The Limits of Memory: For a Critical Architecture


Claude Parent



There is a crisis in the world.

In our European countries, the rural crisis joins the crisis in our cities around the project of a reorganisation of space.

The crises of the urban and rural orders are henceforth independent and concomitant.

A state of war is installing itself on our territories.

The cause lies in the refusal to take into account, welcome, accompany, or precede the new modernity of existence which is our lot.

We close our eyes, willingly blind to the rupture which has already taken place starting at the end of the Second World War. 

Stubborn to the point of destruction, refusing to admit the total upheaval accomplished by society and its humans, just as much in architecture and way of life as in the arrangement of space, falling back on memory.

Refuge, protection, the reassuring womb of the mother, all such images can translate this mental regression of humanity faced with a destiny which will come to pass without them if they persist in denying it. 

No doubt the very image of the city, that which we carry in our minds, inherited directly from the 19th century, is receding definitively.  Notwithstanding, this is the image to which mankind remains faithful, an image already obsolete retaining in its folds those inventors of the future architects are.

Whence the cascading nostalgia generated in the inner recesses of consciousness, whether it be in the inhabitants of these old-fashioned cities or in the creators responsbile for the urban future.

Strangely enough the alibi of this fundamental nostalgia is none other than the nature of modernity.  It is a trompe-l’oeil masking our regrets, the screen behind which is hidden our defaulting assumption of the change in epoch.  The more we speak of modernity, the more it dwindles; the more proofs there are, the less convincing it is.

One must admit that, architecturally, we were mistaken, we still confuse modernities.

For quite some time now the great cities of the world have rejected the 19th century notion of urbanity, to become under our gaze territory.  This development flies in the face of the notion of the city, even if the name ‘megalopolis’ attempts in vain to camouflage the modification.

A territorial entity no longer complies with the laws of the city, centrality has given way to movement, to the slippage of things, to a continuous displacement of places and activities.

The territory is no longer constructed on delimited spaces but around links - it is necessarily polycentric.

But our minds remain with the hope of an urban continuity with its hierarchy, its volumetric progression culminating in the cathedral, replaced at a minute’s notice by the city of business, in order to correspond once again and always, but falsely this time, to the ancestral idea that we have an urban centre. 

Thus we hope to be able to convert the suburbs into a city, applying beyond reasonable limits an obsolete urban model.

The first requirement of the new modernity is to throw aside the unicity of the centre and the continuity of the urban fabric.

If memory, including that of the rationalist movement, is opposed to this questioning, if it acts in opposition to the future, its vocation can only be that of a receptacle for all nostalgia: its position is one of castration.

Now, in the domain of the arts, as in that of thought, memory has not been opposed to the manifestation of saving ruptures.

But in architecture, in the name of patrimony, memory is opposed to all change, superbly ignoring the crisis of society, its appetite for modernity.  Content with mending the most immediately visible effects, it has definitively given up the task of healing the causes.

It is made all the easier given that architecture is the greatest imaginable generator of patrimony, including all the domains of the concrete and those of spirituality, reaching to the outer limits of space and joyfully invading those of metaphysics.

Patrimony means memory or at least support of memorisation.

Architecture has a memory.

Architecture is a memory.

In a more global respect, architecture supports, stocks and transmits memory.

Human beings consciously and above all unconsciously lean on architecture to assuage and reassure their own memory for architecture is the most tangible sign-post between their terrestrial existence and that of their ancestors.

Architecture can be conjugated in the past, present and future as a constant of existence.

Whence the danger if it submits to memory.


A dangerous word.

The word of someone elderly, reeking of death. 

How can a society be built, a world, an entire universe, on this unique orientation, on this obsession with the past?

The earth is cluttered daily with signs of this universal memory.  Recent art, the most dynamic of recent art is bogged down in its reminiscence, the cinema brings out its old films on TV and radio compiles endlessly.

In short, our life can be read and discovered in the lifeless pages of an archaeological dictionary.

What has become of the taste for the future, the curiosity concerning tomorrow, the appetite for things to come?  They have disappeared, they are forgotten, even evacuated from our consciousness.

‘2001, an Odyssey of Boredom’ rocks a closing millennium to sleep and sounds the death knell.

In short, memory encumbers, expands shamelessly, occupies the mind, closes off all avenues of escape and kills the imagination present in the recesses of our minds.

In our cities what else does memory do besides block space, erect obstacles, shout ‘off limits’, fossilise places to better ensnare men - pinballs careening back and forth without being able to discover the void in which to rest.

Captors of nostalgia, all these magnificent monuments absorb energy. Black holes of the urban without use or destination, they devour the freedom of the other and proliferate in all impunity, each year harvesting their crop of memory.

What can be done against this avalanche of memory?

Destroy to make some room?

Burn down as during war or unscrupulously destroy as during the notorious times of renovation?

Certainly not. 

Life in our museums, submerged in the past?

Such a gesture of recoil is not appropriate either, for it is a gesture of death.

Only one act can save: to save architecture, to change radically, from head to toe, to throw off the orthogonal, curve the vertical, erect the horizontal. Upset and unbalance.

To go from stability to unstability.

To take on the question of form, in its globality and its unicity.  To contest its haughty self-sufficiency, in uncontested expression, and to install contradiction at its centre.

Introduce disquiet, the doubt of its appropriateness.  Disrupt its inscription which is its legitimacy.  

The world is moving.

Territories are moving.

Sensibility is being transformed.

Under the onslaught of these changes, the enclosed space of our cities is escaping and we must, whether we like it or not, live an adventure in its dynamic structures incorporating the sliding of forms.  This rupture with the past is done in the name of survival.

Architecture called into question corresponds to this gesture of defiance.  Refusing to be only the automatic illustration of the city, it becomes the only tool for the development of a critical thought, it becomes critical architecture, inscribing through form the signs of a critical modernity.

The position it occupies with respect to patrimony (the problem of its proximity which is never answered) and with respect to urbanism (the problem of development in the form of magma) is matter of course: it must contain memory within such limits as to no longer be destructive due to constraints.

Architecture and reorganisation could introduce critical expression which seems to us at the present time to be the best of modernity’s paths.  It will free us from that harmful dogmatism of modern, rationalistic architecture which, referring constantly to planification and functionalism, contributed to the erection of an unscalable barrier between the past and the future, between patrimony and topical architecture.  It will allow us to remove the nostalgia of architecture triggered by the defensive reflex as absurd as those of historicism and neo-classicism.

Our society, in default of a future it fears, will accept modernity only to the extent that the latter provides itself the principle of its contestation, an exercise whose principles are the overturning of space, the destabilisation and the fracturing of form, a permanent exercise thanks to which memory will become active again. 


In: Claude Parent and Paul Virilio, Architecture Principe (Les Éditions de l’Imprimeur, 1997). Translated from the French by George Collins