Memory and Place

Blog — 25 Nov 2015

Places hold memories. Architecture and memory are intrinsically bound together, buildings become a mnemonic, they not only trigger memories of moments in our lives, they can conjure up conversations, smells and sounds too. Greek and Roman Orators used the “method of loci” to memorise speeches. Buildings and spaces were used to place ideas and thoughts to be recalled later, a sort of early virtual data storage. Some places retain an air of melancholy centuries after the events that took place there. Lower Grosvenor Gardens is a good example, its quiet atmosphere is perhaps explained by its past, until 1826 it was used as a burial ground for suicides.

These thoughts came to me after visiting Auschwitz Birkenau and Ground Zero within the space of seven days. Both places are part of our collective memory; both were documented on film with images that define the very worst of the modern age. In both cases it is still photography that captures the very essence of the events. The pictures of people tumbling through the sky as they leapt from the upper floors of the World Trade Centre, and the image of a young boy, no more than five years old holding the hands of two even younger children as they are left on the ramp at Birkenau.

Even though the site of the World Trade Centre is being re- imagined and rebuilt, I still find it uncomfortable to be there. It is a curiously lifeless place, emphasised by the faceless mirror glass of the new towers that define its edge. The memory of what happened on the 11 th of September 2001 is poetically memorialised with two poignant pools that occupy the footprint of the original twin towers. A museum and memorial, designed by Snøhetta, are located in the subterranean space that was once their basements, the steel column bases cut off and preserved like Roman foundations. Inevitably it is, in a way, a curated memory. A collection of personalised artefacts and fragments, video and sound, that help us recall our memories of the awful events of that day and to reflect on the lives of the almost three thousand people who died.

Reflecting Absence, New York

Inevitably, a sense of sadness pervades Auschwitz. It is in the air, you do not need to know the facts and the statistics, the feeling is just there. I cannot imagine that there is an experience as chilling and uncomfortable as entering the gas chamber and furnace room at Auschwitz 1. The holes in the ceiling where the Zyklon B was released are still there. Incredibly, less than 400m away stands the family house of camp Commander, Rudolf Höss, who lived there throughout with his wife and young children.

Höss Family Home, Auschwitz Birkenau

Trying to understand the scale of what happened is overwhelming. The numbers and statistics are confounding. At its worst this place killed more than three times as many people in one day than died in the awful events of 9/11. If one minutes silence were held for each Jew who died in Birkenau, it would last over two years.

Modern society often wants to erase the memory of places where evil has occurred. The homes of the Soham murderers, Fred West, and John Christie were demolished, all traces removed. As Soviet Troops advanced across the Silesian Plain the Nazis blew up the five gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau in an attempt to conceal the “work” they had been doing. The ruins now memorialise the millions of innocents who were murdered there.

Ruins at Auschwitz Birkenau