Places can condense, in a mysterious manner, what time makes visible because they steal and destroy. Chronology becomes a topography of history where you can wander and decipher a piece at a time.

Places of commemoration are profoundly different according to past and present time. In a place of commemoration, history does not keep unfolding thus it is, to a varying degree, violently interrupted. Such a rupture materialises in wrecks and ruins that stand out in the landscape as alienating residues.

Aleida Assmann (1)


In the text Erinnerungsraume: Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedachtnisses  (Remember: Forms and  Changes of  Cultural  Memory) Aleida Asmmann investigates the concept of place as an external mediator of memory. The site still preserves and passes its memory after a period of collective oblivion. It has a special relationship with time. The place changes but remains and for this reason, its memory goes beyond the short-term reminiscence of an individual. It is a latent memory that resurfaces when needed and, if not recalled, remains hidden. Maurice Halbwachs in his text La mémoire collective (The CollectiveMemory) had already examined places as elements capable of accommodating different aspects of society. ‘The place occupied by a group is not a blackboard on which one writes numbers and draws pictures and then wipes them off. How could a blackboard recall what was written on it since it is indifferent to numbers and one could reproduce any number on it? On the contrary, a place nestles the imprint of a group, and viceversa. Therefore, all group practices can be converted into spatial terms and the place the group occupies sums up all these terms’ (Halbwachs 1987, 137).

The theme of memory gained relevance at the end of World War II when cities and landscape emerged as theaters of war with visible traces such as ruins and rubble or invisible ones. These are the ‘contaminated landscape’ (Pollack 2014) or the ‘bloodlands’ described by Roma Sendyka in her text Difficult Heritage of Non-Sites of Memory, that is, places mainly scattered throughout Eastern Europe which hide the traces of terror and have still not been acknowledged by the ‘official’ commemoration system. In some cases, the remains of 20th-century conflicts, still present in our cities and in our country, have already been the subject of reflection and discussion whereas others have been erased by the passage of time or man’s determination. As Sendyka points out, there is a landscape of sites that have been erased from the collective memory and now ‘ask’ to be reconsidered and given a new meaning that is connected to the local communities surrounding them. Absence is the hallmark of these ‘lieux défigurés’ (disfigured places) (Lanzmann 1990). These places are thus characterised by a sense of emptiness and a lack of traces which is also why their memory is removed.

These spaces may be described as naked places (Pirazzoli 2010) while emphasising the one-way relationship between memory and event. The concept of naked place evokes an almost abstract reality; it hints at emotions and sensations arising when crossing a site hit by a catastrophe even if there are no longer any traces of the event. ‘Then, on the naked place, surge layers of memory, uses and reuses – both metaphorical and real – of remains of the event. From crossing these places, layers of memory emerge at different levels, as in a sort of a terrain vague of memory’ (Pirazzoli 2010, 45).

Places, with or without material traces, play a key role in the transmission of memory. As stated by Antonella Tarpino, spaces might be new witnesses in which history and memory blend and allow to go beyond time. ‘Although places are not filled with immanent memory, they are nevertheless very important to the construction of cultural spaces of remembrance. They do not just create long-lasting memories and validate them […] but also embody continuity through time’ (Tarpino 2008, 24). The place, though altered, keeps those traits of authenticity that stimulate shared participation. ‘However, it is not enough to build places that preserve and embalm the past. We must build instead workshops and construction sites that could host new transforming communities and different subjects that use, live and cross the territory, in order to re-establish a fruitful relationship with the reservoirs of memories that lie within those places and go back being not just spectators, but the architects and creators of their destiny’ (Decandia 2011, 191).



(1) Aleida Assmann, Erinnerungsräume: Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1999). It. transl. Ricordare: Forme e mutamenti della memoria culturale (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2002), 43–46.


Decandia, Lidia. 2011. “Ritessere un rapporto con i luoghi: Il museo come laboratorio di pratiche relazionali e interattive di riappropriazione del territorio.” 186-191. In Musei di narrazione: Percorsi interattivi e affreschi multimediali, edited by Fabio Cirifino, Elisa Giardina Papa, Paolo Rosa. Milano: Silvana Editoriale.

Halbwachs, Maurice. 1987.  La Mémoire collective. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Pirazzoli, Elena. 2010. A partire da ciò che resta: Forme memoriali dal 1945 alle macerie del Muro di Berlino. Reggio Emilia: Diabasis.

Tarpino, Antonella. 2008. Geografie della memoria: Case, rovine, oggetti quotidiani. Turin: Einaudi.


Michela Bassanelli is an architect, PhD and independent researcher at Politecnico di Milano. She is contributing to TRACES as a researcher, investigating exhibition design strategies for difficult heritages.