For a long time your research has been questioning traces of pre-existing architecture seniority and how these objects and their related memories can be reactivated. You coordinated the projects ‘Atlantik Wall Linear Museum’ (2005) and ‘REcall-European Conflict Archaeological Landscape Reappropriation’ (2012) which investigated the architectural and symbolic significance of the track while trying to identify different approaches to difficult heritage. Can you tell us what you mean by ‘reappropriation’ of these spaces/objects/places in order to create active rather than passive, mournful memories?

While developing different European projects I dealt with aspects usually ascribable to material culture in the territory at an European level: culture as the outcome of different elements that constitute heritage (artefacts, architecture, natural elements…) which are object of planning attention in a dynamic of transformations careful to the preservation and understanding of memories and to the awareness of their role in the making of a future structure that will be at the same time bearer of adequate and renewed ways of life and of use of spaces and places. In particular, the cultural and material heritage that wars left behind, both in terms of physical presences and memories, represent a collective and shared memory that is very often considered ‘difficult’ because it is very similar to a scar inflicted on the soul of one’s homeland. The concept of adaptive reuse ensues from the assumption that identities are formed in the correlation and interdependence between places and people(s). Once the interrelations break, a place loses its meaning and people lose their sense of belonging to that place. Places traditionally are the crucibles of people’s identity, the concrete background of people’s actions and life, the prerequisite of the creation of cultures, skills and economies. Place-identity refers to the construction of identity for and by the people(s), through the reference to a place, as well as the construction of identity for a place, through the reference to its materiality: morphology, architectural forms, spaces, objects, artefacts, namely the material heritage that is stratified on the territory. The proposal of our research is waving memory and imagination together: we believe in action (reuse and reappropriation) as a therapy to overcome the never-healed trauma of difficult heritage. In our approach, the military ideology of boundary and control attached to war remains takes on a different meaning through a process of resamantization. By turning borders into occasions of exchange, we open our heritage to the reality of the current European territory, where national boundaries disappear and permeability is both geographical and political.

The project ‘REcall-European Conflict Archaeological Landscape Reappropriation’ (EC Culture Programme 2007-13) ended a few years ago and had as its main objective to stimulate the development of innovative practices for the re-use, valuation and disclosure of the heritage of of 20th-centuryconflicts. Two years after the end of the project can you tell us what has been the most significant outcome? 

Every conflict leaves its own legacy on the built environment. Ruins, rubbles, as well as buildings and infrastructures, mark European landscapes reminding us of a past that most people would rather forget. The Recall research project investigated possible forms of intervention aiming at overcoming the trauma associated with numerous places and stories burdened with mourning memories. Researchers employed strategies based on the acknowledgement of the history of these sites and yet, not reducing or limiting their potential to a commemorative space while overcoming the tendency of forgetting and abandoning these places. The erasure from the collective memory of the image, presence and vitality of an urban space, is a painful act. Reasons for such dissolutions are multiple: ideology, alteration, progress and, in general, change. Architects and designers have the mission to properly question this erasure. They can develop the capacity to turn it into a powerful source of creativity. REcall – European Conflict Archaeological Landscape Reappropriation seeks to create a new role for the architectural environment by investigating the cultural landscapes of WWI and WWII while focussing on the management, documentation and preservation of this difficult heritage. The project deals with heritage as a dynamic process involving the memory of past events that have been refashioned for present-day purposes such as identity, community, legalisation of power and authority. It also seeks to develop sustainable and innovative practices of reusing, assigning value and communicating the 20th-century European Conflict Heritage as a Cultural Landscape. The strength of the project extends beyond the timeliness of its contents as it establishes innovative investigation praxes for contemporary cultural researches. The project proposes a ‘research-by-design’ approach that associates a merely cognitive activity (the traditional theoretical research) with a purely operational one (the design practice). A ‘thinking laboratory’ is thus established avoiding any pre-established method: each author independently defines the scope of his/her practice. Far from being merely experimental in itself, the practice-based approach is particularly suited to this type of research. As a matter of fact, the project is not only an instrument of knowledge, conservation and valorisation of difficult traces diffused on the territory as it opens up a new propositional perspective capable of turning the painful heritage of WWI and WWII into a resource for the construction of a European identity.

Interview by Francesca Lanz, Christopher Whitehead and Michela Bassanelli

*Gennaro Postiglione is Professor of Interior Architecture and Exhibition Design at Politecnico di Milano and Coordinator of the Master of the School of Architecture Urban Planning and Construction Engineering. He researches in the fields of museography and on preserving and diffusing collective memory and cultural identity. He carried out several research projects, among which the research project REcall – European Conflict Archaeological Landscape Reappropriation (September 2012-June 2014).