Collective Memory of Architecture

Architecture is war. War is architecture. I am at war with my time, with history, with all authority that resides in fixed and frightened forms.“[1] Lebbeus Woods writes in his manifesto about multiple notions shaping architecture and the way of healing the post-war cities. Therefore, the intention to rebuild and preserve a demolished cultural legacy in post-war European countries is a significant task. What remained of architecture after the war?

During the Second World War, cities were severely damaged under heavy bombardment and therefore some of them had to be rebuilt from scratch. This led to sentiments of loss, confusion, displacement and a search for a sense of identity. People have lost their cultural heritage and therefore their collective memory as such.  How is the cultural heritage being preserved for the nation? To keep cultural heritage alive within architecture, new constructions should be mindful of the historical ruins and use them to reconstruct new realities through additive or subtractive layers.  Historic buildings are treated with more respect due to their value than for example uniformed contemporary buildings. “The total demolition of any historic building to make way for new architecture seems unthinkable, even barbaric. In other words, the old is seen as more culturally relevant than the new.”[2] Demolishing the national heritage can be considered an ignorance of the past.

Nowadays, with the worldwide rise of nationalism and globalization, the question of cultural identity and collective memory should be addressed by critical engagement with historic preservation.

To start with the preservation process, it is important to analyze the traces of the past in the cities. However, British journalist Owen Hatherley argues, “Erase the traces. Destroy in order to create. Build a new world on the ruins of the old”[3]was the Modernist imperative. This approach could be considered a crime due to ignorance of cultural relevance. Architects have redesigned post-war cities and their urban plans following the classical method of preservation. Its doctrine lies in the absolute replication of the previous form and appearance of destroyed artifacts with the same material and construction techniques. However, these conventional ways of preserving objects are overused, and it is necessary to seek alternative methods of preservation. With the experimental approach, architecture can gain a new identity and becomes historically relevant. While classical preservation emulates the original work exactly in the same manner, the experimental methods go a step beyond: “conscious of the risk, the practitioners defend the need to experiment with objects as a necessary method for advancing knowledge.”[4]

One example of an alternative method can be the palimpsest. The palimpsest method is based on overwriting the original work and adding new information on top of the old one. This technique of unraveling history through layers and objects is often used in archaeology as well and offers insight into the post-war cities life. The described method can be applied to different architectural scales. The city can be read on multiple levels through the various layers as a way of understanding the city, its traces of history. "In reality, architecture is formed with all its history; it grows with its own justifications and only through this process of formation does it fit into the built or natural world which surrounds it."[5]Architecture establishes a dialectical relationship between different histories which in turn create a new entity. This relationship is based on contextual relevance.

Berlin serves a great example of post-war reconstruction, development, and historic preservation of a nation’s destroyed heritage. The city constitutes a rich collective monument that constantly, through its different re-configurations, demolition, restorations and re-constructions, is commemorating the city’s violent history. “The “New Berlin” represents the promise of Germany’s future.”[6]It operates as a palimpsest city with numerous historical layers. The history is never singular. However, it is a collection of various singular narratives from different perspectives in time and space. History is subjective to everyone. Berlin has a tendency to reconstitute its past through its architecture from multiple points of view in time. German history and immigration from the East have shaped the appearance of Berlin over numerous decades. All these elements try to form a unified city. Although, not successfully yet.

By the end of the Second World War, Germany and Berlin specifically were occupied by the British, American and Russian armies. Cities were extensively demolished. The nation seeks new identity. The historical core of the city required new construction to take place in order to function again. During the reconstruction process, the city of Berlin commissioned many non-German architects to reconstitute their cultural heritage and face traces of fascism from a different viewpoint.      

American-Jewish architect Peter Eisenman has worked with the notion of absence and presence of objects, ideas of traces. He positions “the grid of 1760, the grid of 1830, and superposition of traces, which is how Rome evolved, how Berlin evolved, how cities evolve.”[7]The urban environment is a collection of actions of its inhabitants during its entire existence. Urban collective identity is built into the physical environment naturally through human behavior. This identity is represented by the usage of specific forms, materials and colors. On the other side, Robert Smithson argues that “architects build in an isolated, self-contained, ahistorical way.”[8]While reviewing contemporary cities, architecture is becoming anti-contextual. Simply building without dealing with the historical context and embedded traces from the site signifies separation from the context. However, building should react to an environment and its historical conditions.

The reconstruction of ruined architecture can happen within or outside of the building, through adding or subtracting processes. Both approaches are valid in terms of preserving history and adapting architecture to the contemporary life. One example of an additive method is the Exhibition Hall in Deutsches Historisches Museum, in the historical part of Berlin. The main building was bombed during the World War II. It was reconstructed with an extension from the American-Chinese architect I.M.Pei. He designed a new architectural form of exhibition space to be added to the existing historical part. The visitor perceives the additional layer of information, the new construction, clearly. It is written in a new, more relatable language. Difference between the various building periods is represented extensively throughout the space with the use of different materials, light, and type of construction. The contrast of past and present is visible immediately. Additive structure does not necessarily react to any context of historical building. It is built as a new entity, plugged into the existing structure almost without any reaction or sensibility. The only apparent connection to the historical part is by the underground passageway.[9]

In contrast, the Neues Museum, preserved by the British architect David Chipperfield, reveals history in multiple layers where new is embedded into the old construction. Chipperfield carefully examines the ruins of the museum and interferes with the structure minimally. His approach is nearly formless. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas criticized that this “turn to preservation is not a defeat, but rather a retreat, a safe original point of departure for rethinking the question of contextualism in entirely different form.” [10] A work of preservation is considerate and assertive to the heritage of the building when it reacts to the context. The question of authorship becomes difficult on the other hand. Distinguishing between individual signitures and approaches is difficult due to an overlay of information. By examining the author adding new layers into the palimpsest, “linguistically, the author is never more than the instance writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I: language knows a ‘subject’, not a ‘person’.”[11]The building becomes a hybrid of time, neither historical, nor contemporary. It consists of multiple histories within one space, they interact with each other by blurring boundaries and create a new entity out of time. 

Contemporary preservation uses both of the mentioned approaches. The second example works extensively with the past of the building and considers the ruins as a starting point for a new concept in present. It proposes a completely new approach to defining temporal positioning within the building. Architecture is contextualized. It takes into consideration its context which can be cultural, historical, or physical. By juxtaposition of different building epochs next to each other, various periods are represented in one space simultaneously. Their contrast can be therefore completely reduced or exaggerated by the design.

“Preservation is always suspended between life and death.” [12] Preservation works with the notion of time. Demolished object is close to death but preservation brings it back to life, into different reality as its original. It is reconstructing the notion of time in buildings. The traditional concept of time is described through the linear movement and therefore expresses progress or evolution. On the other hand, “nostalgia is a rebellion against modern idea of time, the time of history and progress”[13] as Svetlana Boym argues. Her anti-modern approach relates to the contemporary preservation methods and their relation to time. During the preservation process, the architect stretches back into the past to examine destroyed parts. Various epochs coexist and interfere with each other within one frame as palimpsest. The space offers almost archive-like experience of cultural heritage in the context of place. As a result, the collective memory is brought back to the nation to support its identity. In order to protect the culture of individual nations, the historical context cannot be ignored. The curatorial aspect needs to be taken in consideration because of: “re-naming and re-classification through legal frameworks such as listing and shifted ownership.”[14]A certain portion of contextualism needs to be brought back into the architectural discipline. Through looking at history, we learn from the mistakes of the past in order to engender progress in the present and towards the future. 


[1] Lebbeus Woods, "WAR AND ARCHITECTURE: The Sarajevo window,", December 2, 2011
[2] Jorge Otero-Pailos, Supplement to OMA’s preservation manifesto, Preservation is overtaking us, (GSAPP Transcripts), Columbia Books on Architecture and the City (September 2, 2014) 88
[3] Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism, Zero Books (April 16, 2009) 3
[4] Jorge Otero-Pailos, Erik Langdalen, Thordis Arrhenius, Experimental Preservation, (Lars Muller Publishers, Zurich, 2016) 11
[5] Aldo Rossi,  Selected Writing and Projects (Gandon Editions; 1983) 49
[6] Till, Karen. The New Berlin: Memory, Politics, (Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005) 5
[7] Iman Ansari. "Eisenman's Evolution: Architecture, Syntax, and New Subjectivity" 23 Sep 2013.
[8] Jorge Otero-Pailos, Supplement to OMA’s preservation manifesto, Preservation is overtaking us ,  85
[9] Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin
[10] Jorge Otero-Pailos, Supplement to OMA’s preservation manifesto, Preservation is overtaking us, 93
[11] Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, 145
[12] Mark Wigley, Introduction, Preservation is overtaking us
[13] Svetlana Boym, Nostalgia, The Future of Nostalgia, Basic Books, New York, 2001
[14] Thordis Arrhenius, The Fragile Monument- On Conservation and Modernity (Artifice Books on Architecture, London, 2012) 140