this quality with books and language, it works in different ways. Because it persists locally in time, space, and substance, architecture inspires us, in unique fashion, to remember.

The ability to compel interpretation should be distinguished from the power to explain, itself no small achievement. Despite its inscriptions and indices, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial envelops one in an almost palpable silence. It says little itself but makes evident that much more needs to be said. Perhaps this is why visitors feel compelled to fill in gaps of the story with the gifts that they leave along its base. There are now enough of these to warrant their own display cases at the nearby National Museum of American History. Symbolic persistence resides in this interpretive imperative, in the ability of a building or structure to move us to see and hear ourselves and our place in the world. Memorials that are evocative but not forthcoming partake of this quality of symbolic persistence.

To Valery, the least consequential architecture was that which was mute, which said the least. He assumed, with Hugo, that loss of language is tantamount to loss of expression. An important question has been overlooked, however: whether loss of expression means also loss of the ability to compel expression. In this sense, muteness should not be mistaken for inarticulateness; it is not easy to achieve. It involves not just the ability to be open to interpretation but to insist upon it—the ability to haunt imagination and invite speculation. In this way, architecture serves memory not because it contains memories, but because it insists that we remember—an act achieved only with invention. A memorial can thus be understood more as a blueprint for the future than as a likeness of the past. Through their silences, such memorials place the visitor—the remembrant, if you will—at the core of the project, asking that we hear our own voices, and recognize our hesitations when asked something meaningful. A monument endures symbolically not because it translates a past triumph but because it exacts this new achievement.

This argument is not intended as an apology for an aesthetic preference, an unreconstructed taste for modern surfaces disguised as an appeal to streamline objects to better navigate time. Nor do I think it is a childhood nightmare of the indecipherable millennial monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, working itself out in adulthood. Nor is it an attempt to claim an essence for architecture. An interpretive imperative is not a formal or a material imperative, since materials are themselves preconditioned by social desires, while space is inexplicable without purpose. And I do not believe this argument suggests an anti-intellectual or anti-language agenda. Indeed, the argument here requires that we come prepared with knowledge and ready to voice convictions, that we ask our buildings to remain a forum for both language and action and, as a result, a space for the formation of identities. If anything, an interpretive imperative is located in the relationship between buildings and the people who question how and why they came to be. Its premise is simply that there are more things in space and stone than are dreamt of in our electromagnetic philosophy.

Though this is most apparent in the case of memorials, it is manifest throughout the built environment. If we wish to remember anew, we must hear what we have to say when our buildings compel us to speak and remember where we are and how we got here, who was strong enough to build and who was fluid enough to inhabit, and what our values are, both material and civic. When buildings stop making such demands, they are destined to be forgotten.

If an analogy must be made to contemporary technologies of perfect memory, then architecture is a blinking cursor. Like the dial tone, it demonstrates that systems are operational but waiting, waiting for meaning that will justify the effort to make the system in the first place.

If architecture speaks, then it speaks in the second person: everything is waiting for “you.” We fail our buildings when we fail to answer the fundamental question of the cursor: What now? Symbolic persistence in architecture, then, is less a matter of finding a universally understood symbol than of continuing to inspire interpretation. The interpretive imperative is architecture’s contribution to remembrance in an age of perfectible memory.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1