by Emily Potter, Altitude, Volume 2, Article 2, 2002.
The title of this paper comes from Antoni Jach’s novel, The Layers of the City, in which the protagonist, researching as he calls it, ‘the many layers of Paris’ (1), wanders through the city’s spaces. His sensory encounters are multi-dimensional: like an x-ray, the visions, sounds and smells of an ancient place are evoked in the modern city, itself in constant process. Past and present seem co-existent here. The layers of human life, like piled up bones in the city’s catacombs, are the ground from which everything new emerges. The past is sustenance and generation, continually transformed as new becomes old and the future is now. At the same time, however, there is a sense of suffocation in Jach’s layered city, a degree of weightiness and burden, of statues, buildings and other icons of memory that hang heavy. His question ‘How can you live in a city of monuments?’ (117) is a point of departure for my own examination of a weighted space in a different city centre. In focusing upon the North Terrace precinct in the Adelaide CBD, I want to highlight the problematics of an engagement with the past that concretises remembering in the monument form. When these icons are presented as cohesive models of socially being and belonging, authorised by a particular ideology of common experience, the problematics are intensified. While I advocate an approach to memory that is part of the everyday, the actual constructs within which we daily move must be examined for what they ultimately offer and inhibit. Without abandoning the monument as a participant in memory, and denying the role of North Terrace as an active precinct in civic life, the necessity is there to acknowledge its language of selection and privilege if we are to escape, what Antoni Jach terms, ‘those residues of the past threatening to strangle the present’ (117).
In this discussion I want to highlight the intrinsic connection between remembering and place. While memory can be seen as an intangible, unfettered and mobile amongst the words and images that seek to represent it, the apparent need by groups to claim collectivity and find forms for its acknowledgement means that remembering is often located and scripted to signify particular ways of knowing and engaging with the past. Social space, as Lefebrve points out, is a ‘social product and embodies social relations’ (in Jaireth 24), making it a readable text through which we can trace and define operations of history and community. When social space is formulated however, persistently constructed and kept within fixed definitions of meaning, heterogenic existence is suppressed. There is no sense of interrelated spaces, no acknowledgement of plurality. I see the homogenisation of memory at work in North Terrace and feel the urgency of dismantling this. Through a proliferation of the monument and a continual return here to perform common remembering within the tropes of nation and the state, history is fixed, rendered immobile by acts of commemoration that impose, construct, and more significantly appear unchallenged. Here the icon is established as a connective device that ironically disconnects through its exclusionary nature, disabling the potential dynamics of remembering-that is, an experience of the active and the shared. As a self-conscious voice of public remembering, the symbolic demarcation of North Terrace needs to be taken as one of many approaches to memory in our city. It is imperative that we critically examine the meanings of commemoration in this public space, not to reject its gestures of public remembering, but to examine the ideas invested within these and thus to contextualise the spaces around us in terms of what they voice and how we choose to listen. It is not ‘the silence of the stone’, as Marina Warner puts it (Warner 37), that makes the monument fraught, but our relationship to it. To what and how we choose to publicly lay claim is fundamentally at issue.
Emily Potter is a postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Architecture, Planning, and Building at the University of Melbourne.