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The built environment – that which encompasses architecture – is rarely neutral. It intertwines ...
2021-02-11 14:00:00

Space Is Never Empty
On Memory and Architecture

Photo by Manhhai/Flickr (CC BY 2.0.)
Space Is Never Empty
Space Is Never Empty

The Notre Dame Cathedral was burning. It was a serene evening and the cobblestone streets of the Latin Quarter were shrouded in violet mist, thick smoke glistened in the setting sun. A seemingly imperishable building that embodies eight centuries of French and European history was at risk of collapsing, engulfed in flames weakening its construction. 

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For many, Notre Dame is a symbol of pride and a glorious past, success and cultural legacy that is common for most Europeans. Crowds on the streets of Paris and millions glued to their screens around the world were weeping, praying, hoping, begging for the cathedral to survive. Perplexed, all I could think of was that they were crying for the stability the building embodies, now that it was under threat. Not only did the crowds mourn losing the Gothic architectural masterpiece, but also the possibility of their collective memory and a sense of historical and cultural unity being erased, going down in flames in a split second. It wasn’t the first time that I witnessed certain buildings evoking equally strong emotional reactions. After all, architecture occurs at the same time with the most basic units of social organization, encompassing a metaphoric and physical extension of the social architecture and organization. As the most durable, long-lasting and easily retrievable out of all the material cultures, architecture is crucial in understanding societies.

Raised in post-socialist Poland, I learned early on that the built environment is rarely neutral – it is almost certainly intertwined with the historical period it represents. I was watching the Notre Dame blaze on a high-resolution TV screen, comfortably nestled in an armchair in a post-socialist, pastel-coloured block of flats somewhere in Eastern Poland. I couldn’t help thinking that there are a number of people around who would be ecstatic to witness buildings like the one I was in perish together with any remnants of the past regime this kind of architecture represents. Seamlessly erasing the past epitomized by old buildings is a popular practice, with emotions and memories often clouding the judgement of what to demolish and why. 

I had always despised the grey bulkiness of post-socialist architecture, but growing up surrounded by it, I developed a peculiar relationship with the dour urban landscape of Eastern Poland. Take the cubical, grey block of the former headquarters for the Regional Polish United Workers’ Party in my hometown. Looking at it now, little remains of its past glory, perhaps except the structure and vastness. As the concrete crumbles away, it is hard to believe that it used to be the pride of the town. Remembering Dolores Hayden’s words that the politics of identity is an inseparable aspect of dealing with the urban built environment, I wonder how the reactions the post-socialist buildings provoke today testify as to whether she was right. Whether loved or hated, as time passes, architectural landmarks turn into real-life monuments preserving a certain epoch. For any Parisian, Notre Dame is a metaphor of the values their city and country stand for, which – courtesy of Victor Hugo – from a religious place of worship turned into a cultural landmark, maintaining its status even in increasingly secular France. What links Notre Dame and post-socialist buildings is the intensity of emotions they evoke and the principle of architecture as burdened with ideas of the past and the history it represents. Nevertheless, post-socialist architecture reflects a different kind of history – recent and more explicitly inseparable from oppression. 

“The committee building? I would pour gasoline over it and watch it burn!” angrily exclaimed Lala, a family friend, when I asked her about the ex-communist party headquarters in my hometown. Born during World War II, she remembers socialist Poland from the very beginning. Her strong reaction, directly influenced by her animosity towards socialism, reflects a desire to eliminate the architectural remains of the system. For many anthropologists, post-socialist architecture is a reflection of what power produced in cities, the social meaning assigned to a particular spatial form by a historically defined society. This ‘power’ means the influence of the system based on a ‘planned’ or ‘command’ economy; as Owen Hatherley puts it, a “dictatorship of one dubiously sane individual or the dictatorship of functionaries”, oscillating between relative freedom and ideological conformity and internationalism, versus attachment to the local traditions. Inseparable from this notion of power, urban space embodies a process of conflict, domination and resistance that is directly linked to the dynamics of social struggle. Designed to convey the power of the government, grand, intimidating socialist buildings were supposed to dominate, symbolize the new order and reproduce the ideology and tactics of the regimes. 

In Poland, post-socialist spaces have been contested since the very beginning. Today, the dynamics of conflict and resistance still resonate – even though the struggle related to the previous regime is over, the profound effect it had on people’s lives embedded it in the collective and individual memory. This turbulent process of reminiscing triggered by memories embodied in post-socialist buildings can reshape urban space. For instance, the ongoing public debate about preservation or demolition of these buildings demonstrates how abstract emotions acquire tangible form and physically influence the surroundings. In Poland, numerous comments regarding demolition plans often refer to political divisions, attacking the past: “Socialists want to rule the city again, decide about something that is not even theirs,” or “Are they mad? Will every socialist eyesore become a monument now?” Within the tempestuous debate about the future of post-socialist landmarks, buildings are perceived as embodiments of the unwanted, traumatizing past. Overweighing aesthetic and historical value-related arguments, these emotional accounts link with memories and political antipathies, as well as a struggle to accept the past. David Lowenthal claims that “to show off the past is the obvious aim of identifying it”; here, to metaphorically erase the past is to negate one’s historical identity.

However, there are numerous voices asking for this post-socialist past to be preserved, be it due to the historical value of architecture from that period, or personal, highly nostalgic considerations. In the first instance, I often hear that modernist commercial pavilions are a part of post-war history, and therefore should not be demolished. In contrast to Lala’s intense hatred of the committee building, her peer from the other side of the political spectrum and an ex-party worker, Hubert, describes the Party Committee headquarters with pride, merging his perception of the building with nostalgia for the glorious past.

“It was beautiful. At the time [the late 70s] it was one of the most presentable buildings I knew. Located on a small hill, it was visible from many parts of the city. Seven storeys high, it was the only high-rise.” He points out how innovative and advanced the building used to be: “The first building in the area with a lift. Its elevation was made of silver tin, coruscating beautifully in the sunlight. Spacious inside, with an auditorium, a bar and a canteen, it was really impressive, the most modern building in town.”

For Hubert, the building is a symbol of prestige and power. It evokes memories of being one of the youngest members of the party, filled with pride and gratitude to be there. Here, the ex-party headquarters is an object of aspirations, an embodiment of one’s professional and political goals. Hubert reminisces about the glory days when the building, as well as himself, was socially respected: “Being there was an honour, an extremely ennobling experience. Back then, people working there were seen as the chosen ones.” However, the fall of communism that brought freedom and euphoria for some, was the beginning of a struggle and turning point for others. In the 1990s, the tendency was to remove all the material remains of the previous system as soon as possible. Being an ex-party member was nothing to be proud of anymore; on the contrary, it was shameful and likely to stimulate repressions. The committee building where Hubert used to work was refurbished to become a school, and all the offices were converted into classrooms. When he passes it by now, Hubert is upset by the state of the building: “It’s so neglected, looks horrible! I feel sorry, it’s a historical landmark that should have been taken care of properly, it’s a memorial of those times… They just wanted to change everything quickly, to erase all the memories, to erase the history, didn’t they?”

The place where memory and history meet is always ambiguous. History refers to past events fixed in time, it functions as a symbol employed to make certain claims about the present and the future, supported by various ideologies. Memory, on the other hand – a personal account of the past – involves a person and their experience in the process of remembering. In relation to identity, although historical knowledge is seen as essential when creating loyal citizens, memory and history reinforce one another to produce and reproduce a sense of membership in a political community. Thus, personal and shared memories have the ability to unsettle the hegemony of history – memory is an active practice, an interpretative reconstruction – not just a record of the past, but a factor reshaping the experience. Linked with identity, memory becomes phenomenological ground and the means for identity construction.

In the case of post-socialist architecture, reactions and attitudes passed on from generation to generation defend a particular set of political views. Because their roots are in personal, often traumatizing memories, the emphasis is on feelings attached to historical events, rather than their rational analysis. Emotional responses to the process of reminiscing evoked by buildings associated with a certain period can be explained by the fact that the political and social identities of the people who lived during that period have been built on the relationship with the past. In the case of Notre Dame, although there are no first-hand, individual memories associated with the time when the cathedral was built, the memory that unites the crying crowds as they watch the fire is transgenerational and collective, inseparable from their national pride and identity.

Photo by Manhhai/Flickr (CC BY 2.0.)
Photo by Manhhai/Flickr (CC BY 2.0.)

A day after the Notre Dame blaze, in his address to the mourning nation, the French president Emmanuel Macron pledged to rebuild the cathedral in five years and to make it even more beautiful than before. Only a few hours later, the wealthiest people in France donated over €650 million, perhaps in line with the president’s words to “transform this disaster into an opportunity to come together.” From an outsider’s perspective, it seemed like their joint efforts to rescue their collective treasure brought the politically-divided French people together. In the case of the post-socialist legacy in Poland, a reverse is happening – disputes supposedly caused by aesthetics and architecture quickly escalate into political conflicts, widening pre-existing divisions. 

“The fire at Notre Dame reminds us that our history never stops,” Macron stressed in his speech – and perhaps he was right. Urban space, exactly like history, is a constant work in progress, always in flux. If we perceive architecture through the lens of memory, history and emotions, a building is never just a building – it can be an opportunity to decode the period it embodies. As Dolores Hayden wrote: “Urban landscapes are storehouses for social memories [...] and when the urban landscape is battered, important collective memories are obliterated.” Back in my post-socialist apartment block, watching France mobilize to rebuild the cathedral as soon as possible, I couldn’t help wondering what to make of my nation, which seems not to mind the obliteration of some memories; on the contrary, which often wishes they would dissolve completely.


The title of this article is taken from Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space: “Space is never empty – it always embodies a meaning.”


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