Memory Landscapes – Places and the Language of Thought


Article for Crumble Magazine, Edinburgh, Issue 6, ‘State of Play’. March 2021

It is perhaps a feature of being confined so much in lockdown that the slightest sensations at the moment seem capable of transporting my thoughts to distant relatively banal memories. 

My mind has been wandering to many different places in thought whilst working or walking. These short momentary transportations or sensations, atmospheres, can’t be described quite as the thing that I’m thinking about but rather as forming the very language of my thought. The juxtaposing of sensations, a memory or a few words becomes a medium of thinking.

Although a fair amount has been written on how our very use of words is spatial, our mind is embodied and entangled with surroundings, we often tend to imagine that we can only ‘think’ in verbalised language strung into sentences. Yet in much the same way as learning words and their meaning can reveal new ideas, the breadth, depth and variety of physical sensations: smells, sounds, dampness of air, sun, colour, enclosure etc. etc. seem to be capable of exciting new connections in one’s mind. They act as living metaphors.

This emphasis has an importance for what one values in the education of children. In the same way that formal education considers the importance of children learning a wide vocabulary of words for developing intelligence, it could place a similar importance on this breadth of spatial and sensory experiences in expanding our reference points of thought.

To ground this in some real examples, I find myself drawing on instances as various as: the low winter sunlight coming through lichen-covered birch trees in the Highlands, leaping from one huge round boulder to another in a river in Brittany, the sensation of walking through mud fine as cow pat squidging between toes, or the dry sensation of attempting to taste (clean) toilet roll (something I must have done very young).

These various examples seem to point to the privilege of being able to travel to different places as a means of ‘widening horizons’, an old refrain, yet something that in the light of the climate emergency I think I have become wary of. But I don’t think that is the full story, poets have often been able to capture a whole plethora of sensations in a tiny place; simply by paying attention, we can discover a world in a single tree, or a patch of moss growing between paving stones.

The principle point seems to be that you need to be awake to your surroundings enough to gather those sensations in their variety to form the vocabulary, the memory landscape. Whilst a poet or a baby can find inspiration and a world in a single leaf, most of us, past a certain age, require something more to jolt us into noticing. The principle method for this is going on holiday: in a different place, we are more often in a state of surprise and wonderment, this keeps us off-guard, on-edge and extra attentive to whatever might come our way. In this state we absorb much more and consequently open ourselves to inspiration and the expansion of our memory landscape. Perhaps the travelling bug of always looking for new places to go can be traced to this. Though it is not exclusively or even primarily the fact that we are in a new place that does this, but rather the openness of senses that we have that causes us to see better.

So we could train ourselves to look with fresher eyes more often, but even that does not go the full way for there are certainly homes, neighbourhoods, streets that are more or less stimulating regardless of our state of openness. The mass-produced, repetitive city, stripped of the playful, the superfluous, the unprofitable, can leave something to be desired any day of the week.

Traditionally, settlements were always built at edge conditions: where the land meets the sea, or better, where river meets land meets sea, or better still where forest meets field, meets river meets land meets the sea. These edge conditions are the most life sustaining because they are the most biodiverse; within a five mile radius, they could encompass a huge variety of raw materials, plants and animal life, useful to people in one form or another. But edges are also sustaining for human life in another way, they simply have more ‘places’, parts that are distinctive, and so can help to form an expanded memory landscape. Variety is mentally simulating in itself but also leaves us more frequently surprised, open-eyed and attentive – taking us back to those fresh eyes.

In contemporary ecology, this variety manifests as the drive for biodiversity. It is the number one measure of achievement and there is a sense that therein lies some key to mending our relationship with the Earth. Tapping back into this offers us a clue to designing spatially diverse cities and neighbourhoods. If you’re designing to increase biodiversity, you quickly discover that a wide variety of spaces or habitats are needed to support these. And these all look different: they have different soil types and depths, rocky, sandy, they may be underwater, flowing or still, ponds or streams, lakes, forests, clearings, crags, caves… the list goes on. As we begin to think about biodiversity, we quickly find ourselves with spatial diversity also. Biodiversity could be the driving force behind the design of our cities and neighbourhoods, both for our ecology but also for us, for our memory landscapes, our vocabulary of thought. 

Some parallels and sources:

George Monbiot – Feral

Robert Macfarlane – The Old Ways

Rosie Milne – Species of Nooks and Other Niches – Thesis

Neil Gunn – Highland River

Jonathan Hale – Merleu Ponty for Architects

Mark Johnson – The Body in the Mind

Crumble Architecture Magazine Issue One: ‘What is Urgent?’ Editorial

Architecture, Uncategorized

This is not a magazine about architecture. It is a magazine that will make you question what qualifies as architecture and if that is even a useful or relevant question to ask.

Architecture sits at the meeting place of science and humanity, art and craft, everyday and extraordinary. And yet, architecture students are gradually becoming quite cut off from the world, with absurdly long working hours leaving them increasingly separated both culturally and physically. This magazine was driven by a desire to burst open the doors of this dusty barn, bringing the world streaming into architecture and architecture into the world.

Architecture and India


Reflections on Trip to India after winning the Ella McDanial Travel Prize

India is a country of enormous variety, it almost beggars belief that it functions as a single nation. In reality it is a geographical body that contains so much variation in cuisine, religion (Hinduism is a misleading umbrella term), language, climate and more. Within this context, as a visitor, you get a very strong sense of place in moving from one part to the next, even between different neighbourhoods of the same city.

Democratising Knowledge – Charles and Ray Eames


Reflections on Charles and Ray Eames Exhibition at the Barbican Centre, London

Charles and Ray Eames encouraged a way of thinking that shifted the focus from economic gain to creative and intellectual gain. They wanted to encourage a pooling and sharing of knowledge and envisaged a more open world where people weren’t possessive of ideas and would readily try their hand at anything. By seeing everything is a creative influence, then they prompt us to question what we would consider ‘wasted time’. All of these are lessons that remain relatively sidelined today at a time when more than ever, we could really do with taking them on board.

Thinkers & Makers


Reflections on podcast of Thomas Heatherwick in ‘Dream Builders’, BBC Worldservice

How is it that in learning a furniture design course, you make furniture, in a glass design course, you make glass, in a fashion course, you make clothes, but in studying architecture, most people never make anything bigger than a small model? This is an issue raised by Thomas Heatherwick in the series  ‘Dream Builders’ on the BBC Worldservice:

Is Parametricism the Future?


A discussion using Patrik Schumacher’s Autopoieses of Architecture and Peter Buchanan’s article Empty Gestures.

Arguably the most dominant style of architecture today is parametricism. This is a form of design which uses computer algroithms to generate vast, complex, curving forms and has been made famous by architects such as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry. Patrik Schumacher proposes this to be the future of architecture and Peter Buchanan disagrees, I will discuss this question through their respective arguments.