Burnt buildings and Gothic cathedrals: some thoughts on buildings and the memory of place

The loss of historic buildings is occurring with increasing frequency, whether through deliberate demolition or accidental destruction. The recent fire in Belfast’s Bank Buildings was a significant loss to the city, as this was an iconic building within the city centre. The large red-brick building is currently owned by Primark clothes shop and renovations were almost complete in the modern extension to the rear of the building.  The building has had a number of functions of the decades, one of which was the bank that gave the building its name, and, like most buildings, has undergone renovations and restorations. What has been evident in the discussions of this in the media is that it is not necessarily the physical material of the building that is important, but people’s perceptions of it. I’ll discuss our perceptions of materiality in another blog post, but here I want to focus on memory and experiences. Jake O’Kane has discussed this in a lot more engaging narrative than I could in his column in the Irish News. This made me think about how we experience buildings. One of the reasons that this building was so important to generations of Belfast residents was their individual and collective memories of interacting with the building. Many people will have entered the building to do their shopping, met with friends or had friends and relatives who worked in the building. These engagements and memories give the building a special place in our social memory. The fact that it is interactions that are important, rather than architecture, suggests why a building can change slowly over time with little complaints but a sudden alteration or its destruction can cause a massive public outcry.
Surely this can not be a modern phenomenon? Medieval people must have had a similar relationship with their buildings. Taverns were where you met with other townsfolk or villagers, and probably never saw lords and aristocrats. While churches were where all levels of society were visible, even if they didn’t interact, and were the setting for many important life milestones for the people of the community, such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Manorial farmyards were places where many villagers would have come together to work for the lord, so there was probably some comradery between the workers and memorable incidents and friendships. Thus buildings within Medieval settlements and towns will have been imbued with similar connotation as we place on modern buildings. And Medieval people were probably as likely to be shocked by massive changes in the appearance of buildings, such as the initial adoption of Gothic architecture. I recently visited the cathedral of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The shock of the visual effect of the huge amounts of decoration and the scale must be similar to that experienced by Medieval people when their Romanesque cathedral was extended or rebuilt in Gothic. We often think of lords wishing to make an impression of their wealth, authority, and international connections, or masons developing advanced techniques to ensure the buildings stood. What we rarely think about is how the villagers or townspeople felt when they saw their church being rebuilt in a modern style. It is likely that the people of the Middle Ages had similar thoughts to us when important buildings within the built environment change. New architecture and the removal of memories probably provoked similar reactions in the Middle Ages as they do today. Buildings archaeologists need to remember that modern thought is really not that modern and that how we experience buildings has many parallels with how Medieval people experienced their buildings.

One thought on “Burnt buildings and Gothic cathedrals: some thoughts on buildings and the memory of place

  1. Pingback: Brunt Buildings, Part 2: an unwanted sequel – Medieval Buildings & Settlement

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