I sometimes wonder whether my fondest—and most dreadful—memories are real. Did I really experience the woods burning across the street from my house when I was five, did I really sail on that enchanted lake when I was six, or did I reconstruct those moments from things my parents and friends told me? That is why I love art and architecture: concrete objects anchor my memories, and seeing the Salk Institute or Vermeer’s "View of Delft" awakens, as the madeleines did for Proust, specific scenes. 

It turns out that I am not alone in wondering how much of my past I have misremembered. In a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, “Speak Memory,” (The New York Review of Books, February 21, 2013, pp. 19-21), Oliver Sachs recalls in detail an event from his youth during World War Ii, only to find out from his brother that he never experienced it, but was told about it by his parents. Yet the memory is real. He goes on to point out (citing the neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman) that perception is a way of creating, and remembering one of recreating. Moreover, we do not just create or recreate by ourselves, but through conversation with others, by listening to stories, by telling them and, I would add, by making art or architecture. As Sachs concludes: “Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.” 

Just a few pages further in the same issue, Stephen Greenblatt and Joseph Leo Koerner review the massive new review of what counts for neo-classicism, The Classical Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press). The review and the book make clear the breadth of influence that Greek and Roman forms and myths have had on us, from our buildings to Asterix and Picasso, to cite just a few random entries the reviewers point out. What is interesting to me about the piece is that it spends most of its time speaking about the notion of tradition, or the carrying forth of particular types, but in the end points out that “… the classical tradition, as evoked by most of the entries in this enormous volume, implies not continuity but rather a break, a break upon which the whole idea of the Renaissance was constructed …The Classical Tradition is a principally a guide to [a] subsequent effort at recovery … ” Greenblatt and Koerner argue that this reconstruction is thus rooted in a particular historical project, and its contours and attributes are as much the result of the time, context, and purpose of that reconstruction as they are the timeless forms and values that Classicists attempt to evoke. 

Classicism is, in other words, a continual remaking of a time and place based on fragments we draw from many sources in order to create something radically new. Like our private memories, it is something that is no more vital to how we make a world for ourselves for being such an artifice whose function is to make the new into something rooted in a past of which we cannot be sure. That reconstruction is the central act of any kind of creative making, and in no place is it more literal than in the work of architecture. There, we make a new place, but one that, even if we do not try to build with columns and pediments, makes use of existing forms, practices, and materials. It is a rearrangement, based partially on exigencies and partially on our dreams of what once was and sometime could be. Moreover, every act of construction by its very physicality replaces a vague, but vivid memory with a fact that surrounds us and thus, in a sense, buries those memories. Buildings and works of art create breaks in that they are concrete elements of newness replacing memories or suppositions. They are jarring or beautiful reminders of a present reality, even when they try to follow a seemingly unbroken tradition. In a strange way, that abstraction opens up the possibility for us to fill the new with memories. Understanding our cultural past grounds, but also restricts memory. Such historical break-making does not restrict, but makes possible invention when we realize that all memory is an act of collective recreation.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.