Cities and Memory

One of the most peculiar and mysterious features of a city has to be the way it collects, stores and shares its memories. Memories of big and small events, moments of  personal drama or of national upheaval, someones and everyone’s stories seem to intertwine in the curious fabric we call a city’s identity.

A city’s memory can be its greatest charm. Walls soaked up in love and romance smell of perfume and lure lovers century after century. Memory of power empowers and memory of courage inspires. Other times this memory might be the one poison slowly draining the life out of a city until it remains all but a memory itself. Some city’s strong and glorious past prevent them jealously from having a future while others, heavy under the weight of their history seek for a different tomorrow of forgetfulness and hope, thus risking their identity and purpose. And then there is the third type – the cities with artificially induced memory. Those cities which were built to represent something they are not. They stay frozen in time as in a never ending coma and leave their visitors with a sense of unease and confusion – for even a beautiful lie remains a lie and it is very difficult to built a future upon an unsteady ground.

Studying cities I am studying the ways a past can define a present or how it can forbid it. How something so temporary as a feeling can become something as eternal as a city and how it is the small stories that contribute to the big history of us.

Case Study 01 – Berlin: From Nowhere to Now Here

A city with a scar.

Berlin was born in the steam of the Industrial Revolution and much like the racing engines of the railway, the city’s history never paced down. To the world and especially to Europe however, it was one main event that put Berlin on the map – namely World War II and even more so, the years that followed.

Some would argue that this modern city, built for war, never had a heart to start with. Walking through its streets one feels alienated and deserted and that is no wonder since those streets were built not for mothers with strollers, but for tanks. Buildings keep their distance not for proper sunlight exposure, but as precaution of collateral damage from bombing. The city of Berlin might not have had a heart, but its people did and the consequences of WWII cut right through them.

After tearing the wall down no one knew how to continue: for now Berlin was the city that symbolized that one huge event in history – the city to stand forever as a reminder of discrimination, separation, war and hatred. Forever as a bad example, as that one painful memory that keeps you up at night and makes your nightmares real.

But today it seems Berlin is teaching us another lesson on memory : once defined by its story, now the city turns its fate around with an opposite approach. Through a series of small events Berlin today writes not its history, but its character. For every story is reflected by its characters and after loosing its prescribed identity once, Berlin today weaves little parts of future together to form a present, well-evolved from its past. Berlin rises from the dust of its memories to become its former biggest enemy : from war and seclusion to freedom of artistic expression and equal rights, employing small interventions for a big change.

Case Study 02 – Venice: Whenever Wherever

Every year there is the talk about the disappearing Venice. There was an article in National Geographic probably around 10 years ago announcing the death of Venezia – with most of its natural citizens leaving the town for the more comfortable mainland and letting mass tourism swallow over not only the economy, but also the culture and infrastructure of the city. In this grim scenario however we seem to forget that Venice was never really one of these stationary cities we all know – Venice was always there for travelers to marvel at its beauty, for lovers to sign in the night and for merchants, to share their riches and satisfy their greed. Venice was carnival, masks, fireworks and ships. It might feel as if Venice is sinking, but in my opinion, this is just the old city swimming.

I don’t know of another city that is so graceful at being constantly temporary ( strongest contrast to Venice might be Las Vegas). As a monument of humanity in a stormy sea, the city stands for eternity to tell the stories, which were meant to never leave its labyrinths. The streets of Venice whisper tales of love soaked in wine and bliss of fireworks. This city needs no book to tell its history, nor monuments to remember it. Venice has memories of something far more precious than events – for it stores emotions. As Tolstoy sais every happy family is happy in the same way and one cannot help it but be happy in Venice.

Venice celebrates that the way it does everything else – with the glitter of a thousand fireworks and the sound of glasses clinging to each other. It celebrates you and your youth, the memories of your youth and all the ambitions and worries that eat you outside of Venice, have come to shine as hopes and dreams on you here.

That time you felt that feeling – it remained for Venice to keep forever. And whenever you return, it’s there for you to re-discover.

Case Study 03 – Plovdiv: Faithfully Forgetful

This chapter is dedicated to the art of storytelling, the intimacy of sharing  memory and the gift of history, all with gratitude to the city of Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

Plovdiv can tell you many stories – tales of times long gone and people from far away lands. Plovdiv has seen the tribes in Neolithic period build shelter, the armies of Philipp II take rest, Roman soldiers, Thracian queens, Byzantinian scholars, Orient merchants, Bulgarians, Armenians, Ottomans, Jews and many more go through their lives and leave their marks on the city. Strangely however, despite knowing all these nations and events, few national histories now remember Plovdiv.

Forgetting is not something Plovdiv does – but rather concealing. Hiding deeper and therefore protecting every memory until someone, ready to listen, opens its chests. This special quality of a city, self-contained in the storm of political uncertainty, allowed it to preserve its memory, now resulting in an unparalleled exhibition of layers of time and history.

The next time when you are in Plovdiv, take a better look. Listen closely. Maybe the city walls will whisper a tale with every stone or the waters of the Maritza will wash away a hidden treasure, just for you. But be careful for some stories may be true, while others maybe should have or could have really come to pass. Next time when you are in Plovdiv, make your mark. For when times come, when you will no longer be remembered, somewhere there, there will be a city and a mark, forever yours.

Case Study 04 – London: Neither Signal Nor Noise

Signal is not the same as noise. You recognise a signal. A signal has a meaning and can be translated. A noise is something you hear. It is everywhere, all the time. Meaning it might have, but although you hear it, you are not really listening anyway.

In my interpretation knowledge is a string of signals, ordered skilfully in a melody. Much like stories, knowledge needs the logic between the facts to connect it, to rationalize it. The consequences and influences are important for they are part of the content, not only surrounding noise.

London is a tale as old as time, that we all know. But soon might be a tale we cannot tell. When money and power of today start to mean more than history and memory, the past and future of a city are endangered. Pieces of London are dissolving in front of our eyes, morphing the city into some kind of a new monster at a growing pace.

A patchwork is doomed to lose its memory, because it tells no story. Static and single monuments of the past, speckled around the city fail to induce memory and turn into counterpoint of progress. We don’t need lonely reminders of the past signaling changes and death. A city needs to sing its song of time, life and growth, song of future hopes and lessons learned, a song that will make us all dance to its tune and smile with it.


This article is part of a publication on Medium called Space On Time. For more similar stories, subscribe and follow on Medium!


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