Architecture and Memory / by J.C. Schmeil

I lived in Tokyo, Japan from the age of eleven until I graduated from high school.  It was a pretty significant portion of my "formative years," so in some ways I consider Tokyo my hometown.  I recently spent a month in Osaka (see for more on that), followed up by four days in Tokyo.  I stayed at a ryokan (Japanese inn) in Shibuya, the Tokyo district where we lived, and was able to spend some time walking through the neighborhoods of my youth.  It got me thinking about how architecture is mapped in our memories, and the extent to which the map accords with reality.

The idea of architecture being inextricably bound with memory has been studied and discussed at great length, of course.  Buildings were once (and still are, to some extent) considered the physical manifestation of cultural memory, a means of passing down cultural and societal values.  On a personal level, some of our first memories have to do with buildings, or with the spaces that we experienced in our childhood.  In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard describes a phenomenological response to architecture-- it's not an analytical observation, but rather the "lived experience," where architecture is defined by the imagination.

A few years ago I designed a house for some friends here in Austin.  The upstairs is loosely based on my memories of a house in Stockholm that I lived in when I was young.  My brother and I each had our own bedroom upstairs, with a large (at least in my memory) play area between them.  Looking at photos of that house now, I realize that the the upstairs couldn't have been that big-- it was essentially an attic with some dormer windows.  But the fact that it was our space, both individually and collectively, has made it seem bigger in memory.  My hope in designing the upstairs for my friends' house is for their two young sons to feel the same way...

To get back to Tokyo though: what I had most looked forward to was the opportunity to wander the old neighborhood and walk the routes I used to take, from train station to home, from home to the park, etc.  I was amazed that although Tokyo has changed significantly since I moved away, I was able to still locate a few remembered landmarks and find myself where I wanted to be.  The bronze statue of Hachiko (the loyal dog) is still in front of Shibuya Station, like an old friend.  109 and Tokyu department stores are still there as well, marking my turning points.  Beyond that, there aren't really any more landmarks-- just a couple of long stretches on a fairly quiet neighborhood street until I reached my house. Some of the houses on the street were different of course, but it was the same street that I remember riding down on my skateboard, "street luge" style.

When I reached the entrance to the little street where our house was, I wasn't sure what to expect.  The street is really a private drive, with two houses on one side and three on the other.  Ours was at the very end of the drive, on the right side.  The drive terminates at a tall wall, on the other side of which is the New Zealand Embassy.  As I walked up the drive, I noticed some conspicuously un-residential activity going on... it appeared that the entire compound had been turned into a television/movie production set.  The shed was gone from my old back yard, as was the wall that separated the yard from the drive.  The house looked different, especially with the production crew in the process of filming in the back yard.

The nameplate on the front of the house said "Natural."  Vines nearly obscured the facade, as if the house had been reclaimed by some mythical forest.  The interior of the house had been completely transformed-- the living room looked like someone's idea of a beach cottage, with wide-plank wood flooring and a few pieces of strategically placed furniture.  My parents' old room and the tv room upstairs were decorated in a similar fashion.  My brother's old bedroom door was locked from the exterior with a padlock.  And my old bedroom was now an office, crammed with a desk, chairs, bookshelves and binders.  Funny how what's in a room can change the experience so radically-- it had once seemed like such a cozy space, and hadn't ever felt cramped even with a desk, bed, dresser and weight bench in it.  The reality of my old house is now a "collective memory," someone else's idea of what a "natural" house is supposed to look like.  The physical house and its spaces are completely dissociated from my experience of the building as home, but it still exists mapped in my memory as it did over twenty years ago.

My friend Mark Schatz, an artist in Houston, recently completed a piece based on a childhood memory of a road trip (you can see the piece at Mark's website:  He literally mapped his memory of the drive, combining it with GoogleEarth to create what might be called a piece of autobiographical fiction.  Our memories of architecture are usually based in physical reality, but are defined by our personal experience of those buildings or spaces.  As time passes and context changes, our remembered experience of a space becomes more meaningful to us than its physical reality.  Ultimately I think that's an argument for creating architecture that allows for an active imagining, rather than passive observation.  In practice, for me, that may mean the look or feel of a particular detail, the way sunlight slants through a window at a certain time of day, or a view that the observer feels has been captured especially for her.  Architecture experienced, without thinking.