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Performative and Mnemonic Architectural Memory: The Medhat Haroun Atrium





A giant, yet majestic chandelier beset with 50 domed lights resembling a celestial orb dominates as the centerpiece in this space and the design clearly draws the eye upwards to the highest point in the School of Science and Engineering. Several panels of exquisite Mashrabeya also adorn the room as an intriguing architectural element. While other wooden forms could have been chosen, the Mashrabeya was a conscious choice for its natural beauty and resistance to unwanted glare and thermal discomfort in desert climates like Egypt.  Mashrabeya also provides shading and diffuses natural light (Sedky, 2009) by eliminating unwanted direct solar penetration. In such a tranquil setting, it is not surprising to find students taking naps on the settees during the early morning hours or following a full day of classes and mid-term examinations.  This is the Medhat Haroun Atrium that invites an in-depth study into the architectural language of memorial spaces. John Ruskin’s influential The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), devotes an entire chapter to the ‘lamp of memory’, in which he argues that the glory of buildings lies in their ‘age’, in their lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things.” Ruskin foregrounds that architecture is not just an artform but rather -- memory is architecture.  Within this construct, the objects in the Atrium serve as a logical and sequential manifestation of our memories of Medhat Haroun, ranging from humility, cerebral excellence, geometrical prominence and celestial nobility.  

Inscribed on a plague in the Atrium reads:

 In memory of a pioneering engineer, beloved teacher, imaginative administrator, loyal colleague and faithful friend.

Given the highly interpretive nature of memorial sites, the aim here is to include several avenues for investigation, which address design, purpose and the interpretations formed about the Atrium. In this context, approaching specific design ideas, with an awareness of how people might respond to material stimuli, can bring to light how architectural spaces can move and inspire us.

The Atrium also serves as the basis for a larger narrative that acknowledges how architectural memory inspires us to create or re-create a vision about our thoughts of others.  That narrative makes visible our past while simultaneously informs and enriches our present.  At some deeper level we may view the Medhat Haroun Atrium as a design, which works as an autobiographical text, since design often manifests into some form of identity in physical creations. While grounded in the disciplines of rhetoric, architecture and cultural history, this language of space is alive.  It is ours to examine, learn from, nurture, interrogate and transmit. 

Maurice Halbwachs’ On Collective Memory (1992) claimed “…memory is not like a private chamber within the individual consciousness – a storehouse for personal recollections – but is more a process of reconstruction: an activity of localization and configuration functioning essentially from and within socially elaborated frames or reference systems (language, divisions of time and space.)”  Architectural memory can participate in this process to re-articulate external material for the manufacturing of memory.  For Halbwach, it is these material reference points that describes how memory is allowed to exist: essentially outside the mind. The Atrium is therefore a physical place of remembrance; a place where people can honor and pay tribute to our former Provost, and in doing so, we can form an understanding of the legacy he has left to AUC. In this way memorials play a role of representing. The presence of a memorial allows for what Halbwach describes as a public place of commemoration, “nurturing the basic human need to live in time and recognizable place,” which also allows us to live in someone else’s time with whom we may have continuity. Halbwachs also argues that memory exists as material mnemonic evidence in space: “…like an immobile image of time…there is no collective memory that does not unfold in a spatial framework… [Space] is an enduring reality: each of our impressions banishes the one that came before, nothing remains in our mind, and there would be no way of understanding the past, if it did not in effect preserve itself in the material surroundings.”

The next time you enter The Medhat Haroun Atrium, take a moment to examine this beautiful space.  Determine if you can envision a coherent autobiographical narrative. Ask yourself: in what ways does the Atrium enunciate an extraordinary resonance about Provost Haroun?

References

Halbwachs, M. (1992).  On Collective Memory.  Chicago: U of Chicago Press.

Ruskin, J. (2001).  The Seven Lamps of Architecture.  London: Electric Book Co.

Sedky, A. (2009). Living with Heritage in Cairo: Area Conservation in the Arab Islamic City.  Cairo: AUC Press. Retrieved from http://lib.aucegypt.edu