Key PagesArchaeology of Rhode Island Hall |
This draws together the interviews I have been conducting with students, alumnae, and members of the Geology Department, and provides some thoughts on the relation of architecture and memory with regard to RI Hall. This was undertaken as an assignment for ARCH1710, 'Architecture and Memory', with Ömür Harmanşah in Spring 2009.
Fast motion film, a variety of time-lapse photography, is a common device in film and television today. Anybody who has watched a nature documentary is familiar with seeing a flower open up in seconds rather than hours. Another frequent use of this device is for city scenes, with hundreds of commuters passing in and out of buildings in the time it takes for us to blink. In these scenes, the grounding element for the viewer is the architecture that remains static and unchanged. One is tempted to apply this twentieth century visionary device to the past 169 years of Rhode Island Hall’s existence, imagining the austere Greek Revival building at the top of College Hill, with the university growing and changing around it, with people coming and going over the years. This, however, would not be an accurate imagining of the building’s existence, not least because the building did not remain physically unchanged. Alterations of varying magnitude have been made since it was first built, most notably the additions in 1874 and 1904. A vivid imagination could factor these changes into the theoretical fast motion visualization, but the portrayal would still be inaccurate because it does not take into account the “revolutions in meaning” (Alcock 2002: 29) that the building experienced over the last 169 years as it gained and lost significance for different people.
As Alcock points out, we must recognise just how complicated the relationship between architecture and memory is, as it “[resists] uniform readings even for a single point in time, let alone across the ages” (Alcock 2002: 30). Within one small bracket of time, the Spring semester of 2008, the building was perceived in a plethora of ways by students. Most, upon asking about my classes and receiving an overly enthusiastic and lengthy explanation of my Independent Study, asked which building RI Hall was, much to my dismay. After all, the building is the fourth oldest on the Brown campus (after University Hall, Hope College and Manning Hall) and was built exclusively for the sciences- an advance unparalleled in other American universities at the time. Doesn’t it follow that RI Hall should occupy a prestigious place in the collective memory of the students in the same way that University Hall does? Apparently not. Of course, many students did go into the building for one reason or another last Spring, and their memories of the space vary. They ranged from enthusiasm and nostalgia (“It was one of my favourite buildings...I miss it”- Caroline ’11) to less than positive reflections (“disappointing and kind of run down”- Caroline ‘10, “awkward”- Nic ’11, “it seemed like make-shift space”- Meg ’11). This last description is an accurate one. By Spring 2008 RI Hall was “make-shift space”, and had been for some time( Laurel Bestock ’99 didn’t remember students referring to the building by name; they just knew it as the location of the Office of International Programs).
Going back to the most recent period when RI Hall had a unified function (1915-1982 when it housed the Department of Geological Sciences), one finds that memories of the building still vary dramatically, further reminding us of the impossibility of producing a single memory reading for any time or place. Happily, this project is not attempting to unravel the memories of ancient societies as in Alcock’s ‘’Archaeologies of the Greek Past’’, and I was able to hear these varying memories first hand. Professors Terry Tullis and Jan Tullis’ strongest memories were of RI Hall being “a disaster” for modern science. Terry was “glad enough to move out”, and after leaving Jan felt much less nostalgia than she expected for the building where she had spent 12 years of her career. But beneath these frustrated overtones, Terry felt building had “a certain charm” and “homey” feel to it. Jan too has some extremely fond memories of her time there, although as she was quick to point out, that it was because she was “proud of the department, not necessarily proud of the building”.
How does materiality relate to memory here? It was the limitations of the materiality that caused “frustrations”, so does the materiality literally ‘’embody’’ the memories? (‘‘embody’’ is defined in the OED as “to give concrete form too”- an architectural metaphor in itself). Terry’s memories of having to deal with these limitations are also rooted in materiality- he recalled overseeing the installation of a cinderblock wall beneath the first floor to support a piece of 10,000lb machinery in 1978/9.
This material record of an event may lead us to consider the building as an archive. If the building’s materiality could not provide insights to the past other than those gained from the documentation in the official archives of the university, then why did the Joukowsky Institute look for somebody to undertake an archaeology of the building last year? The materiality of RI Hall spoke to past events, with memories encoded in physical traces left on the structure. The charred timbers discovered when installing the cinderblock wall were a physical record of the 1906 fire (also recorded in a newspaper article from the University Archives [link]), a scrawled message on the doorpost coming down from the attic stairs reminds people to ‘turn out the light’, and the stained glass window in the attic was the recipient of graffiti by a professor.
These mneumonic traces act as a record of past events, but by definition are not conclusive. Traces merely “indicate the former presence, existence, or action of something” (OED). It is memories that provide the context and details of the events that leave their physical footprints. The stained glass window acquires more significance if we know of Jim Head’s recollection of climbing up into the attic as a graduate student with Professor Laport, and discovering the window that looked down onto his work area. It was then that Professor Laport wrote ‘’deus ex machina’’ on the window with a magic marker, much to the shock of his student who was “taken aback...at the reversal of roles”. More than just indicating memories, material traces can trigger them. Jim recalled the graffiti incident after describing his work area to me and mentioning the window above him. Many of his other recollections were prompted by my drawing of the second floor layout as I knew it in the 1960s, and having him fill in or correct me as he talked about the atmosphere of “camaraderie” and the “great fun” he had in the various spaces of the building.
These atmospheric recollections speak to a different relationship between architecture and memory. Memory can be linked to the space defined by the building’s materiality, as well as directly to the materiality itself. Jim Head’s recollections of daily New York Times debates, and Jan Tullis’ enthusiasm about the department that she carefully divorces from the actual structure, are both tied to the space they occurred in, RI Hall. It served as a locus for the people and events that defined the department (in a variety of ways for people) during its time there, and whilst its materiality does not have to “stand for memories” (Forty 2001: 2), it defines the space where interactions preserved people’s memories occurred. This is perhaps what Lynn Meskell has in mind when she quotes Susanne Küchler’s work, stating that materiality has “come to signify the spaces in-between states of being, past and present” (Meskell 2007: 222).
When talking about architecture it is too simplistic to say that materiality embodies memory. The multi-temporal nature of RI Hall has given rise to a plethora of meanings for different groups and individuals over 169 years that cannot be understood through a single piece of materiality. However, some, but by no means all of these, left an imprint on the building, tying memory to architecture. Some memories were exclusively linked to materiality, as in the case of the magic marker graffiti. Some added new insight to events recorded elsewhere, such as the 1906 fire. Some had no remaining physical traces, such as the sound of the faulty steam pipe in 201, or the ever elusive “charm” that the building was described as having. These can only be accessed through first hand re-telling, through oral history, however the role of materiality is forming these memories is nevertheless a pivotal one. The complex relationship between materiality and memory, between architecture and memory, in the case of RI Hall is far from clear. However, its materiality was undoubtedly imbued with traces that were indicators of individual memories. These traces were like the tip of an iceberg- one small trace leads to unraveling a web of memories, but the oral component is needed to really get at this web. It is when firsthand memory and firsthand experience of the building are combined that we can begin to understand the integral role that materiality plays in the formation of memory, and how architecture acts a vehicle for memory, defining a space to anchor people’s associations and memories.