Seminar Essay
The Memory of The City with its Collective Memories

Spring 2019 
Professor: Paul Emmons

Our perception of the city begins with the concept of time and space. As we navigate through the landscape, what we perceive, and experience consequently consolidates into what we memorize. The memories are stored in numerous types of images, from motionless drawings to shifting film scenes. They are proceeded through words, from verbal mythical stories to the scientific statements. They are further intensified by imposing the layers upon layers and strengthened by perceiving it in a broader picture of society. Through the numerous depictions and documentation, we constantly inquire where we were, how we have been, and what we are ultimately towards.  After generations of questioning human within the realm of time and space, the city gets developed and enriched. The city’s space conveys the story as a piece of artwork throughout time, which further inquiries and reinforces our fundamental values. Merely exists as documentation, the space with its collective memory is constantly asking the fundamental question on the relationship between architecture - a declaration of urbanistic value, the city, and history itself.  It is trying to investigate and unravel the layers of fabrics, which is composed of earlier traces of mankind. What inherited from the past generations are revealed in architectural forms, city maps, public space, etc, that constantly manifests itself in the transformation of society. As I study the idea of the city underpinning its values, I question the linkage between the past, the present, and the future. By emphasizing the history of the city with its collective memory – the concept of time and space, I believe the city as an artificial object that can be learned, tested and reformed.

The historical sense of the city is more like a town in today’s value. It was conceived with the idea of private and public and was trying to reach the ideal City-State by Plato, the Republic. This idea is spoken through certain architectural forms. The town hall, the architectural form erecting in the center of the city, demonstrates the idea of justice. The generous public square walled by the houses is promoting the elimination of the boundaries between neighborhoods.  The streets, from the city center, outreached into each household transits from the public realm into the private zone. The collective memories are generated and get enhanced through daily life in the city’s public space. And the city gets constructed and evolved throughout time, which is vivid through the orders of materials. Meanwhile, the interior of architecture, such as the city hall, gets elaborated with the play of light and shadow. The emphasis on public and private space is evident in lots of small towns across Europe. The space feature a generous public square and detailed interior decorations in the city center. As we meander through these towns, we conceive a set of scenography, and the sense of space is a totality of accumulative experience. At that time, the description of what we are living is engraved into the walls of caves, depicted as a series of didactic drawings that are carried between islands, or described as successive stories passed through centuries.

The alteration on our perception of the time and space started with the discovery of perspective in the Renaissance.  We start to project space scientifically with guides and measurements and strongly believed this was what we have always seen even today.   These fragmental pieces underpin pieces of pictorial sceneries and deconstruct the wholeness of experience. Contrary to storytelling, the collective memories adhere to one or two scenes that best illustrate either the most glorious or tragic moments. And it ends more towards the recording of memories instead of describing.  As the drawings become more and more accurate, this scientific mind guides us towards the industrial revolution. With the invention of the railway, the image of the city gets more fractured into two distant points on the map, eliminating the perception of in-between space.  We start to question and reconstruct the idea of space as well as time. The perception results in representations of the city’s landscape with over-emphasized start and end, as the scenes of landscape unroll itself backwardly. With the spread of photography, being realistic gradually is not the goal to record shifted views within the time. It starts with a deeper inquiry on time and space, which are appeared to be multi-perspectival drawings, science fiction that contains the idea of time travel in the late 19th to the 20th century. The depiction of the city’s memory is now associated with the idea of speed, which is the collision between time and space.

Nevertheless, the desire to attain a God’s eye view remains constant.  It is manifested in the collections of maps across history.  In the beginning, the depiction of where we were relies heavily on observation as well as imagination. With the development of science, the map of a city starts to contain more accurate information, accompanying with a scale and direction as the city plan. Nowadays, a variety of maps reveal the condition of where we are living in different layers and angles. Not only indicating the physical conditions of the city, the map always indicts the society’s interests through the eyes of the beholder. When layers of maps impose each other, the city’s memory is no longer stagnant at a certain time. What happens between each layer travels through time to inform us what was missing and deepens the structure of the whole set.

And, I would like to uncover The City’s memory by story-telling the collection of maps throughout time.

It is the time around the 18th century when The City came into play on the stage of the world, with this new consciousness conceived at its birth, and had developed expeditiously into a destination for dream makers in 19 to the 20th century.

“To many people in Europe, of course, facts about New Amsterdam were no importance, a completely fictitious view would do, if it matched their idea of what a city was….” [1] (Kouwenhoven, p.43)

In 1672, a French engraver, Jullian demonstrates The City with a bird’s eye view to the world.  He uses Amsterdam as a prototype to test and envision the new beginning. Traditional architecture elements, a church, a city center, a prison is scattered and reassembled into this new colony.  “It is completely false; none of the information it communicates is based on reality. Yet it is a depiction – perhaps accidental – of the project The City: an urban science fiction.” [2] (Koolhaas, p.15). The architect Rem Koolhaas calls the map as a project, a science fiction. Contrary to inform the audience through an objective perspective, the bird’s eye view first establishes a misleading impression which requires a new organization of The City. “From this vertical perspective, Le Corbusier noted, the eye sees clearly, the mind makes wise decisions, and the city planner knows what to do. So Le Corbusier claimed, a new consciousness was born from this aerial view, for we were plunged into realism from which we dared not escape. ‘’[3] (Boyer, p.45). The City is founded in strong belief of individualism in the New World. It entails the craving for power and imagination in conquering, and no one dares to escape from the power and ambition of human.

With this ambition in 1811, Simeon deWitt, Gouverneur Morris and John Rutherford proposed the Commissioner’s proposal for The City’s Grid with 12 avenues running north-south and 155 streets running east-west, which forms a matrix consisting of 2028 blocks in total.


Instead of depicting the imagination on the existing, the map shows conquerors’ confidence to oversee the city’s future. In the traditional cities, as we meander through spaces, the memory of them begins unfolding itself from corner to corner, from one panorama to another.  The idea of space proceeded gradually through folding and weaving the stories occurred throughout time. However, the Commissioners’ report foretells the future by converting the no-man island with perhaps the boldest gesture to the land – the Grid.  The action is against the totality of experience, which inherits in the idea of private and public through the architectural prepositions. What modernists value is the ultimate domination of The City with this system of spatial order.  By intentionally delineating a people’s view and predicts their behavior in advance, the structure of the society is further confronted.

The Commissioner’s report proposes the juxtaposition between what is and what would be.  “the land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, nonexistent. “ [4] (Koolhaas, p.19). Ironically, this contradiction between existence and prediction, which has made all the architectural lessons unnecessary, is the key contribution to The City’s prosperity.  “ All blocks are the same; their equivalence invalidates, at once, all the systems of articulation and differentiation that have guided the design of traditional cities. The Grid makes the history of architectural and all previous lessons of urbanism irrelevant. It forces Manhattan’s builders to develop a new system of formal values, to invent strategies for the distinction of one block from another. “ [5] (Koolhaas, p.20).   

The Grid provides the stage for The City to grow upwards.  With the restricted size of each plot, architectural form lying upon tries to maximize its indoor space by erecting as higher as it can go, which ultimately results in the language of skyscrapers. On each equivalent block, the structure is trying to advocate itself and distinguish from the neighborhood by emphasizing the façade. It does not have to disclose the story happening inside, the façade is to demonstrate the ambitious as a dramatic piece itself.  Meanwhile, the limitation on the Grid imposes the order to the architectural forms through their prints on the earth, while still remains as a silent background.

The memory of The City demonstrated through the forest of skyscrapers, is neither described in pictorial images nor represented through layers of maps.  It is one object next to another, one island after another and one number subsequent to another, which have been advocated on the city’s postcards. The memory formed by the order transcends the idea of space and space. With what was endured from the past, what was remaining, and what would happen, space is not statically existing. The memory is persisting in values that can be reformed and reconstructed, while the idea of Matrix across layers of maps endured. What was predicted in the 19th century is also predicting the future in centuries: maximized value on the limited plot. It is profoundly demonstrated in The City’s Manifesto written by Rem Koolhaas: “It follows that one form of human occupancy can only be established at the expense of another. The city becomes a mosaic of episodes, each with its own particular life span, that contests each other through the medium of the grid. “ [6](Koolhaas, p.21). 

Through the ascendance inside the skyscraper, our perception of the space distances itself from any pictorial perspectives or collective storytelling experience happening before.  From above, we are experiencing the city as a space that can be dwelled, while still grasp a sense of detachment from the unpleasant circumstances happening on the ground. The City is presenting itself a panoramic view that sets us between inside and out of the cityscape. Most importantly, the pictorial movement and entertainment that we cannot obtain on the streets start to occur as an indoor activity between floors. And it is the first time that our collective memory that resolves within the walls.

“This is a prophetic claim that unleashes one of Manhattanism’s most insistent themes: from now on each new building of the mutant kind strives to be ‘a city within a city’. This truculent ambition makes the metropolis a collection of architectural city-states, all potentially at war with each other. ‘’ [7](Koolhaas, p.89).

It is the era when the idea of a city can be established without any declaration of architectural language. Instead of the exposure under the inconsistent weather, the provision of constant temperature under the cover provides a pleasant circumstance for each rising soul. The individualistic pleasure given by the background of music, lights, entertaining equipment is shaping the city’s memory.  This city is also conceived beyond time. The lobotomy between the exterior and interior allows this type of space to have a super capacity to host whatever is happening.  It is the plan that generates a variety of sensorial activities that are existing in countless cities within The City.  

Nowadays, most people first perceive The City above the river. The impression on The City is juxtaposed with seeing a city plan and wandering between shadows. The City reveals itself through a series of exuberant architecture forms, while is still contrived and ordered on the blocks of the archipelago. In full of awe, visitors are astonished by unfolding rows of skyscrapers that form a perspectival cityscape towards the point of River. The views function as an extra entertaining moment as they walk between the indoor activities. After nights spent in The City, they are asked to represent The City, they cannot describe the richness of the experience as they are on or high above the ground. It is a similar general impression as they arrive. Now, the city’s memory is reduced to a line, a silhouette of skyline composed with all the recognizable New York structures. For them, the memories they behold are the well-known graphic left on every printable surface, I love NYC. 









[1] Kouwenhoven, J. A. (1953). The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York. New York: Doubleday, p.43.

[2] Rem, K. (1994). Delirious New York. New York, New York: The Monacelli Press, p.15

[3] Boyer, C., M. (1994). The city of collective memory - Its Historical Imagery and Architectural Entertainments. London, England: The MIT Press, p.45.

[4] Rem, K. (1994). Delirious New York. New York, New York: The Monacelli Press, p.19


[5] Rem, K. (1994). Delirious New York. New York, New York: The Monacelli Press, p.19


[6] Rem, K. (1994). Delirious New York. New York, New York: The Monacelli Press, p.21

[7] Rem, K. (1994). Delirious New York. New York, New York: The Monacelli Press, p. 89