Book review: Spatial Recall: Memory in Architecture and Landscape

Don't you love going to conferences? I mean, it's a day well spent learning all about things you always wanted to know but never had the time, getting the latest information about the profession from an amazing list of speakers and lecturers...

And on top of that, it’s been so long since you last went on a course that you deserve a day out of the office. Who wouldn’t want to go?

But the thing is, when you get there it almost always lets you down. There’s probably a decent enough intro that gets your hopes up, but then when the speeches start you realise you basically knew it all already, and you end up spending the rest of the day caught between trying not to fall asleep after lunch and deciding if anyone will notice you leave early.

You and I have both been there, wishing for a great day and ending up promising never to waste our time doing it again (well, at least until the next one).

That was this book.

No, I’m being overly harsh there. It wasn’t all that bad. There were one or two bits of the book that really shone, really stood out and are worth reading. It’s just the rest of it that missed the mark by a mile.

Spatial Recall: Memory in Architecture and Landscape is aimed at being a collected set of essays on the theme of memory in architecture and landscape, offering "a comprehensive view of memory in the built environment, how we have read it in the past, and how we can create it in the future".

Sounds really promising, doesn’t it? A list of great thinkers, architects and designers (and there’s a good list of them writing in this book) talking about human memory as a conscious and unconscious influence on the built environment, all giving their own views on the subject through a series of essays. Who wouldn’t want to read it?

Personally, I loved the idea of it. It intrigued me. The prospect of memory as part of the built environment was something I’d never really considered before, but it seemed so obvious that when I picked up the book that I was fascinated to know more. The problem was it failed to deliver on that great potential.

Before we get too deep into that issue though, it does need to be said that it’s a very pretty book. Starkly set out in blacks and whites with a simple modern design, it’s beautifully illustrated with a series of photos and prints of architectural icons and artworks that mean you can’t help but pick it up and flick through it.

The problem is the content.

The essays seemed to be either very detailed analysis of human memory, with the word architecture lobbed in for good luck, or well sculpted treaties on architecture, art and landscaping, that bolt on a closing paragraph on memory to keep it remotely on track.

It seemed to miss out the balance it needed to treat the two subjects with equal weight and come up with something new.

This wasn’t helped by some of the writers using their essays as an excuse to talk about their own work instead of the topic at hand. I now know a lot more about the history of canalising rivers in Switzerland and the place of the "super-dooper-looper" in the work of Alice Aycock than I ever expected or ever, ever, wanted to know, I can tell you, and I still haven’t got a clue what they have to do with memory in architecture and landscape.

So, just like one of those conferences, I ended up spending the greatest part of my time reading the book caught between trying not to fall asleep and wondering when it was going to end.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that it wasn’t teaching me anything new or innovative about the subject, it was just repeating back to me fairly basic logical conclusions, and in some cases, I think, getting it wrong.

But, in amongst all of that self aggrandisement, sleep inducing tedium and essays on, to be frank, I’m not quite sure what, there were one or two real gems.

Land, Cows and Pyramids by Adriaan Geuze is one of those essays I mentioned that seems to forget it’s supposed to be talking about memory and focuses on design and architecture.

The essay examines what happened in the Netherlands when they got rid of the Planning system and then had a directive from Brussels telling them they needed to build a million houses over ten years. It sets out, rather emotively, what that lack of control and planning (with a small and big p) can do to the countryside and cleverly illustrates it with a million small plastic houses.

Concerns about a lack of a co-ordinated regional Planning system sound like a familiar issue to anyone? It’s an enlightening read I can tell you. In fact, I might just have to photocopy it and send it through to Mr Pickles and co…

The other gem comes at the very end of the book.

Jorge Otero-Pailos’s article "Mnemonic Value and Historic Preservation" is the only essay that actually manages to find that clever balance between design, architecture and memory that I’d been hoping for.

It guides you through a very brief history of conservation in America, and sets out a theory that conservation is the benevolent arm of state, one of the only ways a government can exert its influence and shape its culture and society without punishment (like parking tickets and taxes) or dictatorship, and how important that is for society as a whole, creating a shared history and memories.

It’s a great piece on how valuable conservation and heritage is as an action and a profession. To be honest, if you’re looking for a way to explain to management why heritage and conservation should be high on the list of things to fund, you can’t go far wrong using some of the ideas in this essay.

This is what the whole book should have been from the very beginning. If it had been, I think it would have been an amazing read. The problem is one essay out of twelve isn’t enough to carry the rest of the book.

That’s not to say the other essays aren’t any good as independent pieces of work or well written, they’re just not any good as essays that combine memory with architecture and landscape.

It’s a shame, because the idea was a brilliant one and when they got it right, just that once, it really was worth the effort.

Neil Hook is a local authority planner.

Buy Spatial Recall: Memory in Architecture and Landscape here.

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