Book Review: Losing Site: Architecture, Memory and Place

Losing Site: Architecture, Memory and Place, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2011
Shelley Hornstein
Reviewed by Martine Hawkes, Swinburne University of Technology

Shelley Hornstein’s Losing Site: Architecture, Memory and Place curates a broad range of sites and places, showing the connections between architecture and memory. Hornstein’s volume presents the possibility that we ‘hold’ architecture within our memory, whether we have visited the site or not and, indeed, whether or not the site continues to stand. Hornstein takes up this point by arguing that, rather than investing places with our memories, the physical structures and places themselves generate memory. The book begins with a postcard of an image the Eiffel Tower: ‘…in a sense, we could say that the Eiffel Tower changed location, or existed simultaneously in many parallel sites’ (1). The description of the postcard that features the image of a site, and the meditation on the preservation of memory through architecutre, which spans this thoughtful book asks the reader to consider the role of the sender and the receiver in these interactions with the images of sites, and with the sites themselves.

The receiver of the postcard (or the visitor to a site) may receive and understand the image on the card through an irreducible variety of interceptions, memories and conditions. However, in Losing Site there is at times a sense that a site might not be perceived or responded to in markedly diverse ways.

To take one example, Hornstein writes of the construction of memorial sites that: “we have become numbed by the emptiness of memorials, as such, yet yearn to stimulated by them into meaningul meditation” (49). There is no mention here of the other non-meditative interactions with these sites: skate boarding, picnicking, hide and seek and so on. While these interactions are perhaps not the desired mode of ‘remembering’, they are a ubiquitous interaction and engagement with the site that is not speaking of a yearning for something more meditatitively meaningful. Hornstein does not make available to the reader any empirical evidence to indicate that one particular emotional or spiritual response is overwhelmingly desired at a memorial site.

In attempting to illustrate this problem, I think of Daniel Libeskind’s 2001 Holocaust turm (Holocaust void) in the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin, a space of 22 metres high which runs over a 140-metre space. This is a site that is constructed to help us mourn that which is lost. As an architectural space, it both preserves what is lost with emptiness while at the same time operating as a built structure, a space that only has meaning in its physical location (in the museum). It is both preservation and the search for mourning. While the Holocaust turm is physically an ‘empty memorial’, it is a site which inspires reverence and silence. Yet, while it is arguably also a site – one of the newer memorials for which Hornstein seems to be advocating, which ‘stimulates meaningful meditation’ – this site is visited by a wide diversity of responses ranging from the irreverent, to the visitor who believes that they have accidentally stumbled into a storeroom, rather than a deliberate memorial space. While these interactions and responses are perhaps not of the majority, nor can we say that any desire for meaningful meditation is collective. However, Hornstein presents a richly diverse and plentiful range of examples of sites in her book and it is only on this point of the (perhaps spatially necessary) lack of equal diversity in the presentation of possible responses to the sites that I find the book falls slightly short.

The seven chapters of Losing Site, though charting contexts ranging from the personal to the collective, build and add new layers throughout. In chapter 1, the reader is taken to Dani Karavan’s memorial to Walter Benjamin in Portbou. This is followed by a discussion of three Holocaust memorials in Berlin and one in Paris. Chapter 3 returns us to the postcards of the Introduction, while Chapter 4 considers destroyed sites and terrains vague through installations by Iris Häussler and Rachel Whiteread. Chapter 5 visits the architectural sites of the Louvre in Paris and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, while chapter 6 takes us to Nina Levitt’s installation at the Koffler Gallery in Toronto. The final chapter is an exercise in various modes of memory mapping, as Hornstein takes us through her own attempts to digitally represent and interact with Robert Rosenstone’s memoir and other digital representations of place, such as Google Earth. Through a collection of distinct, yet interwoven studies of sites of memory and memories of sites, Hornstein presents what she terms an ‘architecture of the heart’ (3). Here, the significance of a physical site is presented in terms of its relationship with the emotive memory and symbolic construction of place.

In the last chapter, Hornstein’s ideas find their strongest landing-point. Here we are presented—via digital mapping technology, postcards, film etc—with the question of whether we can know a place that we have not physically visited; whether we can have memories of a place “if we don’t travel to a place, yet the place comes to us” (146). Through this digital and textual remove, Hornstein invites us to ponder the memory of these unvisited places whose vivid images have dropped into our letterboxes or appeared on our various screens: If place and our identification with it is shaped by our performative or repetitive patterns, or our territorialization and development of a cognitive map, is it possible for mapping technologies and films to enable us to know a place and form memories of it? (146) While Hornstein largely discusses the images of a place, I would add to these images, the textual description of a site. As I read this book, I found a complex ‘memory’ of, for example, the Benjamin memorial which I have never visited, forming and merging with other physical memories by way of Hornstein’s description.Similarly, while her description of the Louvre spoke of a collective (albeit Eurocentric) memory of the architectural and geographic site, I found myself unable to assimilate or recognise her description of the building with my own personal memory of visiting this site (and my more ‘hands on’ engagement with the architecture, having been evicted for sliding on the floors).

However, as previously stated, at several points in Losing Site an argument approaching a belief in a collectivity of response to sites creeps in, particularly in her discussion of the interactions with Peter Eisenman’s Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe (45-51). The reader will, as I did in my reading, layer their own memories and responses into the text.

Despite some minor shortcomings, Losing Site is extremely engaging, and is simultaneously challenging and accessible. In drawing on both a wide range of physical, visual and digital sites and a range of scholarly fields, this is a work of remarkable scope.

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