Pearl S. Buck once said, “If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” This statement speaks volumes regarding humanity’s pursuit of history and historical identity. The issue at hand specifically seeks to grasp architecture’s role in the construction of memory, and thus the collective historical identities of those involved. The two articles I’ve used to gain an understanding of the relationship between architecture and memory are Deconstructing the American Mosque: Space, Gender, and Aesthetics, by Akel Ismail Kahera, and Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, by Kenneth E. Foote. Both authors manage to explain the role of architecture in memory, and while they both express the importance of remembrance through architecture, they do so using different forms of analysis. Kahera examines the use of historical allusion via the use of ornament, inscription, and architectural form within the American Mosque. Foote deconstructs the relationship of architecture and memory by exploring the bond between a culture of violence and tragedy and the resulting architectural landscape of the United States. The combined interpretations add up to a strong explanation of the role of architecture in constructing memory.
According to Kahera, the American Mosque manages to echo the aesthetic characteristics of its earlier counterparts despite the apparent lack of any real, functional need to do so. He describes two critical thematic assumptions by which the aesthetics of mosques is regulated by, the first being the primary focus on salat, or prayer, as the driving factor in determining the space needed for liturgy. The second assumption when analyzing the American Mosque is that it needs to be quite clear that although there are certain features of design that “have been nuanced as integral aspects of the aesthetics language of a mosque, these features are essentially independent of any ritual demands”. This simply means that there are no true, functional reasons to model a mosque after a preexisting one besides the need for a vaguely identified space for prayer, which can be fulfilled by essentially any means necessary. Kahera then notes that despite there being any real need, “we encounter, with regard to the second assumption, a recurring use of an extant aesthetic precedent”. This is where the role of architecture in constructing memory begins to surface, and it is described as difficult to pinpoint a singular, extant aesthetic precedent followed because the architectural history of American mosques reflects how fragmented and separated Islam has been in the United States from its “roots” in North Africa and the Middle East. Kahera attributes this fragmented identity, and thus fragmented memory, to what he calls, “the phenomenon of a Muslim diaspora”. The community of Muslim immigrants, seeking some emotional familiarity in a new place, attempt to borrow from existing mosque design. This is meant to solidify their identities and establish their place in the community, literally reconstructing their real or imaging “memories” in the form of historical architecture. What follows is a tightrope walk along what constitutes an absolute reconstruction of an extant model and what represents a naturally progressing fusion of the American memory into the design, while still maintaining integrity in regard to Islamic history.
The role of architecture in constructing memory is succinctly stated through the use of image, text, and form within American mosques. Image, as Kahera explains, “is appropriated in an anachronistic manner; it is used as a display of ornament without regard to time or context”. He goes on to further posit that the reason for creating this portrayed image is to satisfy “an emotional condition that has historical efficacy for the immigrant Muslim community”. This emotional connection with history allows the user of the mosque to feel a sense of identity and community, and is something that a native-born American Muslim might not notice unless having recently immigrated to the United States. An example of this concept can be found in the first major mosque constructed in North America, the Islamic Cultural Center, located in Washington, D.C. The designer, Mario Rossi, blatantly ignores preexisting American architecture, and instead opts for a severely authentic, Turkish, Egyptian, and Palestinian inspired mosque. Appealing to ambassadors and dignitaries from the Middle East, this design was meant to embody familiarity and comfort, and also, as the first major mosque in North America, to make a statement that Islam has arrived, and it is not going to compromise its historical integrity in this new landscape. This is an example of using architecture to establish memory within themselves and within their new community. Within this mosque in Washington, D.C., the use of text is also examined. Epigraphy lines the walls, and as Kahera expresses, is used “first as a devotional theme, and second as an emotional device”. The two-fold purpose helps worshippers find a soothing state of mind, while allowing those that cannot read Arabic a tangible connection with their own place of authenticity within Islam. Lastly, the use of form also helps to either solidify origins or affirm historical identity in a new place. Kahera describes examples of both forms of architecture. The Islamic Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., represents formal aesthetic design qualities, such as geometric form and characteristic spatial qualities, while the Dar al-Islam mosque in Abiquiu, New Mexico, opts for a much more natural meshing into classical American design. The Abiquiu mosque asserts its legitimacy in the American landscape by literally being designed to blend in with the landscape, while still retaining faint traditional precedents. Thus, Kahera makes a strong point that architecture plays a key role in constructing a collective memory within communities.
This idea of architecture acting as the bridge between memory and landscape is further cemented by the analysis Foote makes dealing with the four categories of remembrance: sanctification, designation, rectification, and obliteration. Sanctification involves, as Foote puts it, “a site set apart from its surroundings and dedicated to the memory of an event, person, or group”. He uses the example of the Gettysburg National Military Cemetery to illustrate the process of sanctification. This is where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous, “Gettysburg Address,” and consecrated the site to be used as a reminder of the dedication shown and as a unifying device for the nation during a time of war. Designation represents, as Foote explains, “a site marked for its significance,” but that it, “omits rituals of consecration”. These sites, as all categories employ to a degree, the ability to change meaning over time. This highlights the fact that history is not stagnant, but rather a highly dynamic, and hotly debated subject. A designated site is typically one that remembers an unmotivated tragedy, such as the Eastland disaster along the Chicago River, and with no morale stance to be taken, simply gets noted as having occurred. The next category is rectification, which is the repurposing of a past site of incident, or as Foote expresses, the site is “exonerated of involvement in the tragedy”. This category also includes sites of accidental tragedies, such as the Chicago Fire of 1871. Rectification and designation share many similarities and are ultimately one step away from each other, representing once again the dynamic nature of history. The final category is obliteration, which Foote notes that it entails “actively effacing all evidence of a tragedy to cover it up or remove it from view”. This is thus an active desire to forget, as Foote also remarks, demanding, “all evidence of an event to be removed and that consecration never take place”. An example of obliteration can be seen in the Salem witch trials lack of acknowledgment, and even absence of discussion within the community. Interestingly, this site switched categories, to designation, after 300 years of absolute effacement, and corresponding to the placard that was finally installed, conversations were brewing as to how the Salem Witch Trials should be remembered. This defines the nature of memory and architecture’s role in constructing it.
Architecture stands as the mediator between the landscape and memory. Whether it alludes to the past via aesthetic precedents, or lends itself to a definitive or not so certain perspective within the American memory, architecture can literally and metaphorically act as that bridge to which we find ourselves.
Article photos courtesy of http://www.atdetroit.com, storiesofusa.com, and wikipedia.org.
Title photo taken by aflorin8.