Pivotal to a discussion of architecture, memory and place is the importance of our material world. That we have materiality is no small factor in evaluating the role it plays in our lives. Let me begin with a discussion of the nature of making physical a place, and at the same time, what it means to possibly know a place, physically. Portbou is a remote town on the Costa Brava, at the northeastern edge of Spain. An active border-crossing before Europe became unified, Portbou is now a sleepy village. The coastline that traces both sides of the French-Spanish border is bare and mountainous, rugged and untamed. Whitewashed villages lodged between cliffs lace the edge of the sea from Cap Creus to Cap Béar, epitomizing maritime beauty while they conceal the disquiet of history. Close by, in the tunnel, under what was the border until 1995, a change of trains used to be required because of the gauge difference between French and Spanish trains. During World War II, endless delays were caused by searches conducted while travellers disembarked and re-boarded at the border crossing.1 Travel and, ultimately, destiny, were suspended. This place has shifted from being a border town to one that no longer has a frontier function, but carries the formidable weight of being both a fishing village with a quiet beach, and the place of Walter Benjamin’s death. Switches and whistles, flotsam sprays, whirling eddies and winds animate the simplicity and deceptive calm of this landscape with its history of train crossings and escape. Portbou is most familiar to those who know the story of Benjamin’s history there, and for those who travel to pay tribute to the philosopher at his memorial place. On a promontory at the tip of the extended arms of the cove, as a prelude to the town’s cemetery is where Passages, Homage to Walter Benjamin (1990-1994) by Dani Karavan begins. In a letter to Jean Selz, the philosopher and friend of Benjamin, Theodor Adorno wrote of what he was told about Benjamin’s last hours:

We think that it was 26 September 1940. Benjamin had crossed over the Pyrenees with a small group of emigrants to take refuge in Spain. This group was intercepted at Portbou by Spanish police, who told them that they would be sent back to Vichy the next day. In the night, Benjamin swallowed a massive dose of sleeping pills and opposed the care they offered him.2