Memory in Architecture: Chapter Six


The memory of memory

This, the last issue on Memory, focuses on architectural experience as witnessed by Rikus de Kock, a recent Master in Architecture (Professional) graduate from the University of Pretoria, during his recent tour of various ‘landmark’ buildings in Europe. Having experienced them intensely through curated photographs, his real-life experience would either match his expectations or disappoint. Often the way we experience buildings in our mind is more powerful, but a good building is always better in reality.

The unorthodox recollection of an aspiring architect.

More often than not, memories become ingrained when our anticipation is met with disappointment resulting in some form of loss. The opposite, ‘exceeded expectations’, is much harder to come by. Most architects envision, imagine and construct spaces, whether existent or new, in their minds. This creates some form of anticipation of architectural space before visiting or creating them.

The descriptions that follow are glimpses of my memories expressed in word and ‘film’ -  unashamedly biased recollections of a recent architectural voyage through Europe. The privilege of such an architectural pilgrimage is, that it confronts your way of thinking, when submerged in a completely different culture. I have several more memories and even more questions, especially as I stood among the protesters in Athens. I wonder whether UNESCO will prevent the restoration group from repainting the Parthenon and the Stoa of Attalos to its original colours? I hope so. But what will the use of the Acropolis be after its completion? Which time period will it actually reflect? Why restore a temple if Greek Mythology is no longer religiously followed? Surely there are more pressing matters than our obsession with the past?

Similarly, the urban grain and scale of the historical neighbourhood of Alfama in Lisbon is in stark contrast with the ’98 Expo Pavilion precinct. With great anticipation yetwary of its depressive nature, I approached the Portugal Pavilion for my first ‘Alvaro Siza’ experience. This well articulated composition of rhythm, proportion and tension left me with great appreciation, partly as I could also imagine the possibilities forits future use while standing underneath the vast concrete roof.

In train ride to Oporto, Idiscussed global architecture with local artist Pedro Calapez, preparing me for the acclaimed contextual architecture of this city. Ironically, Casa da Música was my first experience in Oporto described by a local architectural student as a ‘diamond in the desert ’. It makes little or no physical contribution to the greater urban environment, even for a paying member of the audience. It merely serves as an iconic landmark, appreciated by some while others consider this a ‘blatant trespassing’ in ‘Siza’s backyard’.

Fernando Távora set the scene for Alvaro Siza to become Portugal’s most acclaimed architect. Careful consideration of beauty, function and experience, regionalist interpretations and meticulous precision of details across various scales are evident in both Távora’s tennis pavilion and Siza’s swimming pool in Quinta da Conceição.

Piscina das Mares and the Boa Nova teahouse, near Oporto, proved bittersweet. There is limited access to these sites, a frustration that I never anticipated. Therefore trespassing at Piscina das Mares was justifiable, as I had to spatially experience this much awaited, then vacant, linear building in order to determine whether it successfully integrates both the natural and urban landscapes as well as junctions of different materials. I believe that space will intrinsically reveal its potential when thresholds and related details are carefully designed. Serralves was proof that in some cases building plans should be cut in planes of 900mm increments to intentionally and successfully design larger spaces.

From an experiential perspective this was also true of Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. I can still remember the intensity of rustling noises as people moved in and out of the holocaust tower, the nauseous feeling that I had in the Garden of Exile and the eerie ‘gnashing of teeth’ feeling in the memory void. The museum itself, in contrast to other European museums, became part of the narrative not hiding its flaws. Peter Eisenman’s holocaust memorial also in Berlin, seems rather mundane in comparison to the Garden of Exile as one’s line of sight is never fully controlled - missing the opportunity to fully submerge the user into this series of ‘tombstones’.

When artefacts become the museum, a true glimpse into the past can be appreciated and the museum retains its essence. The simplicity of the Barcelona Pavilion illustrates that less can definitely be more. However it illustrates that a minimal design demands much more openness from its surroundings to be appreciated and to be considered contextually appropriate. Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin illustrates this more clearly.

Even though the work of the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi is an acquired taste, and despite the strange ornamentations forming part of his work, one can appreciate the skill and craftsmanship used to envision and implement his designs. From Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s work I learned that some architectural taste can never be acquired, and rightly so.

I still have an obsession with the Bauhaus Archiv’s beautifully articulated roof, and I wish that I could pick Adolf Loos’ brain when I realised there is no honest expression of soffits in Villa Müller in Prague. Experiencing the raumplan was a treat, and any consultant’s nightmare.

There is also no better way to experience Le Corbusier’s way of thinking than to emerge yourself in several of his houses, all quite different yet sharing so many fundamental architectural principles. Curtain rails should never be seen, allowing the user and the surroundings to be either merged or segregated through the use of ribbon windows. In all honesty, James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgallerie in Stuttgart and Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de la Vilette in Paris impressed me and proved that there is some credibility in Post-Modern thinking.

The bittersweet juxtaposition.