TEXT BY SERGIO BELTRAN GARCIA
[…] And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
– Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shock. Horror. Outrage. Newspaper headlines near the end of May 2015 revealed an act of savagery: in a move that mocked architecture’s futile attempts at permanence, the Islamic State destroyed the World Heritage Site of Palmyra in Syria. The colonnades of Palmyra—witnesses of times long-abandoned—crumbled to become part of Shelley’s forgotten desert landscape. How could such seemingly immortal pieces of human history prove to be so vulnerable, so easy to destroy? Perhaps, if those structures had not been seen by the extremists as reminders of a blasphemous pagan yore, but as an opportunity to enrich their own memory, the collection of meanings those stones held might not have been completely lost.
Palmyra is one of many architectural expressions of an ancient culture that have somehow survived the passage of time to become cultural points of reference for contemporary culture. With the passage of time, such sites accumulate in number throughout the world as international institutions such as UNESCO bind them in red tape, thereby creating permanent beacons of memory. Palmyra, though useless to contemporary Syrians and humanity as an active ceremonial centre, was still a useful reminder of what we once were. Perhaps this is why the destruction of Palmyra was such a blow: what we created to be immortal was shown to be mortal. Violence once more reminded us that there is no such thing as permanence.
In the past, architecture was seldom designed as work that should eventually be replaced with newer work. Consequently, our built present is seldom seen as part of a forgettable past but rather as a concretised and lasting fact. As the present century develops however, our reservoirs of identity are no longer limited to the tangible built space and extend into the virtual. This shift has engendered structures that have forgetfulness built into their core. It is my claim that architecture, traditionally obsessed with stating the present and conserving the past, stands to gain resilience by learning impermanence from such contemporary practices and structures. In learning how to develop such new, more resilient tactics by which architecture might better relate to the past, it is useful to first look back on past design strategies that have been used to mediate and preserve cultural memory.
Throughout history, confrontations between different cultures have elicited questions about how to deal with the cultural memory of the Other. One of the earliest strategies for dealing with the past of a different culture was to simply replace it. In the case of the military invasions characteristic of pre-industrial imperialism, more than often, the cultural memory of the conquered was viewed as a threat to intentions of the conqueror. Seeking to impose and ensure the permanence of their cultural identity, conquerors routinely opted to raze the cultural memories of the societies they conquered. Traditional clothing and languages were supplanted by those of the dominant group. Statues of fallen leaders were toppled. Temples deemed pagan or blasphemous were torn down and new structures were built in their place.
Replacement is a primitive form of engagement with built memory. It is driven by a limited understanding of architecture as something inherently permanent and thus, as something that needs to be interrupted. This strategy is also characterised by a disregard for the preservation of preexistent memory-landscapes because the cultural memory of the conquered culture is undervalued or viewed as dangerous. Within this scheme, a tabula rasa is procured and the past is rewritten in new and convenient terms. Despite its primitivity, the strategy has persisted to the present day, from the burning of Troy through to the fire in the German Reichstag and to the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and ISIS’ most recent destruction of Palmyra.
Restoration and Conservation
In the 18th and 19th centuries, new attitudes towards the cultural value of conquered civilisations began to emerge. Here, it is particularly insightful to juxtapose the design strategies and theories developed by two 19th century architects: Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and John Ruskin. Both recognised that human activity, particularly industrial development, was rapidly deteriorating the historical and architectural legacy of cities and landscapes. Both were concerned by this loss and sought better ways to renew the past within the context of the present. Both created theories that argued against governmental and economical interests in lieu of conserving the value of the past, though each one had a very different view.
In his Entertien sur l'architecture (1872), Viollet-le-Duc expressed his belief that the function of most ancient monumental works had been long abandoned. He stated that it was therefore impossible to authentically restore the architectural past to what it was at the time of its construction. Instead, he proposed building upon the structures of the past, drawing upon the contemporary collective imaginary and techniques of the present, to turn the forgotten building into "a complete work again, for today." Viollet-le-Duc spoke of allowing the past to change, thus making it possible for new memories to be created on top of old ones. In this he offered an alternative for the architectural representation of the past that was open to revision without the fear of being “wrong” or “false”. We might therefore term Viollet-le-Duc’s stance towards the past as restorative.
Ruskin, on the other hand, severely criticized Viollet-le-Duc’s theory. In his Lamp of Memory (1885), Ruskin claimed that the “architectural canvases” upon which Viollet-le-Duc would build, contained clues and sensitive information which by their very existence expressed the passage of time, and were worthy of being considered part of the landscape’s memory. Ruskin believed that this information was lost with restoration and therefore should be protected. He proposed an impassive stance whereby the only suitable solution was to encapsulate and freeze the landscape, to stop its further deterioration, and to never again touch it in order to honour the gnawing of time’s teeth. Ruskin conjured a vision of a past with an infinite horizon: always visible, always constant, unchanging and secure. His approach towards the past was one of conservation. This radical approach was useful for a society that felt its cultural lineage was at risk of being lost. But Ruskin’s conservative historicism, much like the strategy of replacement that preceded it, failed to understand the impermanent nature of landscape and architecture to the point of contradiction: Ruskin canceled out the very passage of time he was attempting to preserve. By treating the built environment as something that could be frozen in time indefinitely, he rendered landscape and architecture untouchable for future societies, incapable of serving as a living environment for an evolving and dynamic culture.
Despite their differences, these two nineteenth century positions--restoration and conservation--share a common view of the past as an untouchable entity that cannot, or should not be changed. In the case of Viollet-le-Duc’s restorative project, the past is de facto beyond the reach of the living present. Ruskin’s conservative project, on the other hand, demands that the living present (and future) be sealed off from the past. This inclination is consistent with the historicism of the time, in which historiography had not yet shaken the incontestability of the past.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Italian architect Camillo Boito proposed a conciliatory path between Viollet-le-Duc and Ruskin’s theories, one that prevails to this day. Boito called for the inspiration of new life in past heritage by intervening within pre-existent structures, materials and programs of architecture. He proposed, however, to always make clear, visible and legible the distinctions between new, old, and conserved with a written sign informing spectators about the author of the intervention, the description of the restoration done, the time in which it was done and other relevant data. He called this method of engaging with the past integration, a practice still very much alive today.
Boito’s ideas were inspired by a context in which a more critical historiography was coming into being: a spirit of continuously questioning historical data, viewing it under scrutiny, distilling new perspectives and interpretations of the past. Today, the understanding of built landscape as cyclical and open to constant transformation has allowed for churches to become skate parks or palaces to become museums. Quotidian spaces, such as MoMa’s PS1 or the Serpentine Gallery, but also parking lots, parks, squares, sidewalks and streets today have also become sites of integrative interventions and repurposings. Tactical and landscape urbanism, art interventions in the public sphere, and spatially-based social activism such as the Occupy movements are all expressions of Boito’s integrative spirit and suggest that we are drifting away from a conception of our architectural heritage as permanent or untouchable.
Boito’s contributions furthered the theories that guide our treatment of the built past and offered a comprehensive alternative to replacement, restoration and conservation. Integration is useful for our twenty-first century culture because it allows for one creator to build upon the memory of another. However, our society champions unceasing and continuous participatory design, or constant remixing, and for this very reason, integration falls short as a practical strategy of memorialisation because its scope is limited to isolated interventions on preexisting objects. In other words, Boito’s theory recognises the present potential of the past and acts upon it, but it does not necessarily allow for the design to receive future memories.
If we are to create a more resilient cultural memory, we need a strategy that allows past, present and future to coexist in the structures we build. If we recognise the ultimate impossibility of memorializing the past in any kind of fixed or permanent way, then perhaps one radical and different approach would be to build the new spaces of memory of our time in such a way that they are, by design, irrestorable.
An irrestorable object or building is one designed to be evanescent and without an “original state”. The elimination of an original state opens the way for structures that can hold, simultaneously, the footprints of the past, the needs of today, and the possibilities of the future. In certain areas of our contemporary culture, this idea is not at all new: the timelines we scroll through everyday on social media platforms act this way. These habits are already helping to dissolve the paradigms of the past that held the nature of memory, identity and the built environment as static and permanent entities and underpinned the strategies of replacement, conservation, restoration and integration.
Architecture has historically avoided working within finite temporalities. However, landscape architecture, always coping with the conditions of the environment — light, heat, chill, erosion, and growth — necessarily produces works that constantly evolve. Disintegration in the landscape and the structures we place within it is understood to be a part of cycle and is often accounted for within the design process. Coming and going, regeneration and mutation, are all processes that are, to greater and lesser extents, accepted landscape architects and celebrated in their works. A new piece of landscape architecture —unlike the monumental building — is not completed at its “finish,” but only set on its way, at its very beginning. In this way, landscape architecture offers valuable lessons for architecture that is geared towards irrestorability.
Irrestorability in Practice: New's Divine Memorial
Obsessed with permanence, eternity and power (much like the societies that tend to build them), monuments stand in complete opposite to the irrestorable. Memorials, on the other hand, challenge the vertical processes imposed by the monumental, and in turn attempt to mimic the the constantly mutating interests of the landscape and its inhabitants. In my own practice, I have found that one of the most enriching opportunities to practice the irrestorable has been in designing memorials. The New’s Divine Memorial was—and continues to be—one such project.
New’s Divine was the name of a dance club which catered to mostly underage, reggatonero youth. Located in the northern periphery of Mexico City, it existed among high crime rates and the largest youth population of the city. In June 2008, amid a security crisis which the Mexican Government was desperately trying to curtail, the club was raided by poorly trained police, resulting in an asphyxiating stampede that killed 12 people. In April 2013, I contacted the families of the victims and started to work with them on a memorial project along with the city government. The victims’ families expressed that they couldn’t bear the thought of such a tragedy happening again, so we agreed to focus on the needs of the surviving youth who continue to face adversity in their present day lives. My proposal specifically avoided creating a monument that would fetishise the tragedy as a static image of the past. Creating a fixed museum isolated from visitors’ day-to-day life would speak only of what was. Instead, we concentrated on transforming the ex-discotheque into a vital and dynamic public space that could respond to the current cultural and educative needs of the local youth and thus lower their vulnerability to abuses of power.
Had we opted for a strategy of replacement, we would have completely eliminated the material and memory of the dance-club, leaving no trace of its existence. Restoration would have rehabilitated the building back to its “original state”, crippling its chances for serving a new and useful purpose. Conservation would have converted it into a museum dedicated to telling the story of the tragedy as a foreclosed episode in the past. Integration would have restored some parts, eliminated or modified others, and would have strived to exclusively communicate the past and not allow for any future interpretations of it. These strategies could have all worked if the intention of the victims’ families was to only speak about their children, but we were also interested in building something that might help avoid further tragedy, so none of these were adequate.
Opting instead for an irrestorable approach to the memorial, we began the design process by learning to let go of thinking about the tragedy and the individual stories of the victims as fixed and foreclosed episodes. Design-wise, this encouraged the adoption of a strategy that allowed us to cut the pieces of preexisting structures (the club and the tragedy) and use them to build a new space that elicited the proportion, structure and program of New’s Divine, yet that could also function as a cultural hub for disenfranchised youth. Walls, graffiti murals, slabs, columns, beams and doors were reconfigured to create a new and empty place. The result was an architecture that seems unfinished: a continuous superimposition of found materials upon another, much like the low-income landscape that surrounds it. Many visitors that see exposed rebar and concrete ask if the building is incomplete, and indeed it is: there is no “original state” of the memorial. There is no commemorative plaque to any sole victim, no altars to the dead, no cues for the reverence that permanence demands. Framed by the fragments of its tragic past, the memorial is empty and flexible enough to accommodate any kind of activity. Information sessions about the tragedy are held at the memorial on a daily basis, but the key events are sexual education workshops, art exhibitions, breakdancing contests, rap battles, film nights, test-prepping courses and dance and theatre classes.
No one owns the memorial: there is a three-part executive board made up of the victims families, civil society and government which collectively keep the space running. This prevents any of those parties from imposing a specific agenda on the use of the memorial and allows it to keep changing its activities and programs. Since its opening, the memorial’s structure, built more like a scaffolding than a finished product, has already changed because of emerging needs. Since there are many politically charged stakeholders involved in the project, the memorial’s mandate of continual alteration, though designed to keep power struggles at bay, sometimes elicits conflict and need for dialogue within parties. Close-ended projects are agreed upon once, but with an irrestorable approach, constant mediation between actors is crucial to re-negotiate changing needs.
Irrestorable public spaces and landscapes are those that can celebrate their heritage while allowing for the shifting realities of their present and future contexts. The New’s Divine memorial’s agile and dynamic relationship with its past, present and future reduces its vulnerability to assuming a single, fixed significance and makes it more resilient against being co-opted by any one group. It allows for a process of dynamic and ongoing healing. In contrast to a structure like Palmyra, whose defenceless and fragile relation with its own past was so brutally revealed to us in the recent ISIL attack, we succeeded in building something far more robust and long-lasting. Incorporating irrestorable structures into our landscapes will help us better protect such places against vertical structures of power, be they government, private commercial interests, terrorist organisations or even small groups of tragedy victims, that threaten to hijack and limit our reservoirs of memory, identity and compassion. To design the irrestorable is to eliminate the need for “permanent” solutions to our built environment, and thus, reduce its vulnerability to violence.
To find out more about Sergio Beltran Garcia's work, click here.