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Architecture and memory - TNK Green

Architecture and memory

Have you ever arrived or entered a building you had never visited, and it somehow felt familiar? Or revisited a childhood holiday destination and were somehow taken back to your youth? Almost like a memory triggered by a smell or Deja Vu, this undefined phenomenon could profoundly impact how we experience and live in our cities.

From birth to death, we are surrounded by the built environment and influenced by it. If you ask a child to draw a house, most will draw the classic shape of a square with a triangular roof on top. These simple, recognizable forms are familiar to almost anyone who sees them due to a process known as Iconography.

So let’s investigate how memory help shapes place, how symbolism affects people living in those places and why some spaces are more used and loved than others.


Visual familiarity.

There are several processes involved in the mind’s ability to create visual familiarity and new memories. These concepts work together to create principles that the layperson can understand and make sense of our chaotic urban landscapes. Let’s first break down the most basic principles to develop a vocabulary to help describe this complex process.


Defined as a way of categorizing or interpreting all elements through distinguishing types or symbols.


An analogy is a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject to another


The imagery or symbolism of a work of art, an artist, or a body of art


The study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation


Architecture concerned with domestic and functional rather than public or monumental buildings.


How are icons created? Using familiar shapes and design to create familiarity.

Because architecture is both an art and engineering form, it can sculpt and create the urban environment on a truly monumental scale. Skyscrapers define city skylines, and whether loved or hated, they define a city more than any other structure.

Our cities are ever-evolving entities. Over time places evolve their own architectural vernacular that creates a unique sense of place. Sadly today, most cities look alike, most having been built in the past thirty years, or older cities have lost so much of their heritage in favour of higher-density developments and mega projects.

This is why some of the most beloved cities in the world still retain a sense of their history and authenticity and why world heritage sites have become so popular as travel destinations. People seek out new experiences or marvel at the beauty of the local vernacular architecture. Casablanca, Zanzibar, Venice, Dubrovnik, and Barcelona are all prime examples.

Other cities become known due to iconic structures that set them apart from their competitors but all designed, built and informed by the unique local design esthetic and principles. Like the Eifel Tower in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

But not all buildings are Icons, and not all cities need to be international travel destinations to have a vernacular style. The shape of a barn is just as recognizable as that of the pyramids of Giza but on a smaller, more domestic scale.

On the simplest level, we read and respond to our environment more instinctively. We react differently to colour, shape, smell and texture as much as we do to the people who inhabit those places.

A building made from brick and steel generally evokes different emotions in the onlooker than one made from timber or stone. I personally respond more positively to organic materials than inorganic ones and, therefore, favour buildings with a more organic feel.


Through the ages.

Familiar shapes and rudimentary forms such as triangles, circles and squares have been used throughout the ages to create buildings with more presence. Renaissance architects borrowed heavily from Roman architecture, and their continuous search for balance led to the development of an architectural style that is now considered quintessentially classical.

It’s this ‘classic’ vernacular that gives cities like Paris and Venice their romantic qualities. Detailed stonework, window reveals, and repetition create visual comfort, making these structures visually appealing to the onlooker.

The British Empire, in its heyday, borrowed liberally from Greco-roman architecture to create their empire’s administrative buildings and town halls. The same can be said for the iconic buildings of Washington built after the American civil war.

Since the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, a new kind of globalized industrial vernacular has been created that has had an adverse effect on the design landscape across the developed world. As the industrial revolution grew, counter-culture groups like the Arts and Crafts movement strove to bring back lost skills by handcrafting all their products.

At the turn of the 20th century, two primary schools stood in opposition to one another; Art Nouveau and Art deco. The first drew their inspiration from nature, the former from machines and technology. New York house one of the world’s best examples of Art Deco, the Chrysler building, while Barcelona hosts the best and most loved Art Nouveau buildings like the Sagrada Familia, which is still under construction more than 100 years after they first started construction.

A rise in assembly line manufacturing in the 30s and 40s again changed our landscapes and industry, leading to large-scale urbanization. The Bauhaus designers embraced the mass fabrication ethos, and buildings became objects designed to be purely functional. French architect Le Corbusier famously declared that form follows function, but in my opinion, this led to developments and buildings across the globe that looked almost indistinguishable from one another.

Today our cities are faceless, having been robbed of most of their identity. So how do we change, adapt or update our cities while creating a new identity and retaining the history embedded in their landscapes?


The changing city

Since 2000 more and more mainstream proposals for regenerative projects and revamping old buildings have become more popular. Utilizing disused infrastructure led to new and exciting social spaces that serviced and uplifted their communities. One of the most iconic regenerative projects is probably the Highline park in New York by Bofill and Scoffido, both advocates of this kind of urban renewal.

Highline re-appropriated an old disused elevated delivery railway track in the western side of New York, something that was both an eyesore and a hazard and re-envisioned it as a public park. Thin as it was, the designers extended this track of greenery for a total length of 2.3km ending at the new Hudson Yards development. The park’s success kick-started the rejuvenation and redevelopment of lower Manhattan.

Cities are messy, and development doesn’t always go to plan but retaining something of what initially made a place unique is helpful. Another success in London would be the (Cole drops) Tate Modern by Herzog and de Meuron, who converted an old industrial building on the Themes into a new modern art museum and a new icon for the city.

A local example some would be familiar with is the conversion of the old concrete silos in Cape Town Harbor into the MOCCA Art Gallery and cultural district. Designed by Thomas Heatherwhick, his sensitive approach to the redevelopment was to have minimal exterior alterations (but massive internal ones), and he succeeded in creating a new engaging urban space for the city while embracing its industrial past.

These examples and many more illustrate how rejuvenation and restoration can add more value to cities that use their heritage or near-heritage structures.


How memory informs placemaking in the modern age.

Depending on your age and personal memories, different architectural styles and places within a city will evoke different memories. You probably grew up in another house and neighbourhood than your parents, partied in other clubs and locations and therefore will have widely different associations and memories of places that shaped your life.

I recently went on vacation with my family to a hotel my parents bought a timeshare at in Umhlanga, where we used to vacation every year around Easter while I grew up. I hadn’t been there in about twenty years, and its familiarity struck me. Even though the tiles, reception, room finishes and even the approach to the hotel have changed, I was still instantly transported back to my childhood playing in those corridors.

The city around the hotel has changed so much, but the hotel was like a time capsule, a living memory I could explore, even reliving memories I had forgotten. I’m glad it still exists and wasn’t destroyed by the deluge of new developments surrounding it.

Due to an ever-growing awareness of the high embedded energy associated with construction and ever-escalating construction costs, there has been a push towards more sustainable practices. More and more big corporations, firms and developers have become aware that successful conversion of an old building, even an industrial one, might be more profitable than building a whole new structure from scratch.

Even though change and new development seem to steamroll ahead unabated, preserving the fingerprints of the past is a choice. Conservation can help us create better and more integrated cities celebrating their past, present and future. Therefore, designers, town planners and city councils should create redevelopment schemes to retain some of these cultural landscapes while adapting our cities for the future.

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