I am a forgetful person. If it isn’t my keys that I can’t find, it’s my wallet; and I can’t tell you how many times I have walked out of a restaurant with someone chasing me down to return the sunglasses I had left on the table. I guess it’s a good thing my taste in sunglasses isn’t more universally appropriate or I would have had to replace them many times over. My partner tells me that if my head wasn’t attached, I would lose that too. Occasionally, I’m convinced that I have lost my mind, but that’s a different conversation entirely.
There are ways that people like me deal with this. We always try and put things in the same place (the keys go in a stainless bowl by the door) and when that inevitably fails, we mentally (sometimes physically) retrace our steps until a point when we last remember having whatever it is that we’ve lost.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled across an interview on NPR.[i] The host was interviewing author Joshua Foer about his new book titled “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.” I won’t spoil the book, but one of the more fascinating discussions was that of a Memory Palace. Defined, a memory palace is an ancient Roman mnemonic device that relies on memorized spatial relationships to establish order and recollect memorial content.[ii] In the book, the author describes the experience of taking a deck of cards and mentally walking through a familiar space, depositing the cards one by one as he walks. One just inside the front door, one tacked to the refrigerator; until all 52 playing cards have been placed in mentally familiar places. By simply re-tracing the path through the space in his mind, he is able to remember the order of all 52 cards in the deck.
Admittedly, the example above is more about the cards than it is the space, but ruminate on the implications of just the spatial piece of the exercise. Consider the influence we have as (will be) architects. We have a tremendous opportunity when we remember that everything that is imagined is influenced by things that are tangible. I bet each one of you can get to the bathroom or the refrigerator at 3 am without ever flipping a light switch. We know how many steps to take from the side of the bed before we have to turn left. And while some Palaces are formed from motor memory and the repetitive nature of living, others stick out in our minds because they are truly incredible spaces. Whether it is a virtual block by block walk down 16th Street Mall recalling every store front, or “walking” through your favorite museum recalling the minute details of each of the exhibits, someone has created an exceptional space or experience that you have assumed as your Palace. Keep this in mind as your designs develop and ask yourself the question; “Is this a special experience that someone will want to mentally revisit?” Let’s give people some good raw material to work with.
Now where are my keys?