Memory and Identity: Destruction and Rebuilding- Gregory Dowell

The following selection is a short paper I wrote for a History, Theory, and Criticism class during my first year of Ball State University’s Master of Architecture program. It combines my interest in both architecture and history. Architecture and memory intrigue me, but from the outset I thought this was just another paper for class. However, in the end, I believe this is the genesis of my thesis. We’ll see how it continues to develop and evolve over the course of my final year in school. Enjoy and please leave your thoughts and comments. (Copyright Gregory Dowell 2008. All rights reserved. This paper cannot be distributed in part or in whole without the expressed written consent of Gregory Dowell.)

Memory and Identity: Destruction and Rebuilding

Humans come to identify themselves, in one part, through the built environment. Buildings, as part of a larger urban context, interact with one another to allow individuals to create a narrative of who they are – past, present, and future. Through the built-form both existing and missing, and always changing, individuals create a particular memory and identity. Like the architecture that is rarely static, the memory and identity of groups change as built forms are lost, through destruction or decay, and subsequently rebuilt or replaced to either continue or extinguish one’s memory and identity. Both the process of destruction and rebuilding or, lack thereof, is important to this cycle. The built environment plays a critical role in human identity and memory. It is not, however, simply the existence and construction of buildings that shape identity; it is also the destruction and absence of buildings, as well as the reconstruction of lost structures.

To understand how the built environment affects memory and identity, one must first understand how humans come to remember and identify themselves. The ability to remember comes not only from what is still visible but also from what is absent. Mark Crinson, art and architectural historian, describes memory as a residue of past experiences that are active in our mind, while other experiences are forgotten. In essence it is the “ability of faculty by which we recollect the past”.[1] Most often memory is associated with the personal, humanized experience. Due to the fact that humans interact with the built environment on a daily basis, an ordinary façade, standard brickwork, and overall regular buildings can create powerful memories.

Dolores Hayden, professor of architecture, urbanism and American studies, in The Power of Place writes, “Place memory encapsulates the human ability to connect with both the built and natural environments that are entwined in the cultural landscape.”[2] Different places in the urban landscape trigger memories of a shared past. But buildings are not important just because they are buildings. Memories are attached to places because of the social and political meanings people link to their physical form and aesthetic beauty. These buildings, according to Hayden, “are store houses for these social memories because streets, buildings, and patterns of settlement, frame the lives of many people and often outlast many lifetimes.”[3] Individuals are able to make these specific connections with buildings because they see familiar characteristics in architecture.

The fact that humans first see themselves as frozen images, just like most architecture, is vital to understanding this connection of memory with buildings. Neil Leach, architect and theorist, believes people see themselves mirrored in buildings. They can see themselves in terms of the buildings or buildings in terms of themselves.[4] It is as though looking in a mirror — or the reflective glass of a building — and seeing yourself reflected back. Noted cultural geographer, J.B. Jackson, in The Necessity for Ruins continues this comparison, “What the world as mirror revealed was clear enough: art, architecture, the hierarchical social order, the order of the cosmos itself, all reflected the human form, its proportions, the interdependence of its organs and members, its divine origin.”[5] Human proportions and features have been incorporated into the built environment since architecture’s origin and this only further strengthens the connection of memory and identity to architecture.

When all the individual memories are cobbled together a collective memory of the urban fabric is created. While the collective memory is always changing, the shared experiences of a city’s inhabitants create a general memory and identity of the place. Crinson calls this shared memory of the lived experience that shaped the place, urban memory. Urban memory indicates the “city as a physical landscape and collection of objects and practices that enable recollections of the past and that embody the past through traces of the city’s sequential building and rebuilding.”[6] For a city, the catalyst for memory is the buildings and interactions with these places. The collective memories of urban landscapes last for generations and allow people to understand themselves. It is by understanding themselves that memories allow individuals to create an identity.

In the case of the World Trade Towers, with their relatively featureless aesthetics, the buildings became familiar and forgotten in the New York skyline. While the two buildings’ physical forms were seemingly ignored in the busy New York skyline, the symbolic nature of the buildings was always present. The towering structures represented the economic and financial abilities of the United States on the global scale – a physical reminder of America’s power and wealth abroad. That was until the tragic events of September 11, 2001 occurred and the event carried with it, the “capacity to act like a flash bulb and imprint particular architectural environments on the photosensitive plate of our minds.”[7]

Because Americans saw a reflection of themselves in the World Trade Towers the attack on the physical structures was seen as an attack on the American people. Now the memory and identity of the American people as a collective is being found in the absence of the World Trade Towers. In connecting absence with memory, Diane Barthel comments, “This quiet is one of the strangest and most incongruous points about old battlefields. They are silent as cemeteries because they are cemeteries. They are religious ground consecrated in blood. Real battles, of course, just the opposite – filled with a terrifying cacophony.”[8] While Barthel writes of American Civil War battlefields, the connection of absence to memory cannot be ignored in this case.

The World Trade Towers are but only a single case of the attempted destruction of memory and identity. Through most of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st century there has been a systematic erasure of national identities and memories through the destruction of the built environment by totalitarian regimes. Sometimes it has been successful and other times not. It is not just the destruction of the built environment but also the rebuilding of the urban fabric that affects memory and identity. J.B. Jackson remarks, “Every new revolutionary social order, anxious to establish its image and acquire public support, produces many commemorative monuments and symbols and public celebrations,”[9] most often at the expense of existing structures and monuments.

Examples of systematic cultural destruction in the last century are not hard to come by. The regimes that enacted ethnic cleansing not only through genocide, but also through the destruction of architecture and cultural heritage as a means to erase memory and identity include: Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, to name the most studied and well-known examples. As much as the destruction of buildings was to destroy a group’s future, the destruction was about the past. The destruction was a means in which to “suppress their memory of a different, independently spirited past.”[10] Once the old identity was destroyed, the conquering regime was able to establish and reorder the newly-won lands. This reorganization most often took the form of total destruction of any reminder of a group’s past and their hopes for the future.

The destructive nature of Nazi Germany’s conquest of continental Europe was no different than Stalin’s destruction of Ukrainian lands for self aggrandizement. The same can be said of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” and Pol Pot’s forceful displacement of city inhabitants. All the cases were means of destroying local distinctiveness to create a memory of a separate identity and past.[11] Without an urban fabric on which to identify and remember themselves the respective populations were essentially erased from history, even if they were not dead. It was not only monuments and heritage being destroyed but also a memory and cultural identity.[12] While invading armies rarely discriminate with their destruction, the targets of memory, identity, culture, and heritage which include libraries, universities, monasteries, churches, and temples are often the main priorities.

The statistics are staggering.

· In Poland, 782 of the 957 pre-World War II historic monuments were destroyed, as well as, another 141 being partly destroyed. Only 34 monuments survived the invading Nazi army.[13]

· In Kiev, more than 254 of the city’s historic buildings, both secular and religious were razed by Nazi armies during Operation Barbarossa against the Soviets. The destruction rivaled that of Poland’s destruction.[14]

· In Tibet, architectural reshaping has left 130 of 330 historic buildings destroyed since 1995. Traditional timber and battered-wall buildings have been removed for the contemporary stylings of Chinese department stores.[15]

In every case, the attempt was to destroy the civic values embodied within the city. The spaces where culture is generated and shared were destroyed so new memories and identities could be formed by the totalitarian regime.[16] Like the attacks of September 11, 2001 these calculated attacks on a group’s architecture was seen as an attack on the people themselves. That is because like Americans who saw their values and identity reflected in the World Trade Towers, so too, did the Polish, Tibetans, and Ukrainians see themselves embodied in their cultural buildings. While an incalculable number of deaths have resulted from these events, an untold number of memories and identities, both individual and collective, have been lost at the hands of this architectural destruction.

However it is not only through the destruction of architecture that memories and identities are erased, but also, through the rebuilding of lost architecture. Bevan cites that “rebuilding can be as symbolic as the destruction that necessitates it.”[17] While many memories and identities were lost through destruction, the blank slate that follows allows for new memories and identities to be formed. The destruction of certain architecture can become a rallying cry for a group as “once unintentional monuments – places of worship, libraries, and fountains of everyday life – by their rebuilding can become new, intentional monuments to the events that caused their destruction.”[18] However, the re-creation of spaces does not always tell the truth. The rebuilding is able to tell a completely new story that would not have been possible without the destruction. The cases in which the rebuilding programs allowed a new story to be told are as numbered as the examples of destruction.

There are many routes the rebuilding programs can take to restore the lost architecture. The plans can be a restoration of the city to its pre-destruction self. It can be a complete break from the past to ignore the atrocities that occurred or it can be a combination of the destruction and renewal as a reminder of what happened in hope that history will not repeat itself. Bevan makes the case that many countries used coordinated plans of rebuilding significant monuments destroyed during the war that do not tell the entire story. Buildings were rebuilt without subsequent additions but with the 12th century brick work as a fake replication. He brings to the forefront the realities of such efforts, “Rebuilt history may be read as an authentic documentation of the past when it is a forgery.”[19] The rebuilt works are falsifications and come across as kitsch. It helps create a sense of continued existence and history despite what occurred in the interim. For Poland, and much of post-war Europe this was their means of regaining their identity and past. Their memories were intrinsically linked to the buildings before destruction and they did not want to include the shameful memories of their destruction in the rebuilt form. Through their rebuilding they erased an unwanted identity, just as Nazi Germany attempted through their destruction.

Specifically, Bevan cites rebuilt Munich as such an example. Post-war Munich took an appearance much like it did before the destruction. There are little or no visible memories or critical interpretation of the Nazi period, successfully creating a false continuity with its peaceful 19th century existence.[20] But all groups do not choose the same path to rebuilding. The Bamiyans of Afghanistan have taken a different approach to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues. A local Bamiyan has said, “It’s part of our history that the Taliban destroyed them. To rebuild would be to cleanse that history.”[21] The Bamiyans have chosen not to rebuild the destroyed statues because they see the event of the destruction as a central part of their history, good or bad. The decision not to rebuild allows anybody to read the history, memory, and identity of the Bamiyan’s built environment without a history book or guide, unlike Munich’s urban fabric which has been selectively transformed to represent a specific and endearing identity.

How is the destruction of architecture and the built environment as a means of erasing an identity any different than ignoring the attempted erasure of that identity through the rebuilding process? Bevan would argue that there is no difference, “We find it unacceptable that buildings that have become part of urban history are being erased from the memory precisely because they are historically burdened. History and identity are therefore being eradicated.”[22] Since memory is not only about the present, but also, the absent it begs the question, “Should the destruction of culturally significant architecture be replaced or rebuilt?” If we not only ignore, but also, erase the events that have taken place, are we learning any lessons from the destruction that occurred? Creating false memories and identities rather than confronting the realities are as harmful as the destruction. There is a way to confront the problem of erasing the destruction.

One answer is to keep the void or absence as a reminder of what has occurred. J.B. Jackson believes a ruined, bombed-out church, [the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church], in Berlin provides a startling reminder of World War II. The remains of the building broadcast a message that is not easy to forget. The ruins may not be pretty, but memory has nothing to do with aesthetic beauty, instead the church’s shell provides a “power to remind, to recall something specific.”[23] Like the dynamited Buddha statues not being replaced by the Bamiyans, the bombed-out church stands as a reminder of Berlin’s history and the lessons to be learned. Bevan argues, “Nothing is truly forgotten, only repressed. The coerced repression of memories through manipulation of the built record needs to be fought if we are to have freedom to remember or discard our memories voluntarily.”[24] This is both a call to stop the systematic destruction of culturally significant buildings by totalitarian regimes and the falsified rebuilding of this destruction to represent a continued history that ignores the necessity for rebuilding in the first place.

Systematic destruction and subsequent rebuilding of culturally significant architecture is not the only means by which memory and identity is destroyed. Many post-industrial cities face the same dilemmas of choosing how to remember lost memories and identities. These post-industrial towns are the current hot spots for urban revitalization. Despite no longer having a significant population of blue-collared working class individuals, the revitalization of Trafford Park, in England, appropriated industrial symbolism on the architectural, spatial and landscaping frame of the place in an attempt to reclaim a lost memory.[25] In the same manner, Poland and Munich created a fake continuity with a popular past, the revitalized Trafford Park harkens back to a time of great prosperity for the city. By revitalizing the city to an idealized past, the true history has been airbrushed out.

Without a careful understanding of how architecture creates memories and identities, both individual and collective, one may consider only the destruction of culturally significant buildings as inappropriate. However, subsequent rebuilding of the lost forms also plays an important role in shaping memory and identity. Careful consideration must be made in order to successfully rebuild lost artifacts, while accepting the nature of the destruction. If not unreal memories and identities are created. Cities risk a Disneyfication of their urban fabric when selectively choosing what is to be remembered and what is to be ignored. Through this manipulation of the city, memories become skewed, identities are lost, and a real understanding of one’s self is no longer based in fact. Rebuilt cities should provide a complete, honest, and tangible memory and that includes the destruction of culturally significant buildings.


[1] Mark Crinson, “Urban Memory: An Introduction”, in Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City (London: Routledge, 2005), xii.

[2] Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995), 46.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Neil Leach, “9/11”, in Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City (London: Routledge, 2005), 176.

[5] J.B. Jackson, The Necessity for Ruins (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 6.

[6] Crinson, xii.

[7] Leach, 169.

[8] Diane Barthel, “War and Remembrance”, in Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historical Identity, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 91.

[9] Jackson, 92.

[10] Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), 94.

[11] Ibid., 102.

[12] Ibid., 205.

[13] Ibid., 97.

[14] Ibid., 117.

[15] Ibid., 101.

[16] Ibid., 121.

[17] Ibid., 176.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 186.

[20] Ibid., 189.

[21] Ibid., 190.

[22] Ibid., 194

[23] Jackson, 91.

[24] Bevan, 211.

[25] Mark Crinson and Paul Tyrer, “Clocking off in Ancoats: Time and Remembrance in the Post-Industrial City”, in Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City, (London: Routledge, 2005), 111.

Reference List

Barthel, Diane. “War and Remembrance”. In Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and

Historical Identity, 79-100. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press,


Bevan, Robert. The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War. London: Reaktion Books,


Crinson, Mark. “Urban Memory: An Introduction”. In Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in

the Modern City, xi-xxiii. London: Routledge, 2005.

Crinson, Mark and Paul Tyrer. “Clocking Off in Ancoats: Time and Remembrance in the Post-

Industrial City”. In Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City, 49-71.

London: Routledge, 2005.

Hayden, Dolores. The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. Cambridge,

Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1995.

Jackson, J.B. The Necessity for Ruins and Other Topics. Amherst, Massachusetts: The

University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.

Leach, Neil. “9/11”. In Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City, 169-191.

London: Routledge, 2005.

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