Place and memory

Academically, a lot of effort has been put into distinguishing the difference between space and place. Architects (and landscape architects) intuitively know place. The ultimate goal of the architect is not to build buildings, but to make places. While function and visual appeal are the predominate drivers of contemporary design, there still remains an almost mythical poeticalness to the concept of timeless place-making. The most influential notion of place in Western architectural theory is the ancient Roman concept of the genius loci. The “genius” is the guardian spirit that protects every being in the world from its birth to its death and gives it essence and life energy.1 Every place has a genius; the genius is the essence of place, distinguishing it from space or site. Finding the genius, or creating one, is the trick of architectural design. Spirit of place is a notion found in other cultures, for example, spirits of the land in indigenous cultures, the kami in Shinto religion, guardian deities in Hinduism and Chinese folk religion.

Fushimi Inari Shrine, Shinto shrine in Kyoto known for its thousands of torii gates. Source: Infinity, by Juan Salmoral (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Defining place

Previously in What does it mean to be human? I presented Evernden’s idea that humans are natural aliens in search of place. A part of our existential being as humans is to feel placelessness. But place is vague. How can we search for place when we don’t even know what we are looking for? Here are some attempts from scholars to define place:

Yi-Fu Tuan: Space and place are interdependent terms that are distinguished by experience. Space allows movement; place is the pause.2

Michel de Certeau: Space is a “practiced place;” place carries a set of “proper” rules in accordance to a stable order of relationships.3

Edward Casey: Places are inhabited in present time or retrospectively. Alternatively, sites are where things are prospectively built. Thus, time is a function of place. Memories make places.4

Embodied memory

Memories are retrieved to form knowledge of a past, but to differentiate between knowledge and remembering, we retrieve the memories, feelings, and/or thoughts from a particular time.5 In the process of remembering, we are re-experiencing. Memory is also often perceived as relative to a concept of time that is linear, occurring between the past and the present. Casey points out that memories are always formed from a body memory, emplaced from a situated perspective point. Memories are always experienced by being embodied in a place and time, whether it is from reality or from the imagination. Certain places are linked with particular memories. Sometimes a place will recall certain memories, while certain memories seek out places. Departure from place evokes nostalgia, while the arrival or return to place conjures anticipation.

Anticipatory memory and implicit memory

Memory is thought of as “looking back” but the positive anticipation of a place is “looking forward to.” This sounds like a paradox, but Paul Duro provides an idea of a forward-looking memory: anticipatory memory.6 At the same time, he describes it as a “pre-emptive nostalgia.” It is a type of memory that defeats linear time. Ideas and affections of a place are formed by ambiguous and involuntary remembering of conscious memories from “research” or unconscious associations of memories of the same place or similar places. Anticipatory memory is not merely a social or historical narrative for the visitor, such as the anticipation to experience “wilderness” for a city dweller. It is embodied in place and transcends between collective and individual memories. These memories are subject to fragmentation, distortion, and idealization. They can also be disturbed, re-affirmed, or reconstructed.

The disturbance of anticipatory memory is based on Robert Eisner’s “double nature of place” in which there are two renditions of place for each person.7 There is the real one, and also its timeless and idealized version. The dichotomy between the two places creates interference in the actual experience. Sometimes there is the need to preserve this idealized landscape. The example that Duro writes about is Martin Heidegger’s trip to Greece in the travel journal Sojourns. Heidegger is doubtful of the possibility of reconciling his expectations, i.e. his “ancient memories” of Greece, with the actual experience, that he avoids getting off the ship at many of the port stops. His encounter with Greece is compared by Duro as a pilgrimage – the search for a kind of truth (similar to my pilgrimage for poignant landscapes). To have a meaningful experience of place, accordance between the anticipated and the real must be made. Duro concludes, “Experience is only validated when it is seen through the lens of prior representation.”8

Another involuntary memory is implicit memory, defined as the phenomenon when perception, thoughts, and feelings are influenced by unconscious memories of past experiences.9 According to Daniel Schacter, implicit memories cannot be recalled, nor are we aware of its processes. While implicit memories are mainly formed by imagery and our social context, particularly through the media, it is more than pre-emptive priming, because our personalities are influenced by these memories. The way we behave and perceive things are affected by our lifetimes of implicit memories. False recollections can occur within the memory retrieval process, mixing in actual occurrences with what was merely imagined. From the subconscious memories that we develop, we begin to feel attached to certain places, even if we have not (yet) experienced them as if they’ve already moved our lives in reality. We believe that these timeless places are authentic to us; we want to validate them. And that is the basis of nostalgia.

1. Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1979), 18.
2. Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977).
3. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1984).
4. Edward Casey, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).
5. Daniel Schacter, Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past, (New York: Basic Books, 1996).
6. Paul Duro, “‘A Disturbance of Memory’: Travel, Recollection, and the Experience of Place,” in Rhetoric, Remembrance, and Visual Form: Sighting Memory, eds. by Anne Teresa Demo and Bradford Vivian, (New York: Routledge, 2012), 49-66.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid, 55.
9. Daniel Schacter, Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past, (New York: Basic Books, 1996).


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