Dialogues

Blog and online portfolio of Ian Pollard

Frail things in Eternal Places

Francis Yates' conjectural reconstruction of Giordano Bruno's Memory Wheel

The following is an edited extract from my M.Arch thesis, entitled Dialogues: Architecture’s Origin in Language

“Now if the ancient orators, wishing to place from day to day the parts of the speeches which they had to recite, confided them to frail places as frail things, it is right that we, wishing to store up eternally the eternal nature of all things which can be expressed in speech […] should assign them to eternal places”[1]
Giulio Camillo (1550)

If the exchange of ideas between architecture, the arts, and the sciences may be described as a trichotomy, it is certainly a complex, fascinating and relevant group of interactions to examine. And if this thesis is an attempt to extricate, firstly, a set of themes through which Architecture may be compared to language, and second, to investigate and question those themes, then it is within the subject of memory that we encounter a most difficult theme. Memory and language are interconnected, even interdependent. Theirs is an interaction studied in disciplines from cognitive neuroscience to philosophy, linguistics and literature. But how does memory, then, relate to architecture, if it does at all? In what ways does it relate? Does its relation exist in the exchange of metaphors or , alternatively, can architecture be a physical manifestation of memories? In the history of architecture memory has been understood, employed and denied in dramatically different ways.

“There are but two strong conquerers of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture” [2]
John Ruskin (1849)

In this trichotomy, for example, a considerable number of the concepts in the study of memory in science and art have been borrowed, through translation, from architecture; this is due in part to the development of the Arts of Memory from Cicero, to the Rennaisance scholars Giordano Bruno and Giulio Camillo, and later to Robert Fludd 4. The legacy of their work, pioneering, beautiful and profound, can be observed somewhat obliquely in the commonly used English language phrase in the first place. This association of memory with space is a mnemonic device, known as the Method of Loci, in which the content of memories may be ordered and retrieved from a imagined, or drawn set of spatial relationships, memories stored in virtual rooms. In the first place refers to the memorised idea, phrase or otherwise contained within the first such room in a series. This series of rooms does not need to be chronological, but can resemble a complex, fractal like plan, or indeed a multitude of forms. Geometry, and the great body of study that has been undertaken in pursuit of further understanding of it, is a strong influence in the mysterious arts of memory .

Giulio Camillo's Memory Theatre

Most, if not all, notable examples of mnemonic spaces through history were those of the immaterial; existing solely for, and in, the imagination. This, after all, is their primary purpose; to structure memory and to systematically arrange information. There is, however, a intruiging exception. Camillo’s mysterious treatise, L’Idea del Theatro [5], outlines within in however the design of a physical structure that was a large scale model of a theatre of memory of the greatest proportions, an ambition somewhat lost to history.

Discussed above, the Method of Loci is an example of the translation of ideas in architecture to another discipline; the study of memory as a rhetorical art. How does architecture gain in this ‘economy of ideas’, if at all?

“Architecture is for Remembering/Architecture is for Forgetting” [3]
Douglas Darden (1991)


Firstly, architecture may exist as the symbolic host to memory; in the form of the monument [6]. Monuments have a specific symbolic function and in them can be observed explicit intentions; remembrance of individuals, groups or events by setting a memory of them in a physical structure. They can be both an abstract or realistic representation of these figures and happenings. Paradoxically, of course, the figures and events commemorated in many of the greatest ancient monuments have been forgotten, and the structure built to preserve our memory of them becomes instead a monument to their ironic anonymity.

Author's drawn research into related theatre typologies

Douglas Darden, in his “turning over” of the “architectural canons”[7] , which he presents as the volume Condemned Building [8], investigates this paradox with the project Temple Forgetful and its accompanying maxim; “Architecture is for Remembering/Architecture is for Forgetting” [9] Here Darden sets in opposition two contrasting theatre-like forms in remembrance of Romulus and Remus, the sparring brothers of Rome.

The modernists may have rejected the concerns of memory in architecture, but due, in part, to the work of Aldo Rossi there came about a renewed interest in the city’s relation with memory. This relation Memory is explored further in the investigation Memory Theatre, which questions whether memory is maybe not such a frail thing after all…

1 CAMILLO, G. L’Idea Del Teatro (1550), quoted in Yates, F. The Art of Memory (1966) Pimlico. London. 2008 p.142

2 RUSKIN, J. The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). Electric Book Co. London. 2001

3 DARDEN, D. Condemned Building. Princeton Architectural Press. 1993

4 Robert Fludd (1574-1637) was a physician, astrologer and mathematician among many other pursuits.

5 L’Idea del Theatro is discussed in great depth by rennaisance scholar Francis Yates in her comparative study of the art

of memory. See YATES, F. The Art of Memory (1966). Pimlico. London. 2008

6 Monument comes from the latin ‘monumentum’, “something that reminds”

7 DARDEN, D. Condemned Building. Princeton Architectural Press. New York. 1993. p.9

8 ibid.

9 ibid.

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Filed under: Architecture, Writing

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  1. […] link here to ‘Frail Things in Eternal Places ‘, from the Dialogues blog […]

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