Book explores how architecture triggers memory

Shelley Hornstein Losing Site cover

How do we remember important events in our lives? Is it the conversation, people or things associated with the event, or is it the “place” that anchors our memories? We remember best when we have an experience in a place, but what happens when we leave that place or it ceases to exist?

 Shelley HornsteinFor York architectural historian, Professor Shelley Hornstein (right), the relationship between memory and place has been a source of fascination for much of her academic career. Hornstein, who teaches architectural history and visual culture in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, has authored a new book on the subject.  Losing Site: Architecture, Memory and Place (Ashgate 2011) examines the relationship between memory and place and asks how architecture acts as a springboard to our memories.

Hornstein will launch Losing Site: Architecture, Memory and Place at a special event at the Gladstone Gallery located on the upper floor of Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel on Sunday, Dec. 18. The launch will take place from 6 to 8pm and all are welcome.

In Losing Site, Hornstein explores how architecture exists as a material object and how it registers as a place that we come to remember beyond the physical site itself. She questions what architecture is in the broadest sense, assuming that it is not just buildings. The book connects architecture with geography, visual culture and urban studies. It explores the infinite variations of how architecture maps our physical, mental or emotional space.

The book’s title reflects Hornstein’s understanding of culture, place and memory. “We’ve lost sight of what it means to be in a place, to experience, to know the physicality of a place,” she says. “Losing Site plays with the ideas that bring together site and sight. How does architecture trigger memory?”

Each chapter explores this concept by providing a different example of the many ways that the physical place of architecture is curated by the architecture in our mental space, or what Hornstein From Losing Site, Dani Karavan, Passages - Homage to Walter Benjamin, 1994, Portbou, Spain. Photograph by Shelley Hornsteincalls our “imaginary toolbox” that we use when we remember or think of a place, look at a photograph, visit a site and describe it later to someone else or write about it on a postcard.

Right: From Losing Site, Dani Karavan, Passages – Homage to Walter Benjamin, 1994, Portbou, Spain. Photograph by Shelley Hornstein

“Architecture is much broader than we imagine. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that architecture is not only about buildings, but also about the construction of our physical landscape and how we relate to it…what our bodies do and mean in those spaces, as well as the mental maps and architectural constructions we build everyday in our minds and the worlds we build visually as we read fiction, for example,” says Hornstein.

She notes that even a hedge dividing a garden from a road traces a line that not only divides a space into two places, but creates two new places that did not exist before. “We builds, demolish and shape space into architectural places that are meaningful to us,” says Hornstein. “When those places disappear, do we remember them?”

Hornstein describes the project as the result of 10 years of writing and teaching that she never realized was a book all along. Writing the text was made possible after she was awarded the Walter L. Gordon Fellowship.

There were two challenges she encountered when writing the book. The first was how to knit together a series losing Site Coverof seemingly unrelated case studies into a cohesive manuscript. The second was trying to convince herself that introducing what she thought was a wild and crazy idea about architecture to both the specialized architecture communities as well as the general public was indeed possible.

“What fascinated me while researching this book was that no matter who I would describe it to, each person responded with a personal story about the way they remembered a certain place,” she says. “A wonderful book would be to record each of those responses!”

Following the launch, Hornstein will turn her attention to an international workshop she is organizing to orchestrate a course to be taught by 10 different colleagues in 10 different cities and countries on the theme “Starlets and Starchitecture: Women, Celebrity and Architecture Across Borders”. She is also starting a book on the topic of demolition, which she describes as “an assemblage of case studies that riff on what it means to intentionally demolish architecture.”

Losing Site: Architecture, Memory and Place is part of the Ashgate Studies in Architecture. The 182-page book includes 17 black-and-white illustrations.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor