The memory or mind palace (AKA method of loci) is an old technique of memorization, developed in ancient Greece and Rome, to help cement knowledge in the mind by way of visualizing it in a “palace.” In “Memory Houses” (“Casas de la Memoria”) — a conceptual architecture project that has evolved into a physical exhibition of sketches and models, as well as a detailed book cataloguing architecture both real and imagined — Seattle-based architect Robert Hutchison adapts the notion of the memory palace in a work that serves as a peri- and post-mortem conversation with his father, who suffered from advancing dementia leading up to his death in 2016.
With the support of his studio, generally tasked with the more concrete application of architecting spaces to be built in physical spaces, the “Memory Houses” project resuscitates Hutchison’s first commission — a multi-building winery design on a property owned by his parents some 25 years prior, that was abandoned before implementation. This work culminated in an exhibition and book project that showcases the energetic force of architecture in the examination of the mental landscape.
“Perhaps because it was never realized, the purity of its design remained intact,” wrote Hutchison, in the introduction. What unfolds throughout the book are updates and expansions on the original designs, unfettered by the need for practical implementation, and therefore open to create spaces that hold the echo of decades-old dreams. Likewise, Hutchison builds out spaces for the future, with the addition of a chapel and columbarium dedicated to the architect’s father, and a new house for his now-widowed mother — a process that Pia Sarpaneva titles “Remembering Forward” in her essay for the book.
In addition to the eight imagined buildings on the site plan — “House for a Train Engineer,” “House for Locomotives,” “Telescope House & Milkhouse,” “House for Winemaking, House for Remains,” “House for Bells, House for a Widow,” and “House of Memories” — the book intersperses designs and documentation of the firm’s brick-and-mortar creations. The further one pages through it, the finer the lines become between real and imagined spaces — an apt kind of conflation for the process of memory in the aging or distant mind.
“Memory Houses,” in its myriad forms, is an excellent and subtle paean to the power of design, which beyond being useful in the creation of physical spaces to house and shape our daily life, offers tools for the conceptual construction of spaces to hold grief, fix memory, or build the possibilities of new mental architecture. At a time when many of us are a little more housebound than usual, it is inspiring to think of ways to create new structures for remembering our way into a brighter future.