The Memory Palace – Celebrating Daily Rituals

By Peiwen Yu

Two years of a pandemic has changed the perception of what it means to be happy for many of us. Despite all the difficulties of the pandemic, a majority of Americans were able to think of at least one silver lining, according to Pew Research Center’s survey. As the world takes its hesitant steps toward normalcy, I asked myself to describe both the struggle and cherished the memory that most defined my experience living through this historical moment. I could not help but noticed how much the slow-paced, isolated lifestyle has cleared my thoughts and vision to capture finer-grained sensations from daily life scenes. Having realized how resilient the global communities can become in the face of pandemic uncertainty and challenges, am convinced we’re not entirely powerless. Even under some of the most hopeless crises nowadays, such as climate change, war, and deadly diseases, an individual’s active agency matters in making change incrementally. What keeps our momentum going is often the small things in life, which can have surprisingly nourishing and healing effects on how we feel. I call them “meaningful rituals”, which create intentional moments of joy and allow us to find grace within a mundane daily routine.

Every village on earth has its deeply beloved and meaningful rituals. They are grounded in the collective memory of the place, reflecting what most defines a particular culture and community. The ritual experiences may be a variety of events ranging from social and religious activities to simple routines of drinking morning coffee or tea, walking to connect with nature, evening shopping at the market, or thanking the earth for the gift of beautiful blossoms. For an individual, finding meaning in small things is a great way of cultivating energy, hope, and self-love, even creating an “effortless” state of mind for creative and productive activities.  Inspired by artist and set designer Es Devlin’s Gallery installation titled Memory Palace, I looked into how people use and experience everyday places, and how to elevate them through the construction of shared memories.Images above and below: Es Devlin’s Memory Palace model maps out momentous events in history. The installation, titled Memory Palace, takes its name from a mnemonic technique originating in ancient Greece that relies on the visualization of physical locations to be able to activate memories and recall information. Artist and set designer Es Devlin chose to map specific iconic moments in history from the past seventy-five millennia that she thought would “invoke our collective memories”, provoking dialogue and debate amongst viewers

The environment we build can celebrate those simple moments by bringing a bit of theatrics into placemaking through the thoughtful construction of visually distinct spaces. Such thematic consideration in space design, particularly for public space, acknowledges every day can be a special day for someone who lives their lives there, and who feels like celebrating their meaningful rituals. When landscape placemaking offers stage-like settings with an intention for daily life scenes to take place, it opens a magic box, empowering the individual to imagine, connect, and bring about change.

An example of such placemaking for daily rituals is Guangzhou Waterfront Strolling Gardens. The project is a design competition we recently completed, transforming a 3.6-kilometer-long riverfront located in the heart of Pearl River Delta, one of the most densely urbanized regions in the world.  As one of the city’s most influential public waterfronts, it is envisioned to be transformed into a 24-hour non-stop urban living room to further strengthen the connection between the bustling city and its waterfront, overcoming infrastructure barriers. The landscape design proposal takes strategic steps to improve the overall circulation system, create memorable outdoor spaces, and infuse culturally-enriched thematic elements into the new waterfront.

Image above: the existing condition of the waterfront involves complicated adjacent land uses, neighborhood character, and accessibility challenges caused by the transportation infrastructure including the roadway tunnel and BTR railway. The city’s vision of turning the waterfront open space into urban living rooms for people requires a multi-layered urban design strategy and placemaking ideas. 

Image above: the traditional lifestyle of the Guangzhou Region embraces the community’s passion for garden strolling, morning dim sum, and flower cultivation throughout the year. Such everyday life scenes and the informality of spatial experience have inspired design thinking. 

The underlying design response is decoded from the ways Guangzhou people use public space, which is distinctive to the region and informed by its climate and lifestyle. The Memory Garden Proposal thus composes the “Eight Landscape Experience” that resonates with the local culture, celebrating meaningful rituals that unfold in the community’s daily life scene.  The selected eight thematic experiences include “Tea”, “Garden”, “Arcade”, “Flower”, “Wine”, “Dock”, “Tree”, and “Opera”, each of them represents a unique and essential activity inherited from the traditional lifestyle of Pearl River Delta. Each newly programmed space created on the waterfront have taken cues from “Guangzhou memory” of eight thematic landscape and re-interpreted how those new places may serve as venues for meaningful daily rituals to take place around the clock.

Using one of the eight thematic landscapes – “Arcade” as an example, we’ll look into how an idea is turning into a physical place. My personal approach to contemporary placemaking often borrows iconic typologies from traditional living space construction.

Inspired by Guangzhou’s historical arcade shop house that is unique to the region’s climate and architectural style, the garden structure in the image below inherited the arcade motif and created a gallery-feel space over the abandoned BTR trail track. This thematic memory garden with native planting and artful lighting provides visitors an experience of a “time corridor”, that communicates the site’s history, transformation, and future.

The arcade architecture prototype is then re-interpreted with a variety of garden structures with different purposes – some are pop-up theater spaces that can hold events and informal opera performances, some are shade canopies with seating, and some are garden structures with hanging plants and local flower planting.  Using arcade motifs, the open space and canopy structure started building a vibrant, visual life that inspires people creatively, enjoying those moments of connecting to an authentic living experience of Guangzhou.

Besides the park architecture, the design proposal also looked into tree preservation of the existing vegetation on the bank, incorporating the collective memory of “gathering under a big ficus tree” from the traditional living experience unique to the Guangzhou region.  Either by preserving the big canopy trees or proposing contemporary park structures using the tree metaphor, the design created comfortable places with shade and improved microclimate for a region with hot Summer days.

Constructing thematic urban public spaces for ordinary people’s daily rituals can elevate everyday places into sacred spaces, creating a stronger sense of community memory and pride. As a result of such a “bottom-up” design thinking, the urban public realm can be more activated and filled with life and events. In the Guangzhou Waterfront example, the Vision of transformed riverfront illustrated in the image below shows how diverse programs, human-scaled garden spaces, and various daily living experiences are replacing the formerly troubled transportation infrastructure corridor. New places are highly effective in attracting people to stay, connect and feel part of the culture and community.

Graphics in the article: courtesy of SWA Group and ISA INTERNATIONALES STADTBAUATELIER


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