Book Review: Losing Site: Architecture, Memory and Place

Losing Site: Architecture, Memory and Place, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2011
Shelley Hornstein
Reviewed by Jonathan Bach, The New School

Losing Site: Architecture, Memory and Place is an extended meditation on how architecture sutures, unravels, and transforms the human experience of place and identity.

It is an interwoven tapestry of different cases—memorials, art, images—that bear relation to each other through their connection of sight to site. At times lyrical, at times almost baroquely ornate, the book lilts like a vessel on the waves, its narrative borne by a current of modernity’s cultural anxiety, an anxiety that architecture and its representations seek alternately to smooth and to vent. The cases mostly concern European and Jewish themes, especially the legacy of the Holocaust and attempts to understand diasporic Jewish space. Tying together the disparate sites is the sight of the tourist, whether seeking out or stumbling into a memorial, sending or receiving a postcard, creating an expensive itinerary to visit global museums or idly browsing far away places on Google Earth. In all of these cases two forces are at work: First, following in the footsteps, so to speak, of Michel de Certeau, is an increasing capacity for self-curation among the users and viewers of space. Second is a latent emancipatory potential that can be activated by subversive architecture and art at its best. Together these two forces work to avoid Robert Musil’s curse of invisibility for monuments and architecture more generally, allowing the built environment to “capture memory so memorialization can stay relevant” (25).

The struggle for voice and visibility is a recurrent theme. Dani Karavan’s memorial to Walter Benjamin in the relatively remote location of Portbou, Spain draws us into the book, connecting a geographic margin to its strand of memory by reshaping space so that it melds with its environment, literally inserting the viewer into the memorial. But while Karavan in isolated Portbou had to create a site outside of sight, the opposite problem confronts architects in the historical centers of Berlin and Paris where the challenge is how to use site to restore sight, to keep memory relevant and alive in the face of political sensitivity, architectural inertia, and the sands of time. Here the weight of memory confounds attempts to represent it, and architects respond with spaces that can be filled by the viewer, grave spaces both in the figurative sense of solemnity and the literal sense of markers of death.

In an insightful second chapter Hornstein links Georges Pingusson’s deportation memorial in Paris, tucked behind Notre Dame Cathedral and which both erases and affirms Jewish presence/absence in France, to Libeskind and Eisenman’s revolutionary additions to Berlin’s memoryscape and to Dragset and Elmgreen’s Berlin monument to Homosexual Holocaust Victims. She emphasizes the performativity of these meditative spaces, which deploy a form of “anti-memory” (Eisenman’s term) to counteract the anxiety of irrelevance and distance that escorts the conventional monument through its historical lifecycle.

Images of buildings on postcards are at the center of the next chapter, which is at once the most moving personally and, for me, less compelling analytically. Examining the informal “curation” of Zionist images in postcards from Israel found in her grandmother’s collection, Hornstein shows the nation branding inherent in the sending of postcard images, which she compares with Twitter and email today. Whereas postcards, as an ensemble, can reasonably be construed as conveying a sort of national unconscious in their representation of a desired interpretation of reality for both domestic and international consumption, it is harder to see how email or Twitter can similarly connect the archaeological past and modernist present or increase the desire for place—one could argue quite the opposite, or at least argue that the digital complicates the desire for place in non-analogous ways.

Her main point is that architecture is both mobile and agential: it can move through time and space (via postcards or digital images and, one might add, literature) and it shapes us as much as we shape it. We become jaded to architecture’s living quality at our own peril. Hence Hornstein’s highlighting of Rachel Whiteread and Iris Häussler, two artists who “activate the space or gap between a place and our acquired memory of it” (84). Activation is the point, and Hornstein deflects questions about the implications of architecture/art as resistance. Keeping the viewer at the center she shifts to the museums themselves, presenting the tourist as nomadic curator, reterritorializing the transnational space of contemporary art museums on the Gehry and Guggenheim circuit.

The book ends with excursus on the ghostly representations of artist Nina Levitt and Hornstein’s own attempts to use digital technology to capture diasporic Jewish space with the hope of “activating multiple subject positions.” As heterogeneous as the spaces she describes, Hornstein’s intriguing interdisciplinary odyssey reminds social theorists, visual artists, and architects alike why we need to pay close attention to both the architecture of imagination and our imagination of architecture.

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