Adrian Forty – The Art of Forgetting

Lecture date: 1998-10-15

Objects, as well as prolonging memory, also induce forgetfulness. In the specific genre of commemorations of the Holocaust the amnesiac properties of memorials have been well understood, but what of other practices? In this talk Adrian Forty reflects on the relationship of objects, memory and forgetting. Forty is an architectural historian at the Bartlett, University College London, where he runs the Masters programme in Architectural History. He is the author of numerous works including Objects of Desire: Design and Society since 1750 and The Art of Forgetting.

NB: Cuts out during Q & A.

Lecture Transcription:

MARK COUSINS: It’s a very great pleasure to welcome Adrian Forty, who teaches the MA in History and Theory at the Bartlett, and whose book, ‘Objects of Desire’ is very well-known, and who is about to publish a major study on the relationship between a kind of language of modernism. It’s a great pleasure to welcome Adrian Forty.

ADRIAN FORTY: When this building, the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart was completed, about 15 years ago, it attracted interest and attention for, amongst other things, its engagement with memory. This was a building succeeded in making this rather unmemorable art of Stuttgart, memorable. And it did it in certain various ways: it introduced a whole set of motifs, the rotonda, sunken columns, columns with simplified capitals, large amounts of travertine and so on. A whole series of elements that have not been seen in German architecture since the Third Reich. This caused certain amounts of disturbance in German architecture, and indeed created a great deal of interest in architecture more generally, because of this way in which Sterling and Wilford had manipulated, and seemingly created in this object some form of collective memory. In the succeeding 15 years since this building was completed, I would say that the theme of memory in architecture has gone quiet; people have stopped talking about it, much, as far as I am aware. I suppose my curiosity is as to why what at the time seemed this rather promising theme should have dropped out of architectural conversation. One might suggest several sorts of reasons, I may be simply that it has gone out of fashion, or perhaps, there are certain kinds of structural reasons, certain kinds of reasons which are to do with the way in which architects try to engage with memory, which might have caused it to lose some of its appeal. What I’m going to do in this talk is to think quite generally about the relationship between objects, memory and forgetting. I’m only going to go back to architecture at the end, it is at the back of my mind in what follows: to try to understand why this expectation that architecture might have realized itself as an art of memory, never came to anything.

Let us start with the case of the mnemonist, described by the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria. This mnemonist was a man that was endowed with a remarkable memory, so remarkable was it, that was able to remember everything and anything that he was told. He was able to give performances, in fact he made his living through this public presentations of memory, in which people would feed him random lists of names, numbers, events and so on, and he was able to recall them, perfectly. The mnemonist’s great problem was the chaotic congestion of his mind, caused by the retention of all this memories. His great need was to be able to forget, this was the one thing he could not do. He developed various stratagems to enable himself to forget, the first of which was writing things down in pieces of paper, arguing that if other people wrote things down in order to remember them, he might as well write things down in order to forget them. This was not wholly successful, and the next attempt was, having written things on pieces of paper, to throw them away, and when even that failed, what he tried to do was burning pieces of paper, in the hope that he could get rid of this thoughts in his mind. This little case encapsulates rather well the whole problem I want to talk about, and that is how does forgetting occur, how is it that we are able to forget things. In particular, what part do objects or artifacts play in that whole process of forgetting. The mnemonist case is interesting, because he did two things: one was creating an artifact, and the other was destroying it—iconoclasm. These are the two mutual processes which I’m going to talk about more. But the case I’m more generally concerned here is not how individuals forget, but how societies forget. In order to lead a normal, healthy life, our mnemonist had to be able to forget, but the same thing is true of societies, in order to live with each other and to live with themselves, societies have to be able to forget. How do they do it, what are their processes for ena