The Power of Place - Architecture, War, and Memory

Americans at Versailles Palace

Black and white historic photo American soldier Versailles Hall of Mirrors after WWII
Historic photo of WWII American soldier in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 1944. Photo by Bert Brandt, World Telegram & Sun, LC-DIG-ppmsca-13358 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (cropped)

How do you feel when you walk into a vacant room? Do memories come back to you? The ladders and spilled paint? Excited frenzy before a wedding? A first kiss?

One might say that an empty room is rarely empty.

A Soldier's Visit:

World War II photographer Bert Brandt captured the relationship humans have with the spaces they create in the historic image shown here. After the Allies liberated Paris in 1944, Private Gordon Conrey paid a visit to the nearby Palace of Versailles, an opulent French Baroque Chateau several miles outside of Paris, France.

Known simply as Versailles, the Palace and Gardens even to this day hold onto French history, from the rule of an absolute monarchy to the revolution that launched democracy.

So, what went through the mind of this young soldier as he stood in the 17th century Hall of Mirrors? A sense of history? Peace? Rebellion? Transition? The downfall of Marie-Antoinette?

What appears to be a deserted hall was far from empty.

A Place in Versailles:

World War I didn't really end on what the US calls Veterans Day. Ceremonies around the world commemorate the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month as Remembrance Day, Poppy Day, and Armistice Day, but what happened on November 11 was a cease fire. The real end of "the war to end all wars" was the Versailles Treaty, signed on June 28, 1919. Many historians say the Treaty marked the beginnings of World War II.

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles is perhaps the most famous modern event to take place in the Hall of Mirrors, restored to opulent grandeur as La Grande Galerie des Glaces at Chateau de Versailles.

This particular hallway or gallery is still used these days as a meeting place for heads of state—and it's the same room visited by Private Conrey in 1944. It is a place filled with history, spurring the imagination of any onlooker.

What Happens in Versailles Stays in Versailles:

Most simply put in Architecture 101, architecture is about people, places, and things—all interrelated, and all affecting each other.

Like the American soldier standing in the empty Hall of Mirrors, we have the ability to imagine, think, and remember simply by looking at architectural space.

Place will often incite memories. The power of Versailles is that it invokes memories of opulence, revolution, and peace. A room or hallway retains a history of its events, like a reflection that never disappears.

The Power of Place:

You may stand in your child's old bedroom, just as she left it. Her "stuff" is all around—artifacts like yearbooks, too-small sweaters, and first toys. You also can sense the stuff of memories and transitions.

The power of architecture is its endurance—not only in a material, physical sense, but also in the ability to arouse our emotions, associations, and thought processes. Architecture invokes memories and stirs our imaginations.

Social psychologist Margaret H. Myer along with her architect husband John R. Myer explore this intersection of human response to architecture in their 2006 book People & Places: Connections Between The Inner And Outer Landscape. They suggest that with design we can create emotionally comfortable spaces: "a place that has an unclear identity is not a place where we want to be -- just as a person without an identity is someone we avoid." A book that is perhaps too academic for some, the Myers describe a very intimate, psychological connection between humans and their habitats.

"The expressive content of places can be found in all types of spaces and buildings," they conclude.

The interconnection of architecture with human experience is historic and profound. Whenever we design space, we create a place with an identity—a container that will inevitably hold someone's memories. The power of Versailles is that it is a place, and, as long as place exists, memories survive.

Learn More:

Source: People & Places: Connections Between The Inner And Outer Landscape by John R. Myer and Margaret H. Myer, Sandwich Publications, 2006, p. 81.