Building Memory: Ontology in Architecture

Jeff Malpas

The following is an abridged version of an essay that first appeared in Interstices: Journal of Architecture and Related Arts 13 (2012), pp.11-21.

What is the ontology of architecture? One way to understand this question is to take it as asking after the basic elements of architectural practice. Another is to take the question as directed at the being of architecture, its proper limits and grounds. It is in this latter sense that I wish to put the question here. When taken in this sense, it seems there can be only one answer: more so than any other mode of human activity, architecture has its being in the human engagement with place, and more specifically, in the engagement with place as opened through building.

The question concerning the ontology of architecture is seldom directly addressed. Much contemporary reflection on architecture, when it goes beyond technical and professional concerns, remains at the level of architectural narrations that are more concerned with the deployment and elaboration of metaphorical and metonymic constructions than with the analysis of the ontological underpinnings to architectural practice. When contemporary architectural discourse does extend beyond practical design concerns, it mostly remains preoccupied with issues of contingent discursive and rhetorical formation, often concerning architecture’s own discursive self-formation and self-representation. What happens when we turn back to the ontology of architecture, and especially when we try to understand architecture in terms of the engagement with place through building? What underpins this engagement and in what is it founded?

Figure 1: Lovett Bay House, Richard Leplastrier. Photograph 1998: Leigh Woolley ©. With thanks to Leigh Woolley and Richard Leplastrier.

The claim I advance here is that any such inquiry must pay special attention to the connection of place and building with memory. The connection of place with memory is neither peripheral nor contingent. Place and memory are integrally connected such that they cannot be understood independently. Place and building are likewise tied, because architecture is always a response to place. The inquiry into the ontology of architecture must therefore include an inquiry into the relation between memory and place. Simply stated, there is no place without memory, no memory without place, and, since there is no architecture without place, neither is there architecture that is not engaged with memory.

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