/ Chris Simmonds / Places to live

In Moby Dick, his magnum opus, Melville makes the case that true monuments are never completed, with only ‘small erections’ ever realised in their entirety. It is not too great a leap to consider buildings as these minor individual compositions and the city the great concerto. Never complete, but no worse for it. Indeed, it is the persistent layering of ideas, trends and technologies that make our cities such rich and involving environments.

This layering is traced through the remains of each successive contribution, with the most accomplished or valued works preserved and managed for future generations. But what of the rest? The secondary works that fill in the blanks between these grand edifices, significant to many of those for whom they formed an integral part of everyday life, though inconsequential in the general discourse of architectural theory.

Duchamp’s urinal/fountain supposed that an object’s context has a considerable bearing on how it is perceived. The massive stone retaining walls at our Barclay Street housing project, commonplace and unremarkable 100 years ago, now stand as a relic from a bygone era against clean, precise brick and concrete. A pragmatic decision to work with what was there rather than engage in a comprehensive remodelling of the landscape now shows this piece of ancient engineering in a different light, transported through time to steady the ground for future generations.

These walls have a story. Fragments of urban history, each with a unique perspective, each a minor social commentary, lost forever unless we consider their value beyond historical record or listing. A palimpsest, our cities must proudly bear the scars of their past, good and bad. The alternative – a sort of calculated amnesia – risks making the same mistakes all over again.

The ways in which we might choose to do this are many and varied as these hidden stories. Delicate, rigorous and archaeological, such as EMBT’s residential refurbishments in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, or the bold, analytical and philosophical intervention the Croft Lodge Studio by Kate Darby and David Connor, this year’s AJ Small Project winner.

Scotland’s considerable inheritance of substantial built fabric has meant that our own work frequently faces the conundrum of what should be retained and how we might pay tribute to the past whilst adding our own layer. The question we ask today is; how do we truly evaluate the significance of what has gone before?