Christine Blasey Ford and the Power of Memorable Architecture

By Ananth Sampathkumar, Partner, NDNY Architecture + Design
Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27th, 2018. Her testimony about the assault on her was both riveting and painful to watch. What made her statements so compelling to me was the clarity of architectural detail in her account. Her recollection included both large-scale landmarks like the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase and some smaller-scale spaces like the living room at the party house, the narrow stairs, and the bathroom across from the bedroom which ended up saving her from her assailants.
The power of iconic architecture to transform sleepy cities into world class destinations is well known, from the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain to the Sydney Opera House in Australia. However, the potential of everyday structures in shaping our memories is discussed much less. Familiar architecture plays a vital role in how we relate to our surroundings and remember events. Your local library, church, and even the corner bodega are all visual clues that subconsciously ground your experiences to a place. Some architectural theorists have gone as far as to say that our memories are only as good as our buildings.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of a single-story morgue on the medical campus where I grew up. The campus was a live-work community that allowed the doctors to be in close proximity to the hospitals where they worked. As kids, we roamed freely between the medical and residential sides. The windowless mortuary had a beautiful brise-soliel, and a long entry ramp that was the main attraction for me. The ramp enabled attendants to wheel cadavers in and out of the building easily, but was also one of the few places where my friends and I could test our skating skills. The unusual association of cadavers, skating, and a ramp is probably why this memory has stuck with me.
Unique spaces can also help us remember things. The Method of Loci was a mnemonic technique adopted in ancient Greece and Rome that used the familiarity of place, whether real or imaginary, and associated it with the things one was trying to remember. This technique has been practiced by many memory contest champions including the 2006 USA Memory Champion Joshua Foer. His book Moonwalking with Einstein details how he created a familiar route, placed important items along the way, and associated some feature from each location with the object. This technique helped Joshua set a new record for recalling the sequence of a deck of 52 cards. Go ahead and give it a try—picture walking through your childhood school, then visualize a number you are trying to remember stuck to the side of the fetid water cooler in the cafeteria. Every time you want to remember that number all you have to do is recall where in your virtual path you left it. The route matters as well, especially if you are trying to elicit things in a sequence.
Interior and exterior spaces (whether magnificent or mediocre) matter, especially when it comes to our recollection. The West Village is steeped in old and new architectural constructs. The next time you take a stroll on one of the cobbled streets, try harnessing the power of its visual cues to create vivid memories for yourself.

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