memories…like the corner of…a plaza?

The end of the year is a time to think; a time to think about the past and think about what’s ahead. Can architecture have similar memory producing abilities like food, music, or vacations?

Let’s look specifically at music for now, yet keep in mind that sounds, smells and touch can induce memories even stronger than sights. I recently caught an “oldie-but-goodie” television show while flipping channels and what I noticed more than the music from the 60’s was the look in the eyes of the audience. Besides singing along with the artists, their eyes were happy and the glint showed their recollection of very positive memories, perhaps of their teenage years. As they sang along you could tell they were remembering a time when they were younger or some event they associated that song with from their past. They were having a nostalgic moment from forty or even fifty years earlier, yet it was as real in their memory as if it happened yesterday.

As I thought about it later, it occurred to me that these memories may be individual, but at the concert they became part of a collective memory where individuals who may have never met could share something from their past that they have in common.

As an architect, my mind is always drawn towards how these types of experiences can be related to architecture. I begin to wonder if architecture can have a similar type of effect on people. Can we strive to create environments that will foster experiences that will stay with people for years? Is that even important in our instant, virtual, detached world where technology is replacing the human connection to the physicality of experience?

I have strong memories of where I grew up as a really young kid – the slag pile that we used as a baseball field, my small bedroom where I developed my drawing skills, the summer camp that I spent every year at, the restaurant where I met my future wife, the outdoor café where we spent our first evening in Providence RI, and the hospital room where my son was born. I admit none of those places were really special architecturally (ok, Providence was cool). Those spaces that were actually designed by architects are not remembered for the designer, but the events that occurred there. The architect’s role was subdued but important.

You’re wondering where am I going with this?

Memories aren’t always positive, but they are integral to being human. Perhaps our attitude as designers should be focused on delivering the opportunity for memory more than creating a spot of pilgrimage where people come to the place primarily because they know it was designed by a star architect.

The concept of serendipity allows for more memory making potential than fabricating experiences. I have visited a few well published buildings designed by well known architects; however, when we visited them, nothing really special happened there. However, this past summer after visiting a well published building, we walked down the street to a quirky café (that sold only tea) and I have a great funny story that only my wife and son could appreciate. However, I can remember the interior very well. It struck me for its simple design; it gave us memories.

Can architecture be the evocation of a past experience like an oldie song? Perhaps I am asking too much. Can a simple cafe, doctor’s office or even a hardware store evoke such memories? Maybe my point is contrived, but to have a part in creating that smile, those eyes, a warm feeling because of something I’ve done…wow. To know that I’ve created the space where a family will celebrate their Christmas holiday or a place where two people will spend their first date is better than any award or feature in a publication.

It may not make me an architectural immortal, but what would the glossy magazines do if we dropped our egotistical quest in place of simply serving others? It seems like a higher goal. What do you think?

photos are from euzesio (seldom here)’s photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

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memories…like the corner of…a plaza?

8 thoughts on “memories…like the corner of…a plaza?

  1. I will admit, I don’t look at the glossy magazine photos anymore…unless of course I’m making fun of them or browsing through the Unhappy Hipster stream, which also happens to make fun of them.
    We agree wholeheartedly on this point. Architecture is a service profession, not a self-serving one. It is not about the architect or the contractor or the owner that makes a mint. It’s about the experience of the people in and around that piece of architecture.
    I maintain that cafe’s, shops and hardware stores are the last best places on earth to see how real architecture is supposed to work. It’s about experience. It’s about relationships. It’s about creating a lasting impression on anyone who comes through. That, to me, is how you become an architectural immortal.

    1. Wow, that’s really encouraging. I had several recent events provoke this discussion, but the nice Christmas gift and note from a client was the icing on the cake. Your comments also help as I meet with someone tomorrow morning to discuss a very unglamourous project, but hopefully the start of a good design-build relationship. ***deep breath, stay focused***

  2. it is possible. every year we strive to make a different lighting display for the holiday. This year we found a thank you note from strangers in the mailbox. apparently we had become a part of their future memory! happy new year Lee and here’s to you having multiple opportunities to create memory places for clients this year!

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