Material Memory

Senses can trigger our memory, but can memory trigger our senses?


My grandfather used to tell us stories of the war and his march from Omaha Beach to Berlin.  With Levi Garrett chewing tobacco clenched between his teeth and a pack of Silva Thins in the breast pocket of his short-sleeved polyester pearl snap shirt, he’d slowly wade back and forth along the edge of the pool behind his home in Dallas, Texas; my brothers and I following, hanging on every word.

“…Just as we emerged from our snow-covered foxhole, a Nazi fighter plane crashed landed and came to a crunching halt not 20-feet from where we stood.”

After a quick glance to make sure my grandmother wasn’t looking, he’d spit a little tobacco into the water and smile at us mischievously from behind the stubble on his face that always seemed to catch a bit of the brown saliva.  With one hand he’d quickly wave the surface of the water until the evidence disappeared, while the other took a drag from his cigarette and ashed it over the wet concrete edge tucked underneath his arm.

“…And as we looked on in complete disbelief,” he’d continue, “the pilot stumbled out from his cockpit, jumped down off the front of the planes wing, looked at us in equal disbelief, grabbed the Luger pistol strapped to his hip, tossed it right to me, turned, and ran off into the woods.”

While relishing in these memories I noticed something interesting; I could still feel the materials surrounding the scene–aware in the present, reminded by the memory.  I remember the polished texture of the cool concrete lip edge of the pool; how it became smooth when wet and dusted with black cigarette ash.  I remember the hot paved area just beyond this; its rough texture created with pebble inlay, absorbing water and moisture perfect for bare footed traction, and heated under the intense Texas summer sun.  I remember the resilient St. Augustine grass that surrounded the paved areas; thick, rough and stiff from generations of evolutionary adaptation to its environment; the broad, densely packed blades hard to the touch but welcomed escape from the scalding pavement.  I remember the soft wood fence that defined the backyard space, and the splinters it left in my hands.  I remember the silver stainless steel kitchen sink, with brown and red bits, that collected the wooden slivers my grandmother pulled out, and the linoleum floor I would wince at from between my imprisoned arm above and failing legs below, scarred from boots and southern cooking.  And it made me wonder.

polished concrete

pebble inlay

st augustine grass

wood fence

stainless steel


It’s often said that smell is the strongest sense tied to memory, and I certainly agree with that.  Smell triggers memory more vividly and quicker than anything else I know of.  It’s the best example of sense producing thought.  But my material memory is an entirely different thing.  It’s the inverse actually; an example of thought producing sense.

So what implications does this have for design?  Are there any?  How might this realization be utilized when researching and selecting materials?  Can it be?  Perhaps there are no implications or utilizations; it may just be the unavoidable result of developing young minds and the material world that bombards them.  But I believe that it is just another example of the responsibilities that architects have; we design facilitators of memory, and we should at least attempt to design with this thought in mind.  I’m not proposing that we use “better” materials in order to produce “better” memories; that would be rather ridiculous.  I’m only trying to fuel thought and discussion, through my own personal realizations; that architects and designers pay attention to their senses now in order to understand how they will be perceived later.  Even if only just by me.


Grady Lamar Holley

R . H. Holley


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