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Fra Carnevale, La Citta’ Ideale, 15th C

What is collective memory? Is it a valid category for studying how the city works, and is this category accepted by contemporary society as useful in the description of architecture in the city? Aldo Rossi’s answer to those questions was that in many ways, collective memory is another way of describing what the city actually is. Collective memory exists not as an abstract category of thought, unverifiable by scientific means, but it exists in the relation between the urban fabric of the city and those who inhabit it. Rossi writes:

One can say that the city itself is the collective memory of its people, and like memory it is associated with objects and places. The city is the locus of the collective memory. This relationship between the locus and the citizenry then becomes the city’s predominant image, both of architecture and of landscape, and as certain artifacts become part of its memory, new ones emerge.

I have previously explained what Rossi intended by reintroducing the classical concept of the locusThe locus is where, as explained by France Yates in The Art Of Memory (how memory attaches itself to certain spatial structures) memories attach themselves to in the city. The locus, for Rossi, becomes the primary attribute of the city of collective memory. Rossi writes:

Thus we consider locus the characteristic principle of urban artifacts; the concepts of locus, architecture, permanences, and history together help us to understand the complexity of urban artifacts. The collective memory participates in the actual transformation of space in the works of the collective, a transformation that is always conditioned by whatever material realities oppose it. Understood in this way memory becomes the guiding thread of the entire complex urban structure and in this respect the architecture of urban artifacts is distinguished from art, inasmuch as the latter is an element that exists for itself alone, while the greatest monuments of architecture are of necessity linked intimately to the city.

This highlights the urban paradox of the memorial, for example the equestrian statue placed in a position where there is no longer a living memory of who this sculpture portrays. A city like London has a number of these statues, yet as there is little shared memory of who they portray in the place in which they have been erected, they contribute very little to the collective memory of the city. This is an example of where there is a dislocation of memory from place, therefore a failure in an attempt to create a locus artificially. A successful architectural intervention in the city which brings out the locus through other means than the isolated monument is able to contribute successfully to the collective memory of the city. On the other hand, a statue or a fragment of one, which has many living memories ascribed to it, is able to define locus more effectively than an entire urban block, an example of this being Rome’s

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Statue of Pasquino, Rome. 3rd C. BC

statue of Pasquino, which has served as a place of continuously renewing city memories and satires attached to its base for a good four centuries to date. The classical statue was found in 1501 during excavation works, and was re-erected in roughly the same location it was found. Although the interpretation of who the statue itself represented varies, it created an involuntary monument dedicated to satirical or protest narratives for the city of Rome via notes in verse attached to its base. It is now probably the statue most loved by the Romans because of the set of memories of city life it has created a locus for. What social media like Twitter does today outside of a physical space, Pasquino or those who attach their satirical verses to it, has been doing for centuries while also creating a locus of collective memory in the city. Pasquino or what was created by Romans with it seems perfectly described in this passage from Rossi’s The Architecture of the City:

Memory, within this structure, is the consciousness of the city; it is a rational operation whose development demonstrates with maximum clarity, economy, and harmony that which has already come to be accepted.

Returning to the architecture of the city and its relation to history, Rossi highlights the two way relation between them, as exemplified by the accidental finding and re-erection of the ancient statue of Pasquino. In order to intervene in the city we need to bridge from the past to the present, leaving a door open for the future history allowed by our intervention. This ties back to Rossi’s view of what progressive architecture actually is, it is an architecture that allows possibilities and histories rather than limits them. The form of the architecture is there to allow a series of events, and it is these events that become the history of the city. The associations between form, event and history are what create the locus of collective memory. The two way continuous feedback process between form and historical event is called shaping. Much like the architect shapes the form of the buildings, the building or artifact then shapes the collective memory of the inhabitants of the city:

The value of history seen as collective memory, as the relationship of the collective to its place, is that it helps us to grasp the significance of the urban structure, its individuality, and its architecture which is the form of this individuality. This individuality ultimately is connected to an original artifact..it is an event and a form. Thus the union between the past and the future exists in the very idea of the city that it flows through in the same way that memory flows through the life of a person; and always, in order to be realized, this idea must not only shape but be shaped by reality. This shaping is a permanent aspect of a city’s unique artifacts, monuments, and the idea we have of it. It also explains why in antiquity the founding of a city became part of the city’s mythology.

Reading Rossi it becomes apparent that many contemporary interventions in the city are focused on shaping the form of a building, and few are intent on shaping a locus for the collective memory of the city. We need less form and more shaping. A disfigured and mutilated statue of Pasquino on a low accessible base is more effective in allowing the shaping of a locus than dozens of pristine equestrian statues of generals on raised plinths.

Read more:The Architecture of the City (Oppositions Books)

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