How Does Architecture Create Memories?

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How does architecture create memories? Should it not be the most important task of it beyond form and function?


Architects from quite some time have started talking about creating “a sense of a place” by providing an environment which is experiential and has a sense of belonging.

“Sense of a place goes hand in hand with creating memories” (Lehmon, 2008-2010)as written by Maria Lerena Lehmon in her article “sensing architecture”. Further elaborating on the topic she says our memory of events may depend upon a strong sense of place, and by extension, our sense of place may be influenced by the integrity of memories formed there.

The memory of an event or a happening always has a surrounding background or a physical built around it. If this background has a particular character or a sense attached to it then it helps the memory of that event/experience grow stronger. The term “physical background” is not limited to the hard physical materials used but also to the spaces they generate and the way our senses respond towards these various elements and the way these materials and spaces alter and shape our sensory perception.

Why is it easier to remember certain routes as compared to the others, is it because they have less number of turns or is it simply because one can associate with them more easily?

I live in Jasola Vihar in New Delhi and why is it so that every time I guide someone to my home I end up telling them that I stay in the “grey DDA flats near Appolo Hospital”?

It’s an unnoticed effort of creating a sense of association with the surroundings, be it a land mark or a peculiar character of a place (sense of a place).

It is now in the world of globalisation that we, in the name of braking boundaries have decided to let go of our identities as well .With the global architecture picking up its pace it is becoming hard to distinguish between places and therefore the formation of a strong association and an irremovable memory of place is being put at serious risk.

Here is an example of Tokyo (left) and Chicago (right), two cities from the opposite corners of the world yet hard to distinguish.


Fig. 1 Fig. 2

(Anon., 2014) (Anon., 2014)

Here is another examples of Venice (left) and Banaras (right), two cities having certain features in common but yet they stand with independent identities and honest to the memories and associations attached to them.


Fig. 3 Fig. 4

( (ALAMY, 2014)) (Sharma, 2010)


Human memory has been the answer bank to some basic question related to our existence as well as to some complex questions related to our journey through ages. “Memory” has always been important in the world of discussions not only because it is the “record keeper” of events but also because it is a provider of identity. It is our memory that tells us where we belong and where we come from.

Architecture on the other hand has always been one of the strongest protectors and projectors of a certain identity (belonging to a certain time and place). Therefore this study is meant to identify and bring out the elements of the built that actually formulate a certain association and a sense of perception amongst the experiencers, leading us to acknowledge the strength of architecture in going beyond form and function and evoking our sensory perceptions for providing us with a memory of the “self”.


The study shall cover the use of the sensory organs in the understanding of different spaces both at the settlement level and at individual space level.

It shall be a comparative study between different places/spaces on the personal interview basis regarding places in India.


Memories of place are usually subjected to personal perceptions and interpretations and hence to generalise a conclusion is in doubt. A number personal interviews will be the best possible means to average out a sense of a place and to record how certain characters of the same place are in common in the memories of different people.


The existing literature prevailing on memory and architecture shall be identified, gathered and reviewed. The review shall with an arsenal of theories and ideas that have been contemplated on the subject in the past. The study shall then be applied to the Indian context.

The acquired knowledge through the literature survey shall be used to identify particular cases in India taking an example of an old town of Bilgram and the metropolitan Delhi. A close study of both the settlement shall be done at the macro and micro level stating examples that can clearly reflect the theories derived from the literature survey. The case studies shall then be closely looked upon and scrutinised and be written about.

Finally the topic of memory and architecture shall be discussed with a practicing architect and his/her views shall be acknowledged and documented. All results learnt shall then be compiled with a successful attempt to derive to a conclusion in the end.



The mental faculty recording the past experiences based on the mental process of learning, retaining and recalling (Oxford dictionary). But is this it?

Let us begin with a brief understanding of the types of memories that exist and the process of their formation.


Fig. 5 (mastin, 2010)

What we generally perceive as memory in our day to day lives is actually the long term memory but there also exist the sensory memory and the short term memory, which usually go unnoticed by us in the rush of our everyday lives.

Every event/incidence goes through a registration process in our sensory and short term memory first, before being stored permanently in our long term memory. Therefore the stronger the impact of an event on our sensory and short term memory the better are the chances of that event being remembered for a life time­­.


Sensory memory is what we relate to ‘perception in an instance’. It is the shortest form of memory generated at a reflex rate through any of our five senses of smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch. The time span of such memory is not more than 300-500 milliseconds and maximum to a second (rare cases) and therefore it is more of an instinct based memory. Our brain is trained to register only a selected part of the information which has the chances of being useful in future and hence most of the time our sensory memory goes unrecorded. For an event or an experience to have an impact on our memory at the sensory (instantaneous) pace it needs to have a very strong contact with our either of our five senses. (mastin, 2010)

Like for example: when you do a trek to Kheerganga through those thick forests and the soft slippery Shivalik mountains of Himachal Pradesh you can never guess what will come next and then suddenly you enter into this vast vacant valley absolutely untouched and pure, surrounded with huge mountains all around and you stand in the middle lick a speck of dust.

Or when in the city of Ajmer, you decide to travel all the way up to the Taragarh fort, away from the chaos and the hustle bustle of the city. You reach the top and then you look back, down onto all the twinkling lights and a huge void (the lake) amongst them, the contrast and the amazement, cannot be ignored.

Or when you enter the building of the National Institute Design (Ahmedabad) through its low height reception/gallery/display area and you suddenly find yourself into this huge courtyard where the building just opens itself to you, the courtyard filled with cold light and a huge tree growing right in the middle of it.

Or for that matter the same building managing to maintain the sensitivity towards the natural environment to an extent that we can find exotic birds like peacocks roaming in the campus like pigeons in Delhi.

Such experiential places do not require a long process of remembrance and familiarity to develop an association and a permanent place in ones memories. These encounters generate a sudden shock, opening themselves as a surprise box and get absorbed by ones sensory perception, instantly sticking to his/her memory.

But the limitation of such a memory is that it can only be generated with a first-hand experience as it requires the response of our senses in the purest form which can only be generated when we ourselves are physically involved in the event (shabeeb, 2014)


The next stage of our memory process is the short-term memory or the working memory, functioning on the basis of temporary recall.

It is the memory formation working parallel with the understanding of the event. We can take reading as an example. When we read, in order to understand the sentence we are reading we need to remember the previous sentence we just read. Brain is basically recalling the prequel and understanding the sequel at the same time, but the brain can be forced to shift the sentences to the slot for long term memory be repetitive readings or by deliberate attempt to consciously remember the reading through concentration and understanding. (mastin, 2010)

This is how our brain processes navigation, be it through pages or through roads.

So why is it that we remember certain routes clearly and tend to forget certain again and again?

There can be two answers to this question:

Either we travel a certain route more frequently so the repetition or the timely reoccurrence of the same event makes it stick to our long term memory.

Or while travelling through certain routes we witness such landmarks which just cannot go unnoticed and they simultaneously form a mental map of our route.

Metro stations in Delhi are a perfect example of this. They not only facilitate the users of the metro but also end up guiding many traveling on the roads. The cut to Preet Vihar where my uncle stays is right opposite the pillar number 100 of Anand Vihar metro line. Now how do I remember this? As soon as I made the turn into Preet Vihar through that dense, confusing road of Anad Vihar my brain tried to simultaneously recall the most eminent and the closest thing around which my sense of sight absorbed. The pillar number 100, written with black in a yellow circle on a grey concrete pillar.


Long-term memory is, obviously enough, intended for storage of information over a long period of time. Despite our everyday impressions of forgetting, it seems likely that long-term memory actually decays very little over time, and can store a seemingly unlimited amount of information almost indefinitely. Indeed, there is some debate as to whether we actually ever “forget” anything at all, or whether it just becomes increasingly difficult to access or retrieve certain items from memory.

Short-term memories can become long-term memory through the process of consolidation, involving rehearsal and meaningful association. Unlike short-term memory (which relies mostly on an acoustic, and to a lesser extent a visual, code for storing information), long-term memory encodes information for storage semantically (i.e. based on meaning and association). However, there is also some evidence that long-term memory does also encode to some extent by sound. For example, when we cannot quite remember a word but it is “on the tip of the tongue”, this is usually based on the sound of a word, not its meaning.

Long-term memory is often divided into two further main types: explicit (or declarative) memory and implicit (or procedural) memory.

Declarative memory (“knowing what”) is memory of facts and events, and refers to those memories that can be consciously recalled (or "declared"). It is sometimes called explicit memory, since it consists of information that is explicitly stored and retrieved, although it is more properly a subset of explicit memory. Declarative memory can be further sub-divided into episodic memory and semantic memory.

Procedural memory (“knowing how”) is the unconscious memory of skills and how to do things, particularly the use of objects or movements of the body, such as tying a shoelace, playing a guitar or riding a bike. These memories are typically acquired through repetition and practice, and are composed of automatic sensorimotor behaviours that are so deeply embedded that we are no longer aware of them. Once learned, these "body memories" allow us to carry out ordinary motor actions more or less automatically. Procedural memory is sometimes referred to as implicit memory, because previous experiences aid in the performance of a task without explicit and conscious awareness of these previous experiences, although it is more properly a subset of implicit memory.

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