Narrative and Architecture
Pieter Beer, Daan Jenniskens, Matthijs Riezebos, Wouter Hilhorst, Jasper Brus, Loes Veldpaus, Paul Kersten, Niels Groeneveld, Floor Frings, Margit van Schaik, Raoul Vleugels and Jacob Voorthuis met at the Effenaar in Eindhoven on the 3rd of February 2015.
We ordered drinks (Hertog Jan, Dark Leffe, red wine) and talked a bit about the Biennale in Venice as we waited for everyone to arrive. Pieter had enjoyed the exhibition enormously and felt the criticisms various reviewers had brought against it were unfair. We were happy to acquiesce in his expertise and then it was time to begin. The salient rules of the club were explained to the newcomers. Then Raoul brought in the theme. He read out a quotation used by the Symposium ‘Against the Grain’ about narrative architecture, which was held in Maastricht under the auspices of Bureau Europa and The University of Aachen in January.
Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” The Sandman, Neil Gaiman
It had been a really enjoyable symposium by the way, where I had very much enjoyed listening to Patricia Austen, Klaske Havik and Koen Deprez. As Raoul hadn’t been able to attend, he wanted to know more about the idea of narrative architecture. Of course this wasn’t the event to tell the story of the symposium.
The following is a rough sketch of the evening as I am not sure I remember everything that was said, nor the order that it was said in. What Raoul wanted in any case was a definition of narrative. He wanted to know how to use the relationship between architecture, its design and the possible roles that stories play in that process. That became the central theme of the discussion.
After a bit of finding our way, we decided it was necessary to establish some sort of order in the conversation. And so we attempted to establish a typology regarding the relationship between narrative and architecture by asking the question: In what ways can narrative be involved with buildings or with design? There are of course many possibilities but we could bring the whole thing back to a few of particular interest: we can talk about stories directing the design of buildings in some way; we can talk about buildings telling a story; we can talk about buildings being a story (Someone, was it Daan, protested that this was the same as buildings telling a story but Paul was not sure that it was, so we let it stand); we can talk about buildings being the cause of stories to be made or being part of a larger story.
Having established this incomplete typology, we decided that we didn’t really know what telling a story involved. How do you tell a story, what is involved? How, for instance, is demonstrating something or showing someone something different to telling a story? We took Niels as our guinea pig, and there he sat at the table with a glass of beer. Why did we not mention he was wearing a blue jersey? Why did we fail to mention a million other things that we could have focused on in telling what Niels was doing? Any of these things might have been picked up upon by others if we had merely said: ‘Look there!’ and then pointing in the direction of Niels, sitting there at the table in the café, with his beer and his blue jersey and the myriad other things we could have told about the image in front of us.
Jasper offered that telling a story is about bringing the past into the present. A story should always be of the formula: this is what happened. It is by nature selective simply because we select what is salient about something that happened. A story has to be selective, otherwise the information overload becomes too much to bear. That is fair enough. But then it was felt by Niels, I believe, that the Futurists, for instance, tell stories about the future. And that too is true.
However, in telling stories about the future, are they not telling stories about what happened to the past to make the story of the future carry meaning? Are they still not obeying the formula: This is what happened? And merely adding to it: And so this will happen if we are not careful, or: This should happen if we want to save ourselves, or something to that effect. Did they not insist on erecting their Cittá Nuova on the ruins of Venice to make appoint about the past? And would they not have to have a story about why they thought (past tense) that to be a good idea? In telling the story of the Cittá Nuova, they would have had to tell what happened to make the Cittá possible and they would place that story in the past tense in some fictional future. The threat: We shall destroy Venice and we shall erect La Cittá Nuova on its ruins, requires some sort of justification. That justification comes in the form of a narrative. The narrative would have to at least imply why they would want to do such a thing and why they thought that would be a good idea.
Margit read us a piece by Rakatansky, Tectonic Acts of desire and doubt, in which he talks of a house being inscribed by its users and uses. That the arrangement, size and proportions of elements and furniture tell a story about the people living in such a house. Here is the text:
'If we examine any type of domestic architecture for example, we will find already inscribed within the architecture a complex array of mentalities and practices concerning the relations between genders, between parents and children, between inside and outside, between what is supposed to be public and private, between what is supposed to be seen, smelled or heard and what is not, and so forth. The hierarchy and degree of definition of spaces, their relative size and location, and the subarchitectural apparatuses of each space (furniture, appliances, media devices) - all of these are defined by and in turn give definition to the social and psychological narratives that influence the behaviours (encouraged, allowed, discouraged or forbidden) associated with each space.' From: 'Spatial Narratives' in: Mark Rakatansky, Tectonic Acts of Desire and Doubt', p. 78.
And Raoul backed this up by reading us a short excerpt by Bart Verschaffel about the narrative of domesticity.
Madeleine Akrich had written similar things about objects being inscribed with the values a society holds. In these ways each building is a story about values, a heterotope inscribed with values, norms and habits which tell us about the society the building is part of. But if we allow that, stories become almost like languages and that seems illegitimate. Sure, a language is similarly inscribed with our values, take for instance the way we, without thinking say: men and women, placing women behind the men. This is something Derrida picked up upon and made his thing. But is the way a language and a building are inscribed with values the same as telling a story? You need language to tell a story, but a story is surely not a language; language is used to tell a story. However, as Loes and Raoul remarked, you need a whole world and a life to have a language and only if you understand and are immersed in the language sufficiently, can you make something of the story. Language and story are so intimately bound together that they cannot usefully be separated without doing violence to either. A story is given its colour, tone, texture and shape through the way language is inscribed by value and norm. But then is that not the same for a building? Does a building not provide the equivalent of language to the stories that emerge from the building, or indeed the stories that we used, to create the building? Is the building not made through the stories that circulate about it? Does the story not become the thing against which every experience is measured, creating further stories?
Things are negotiations between the world and its behaviour and what we make of that behaviour in relation to us. A thing is its story in so far as we take the thing with us as a story or an account of that thing and use it to build our lives. We walk through a building interacting with it and behaving according to the possibilities and limitations it affords and imposes and then we deliver our judgments in the form of stories. And that is what the building becomes in our mind: our judgment of it. And what we find, works something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. What we say about it is how we see it and how we see it determines how we make use of it. And if that becomes the story, then that is what the building becomes to us. And once a building has become a story it may be hard to change that story. You need a radical shift in perspective or a radical change in the building itself for the building to become a different story. Saul Kripke had done work on something comparable in Naming and Necessity: once a name is given, it sticks and becomes the coordinate by which things can be measured relative to it. What is true for names is perhaps no less true for stories, except that stories evolve.
What has an architect to do with these stories? What story or how much of a story does an architect need to know in order to design a building? What kind of question is this? It is not an easy question as it appears to question the nature of our world. We could say we might have half a story, or the complete story. But if we say that, we have fallen into a trap. However you look at it, every story is a complete story, however narrow its focus, or however slovenly its delivery, however incomplete or reductive it is. Every story is complete just as every life is a complete life. The life of a baby is a complete life, the life of a handicapped person is a complete life. Only when compared to another life might we become conscious of something that might be missing, that we might want to be part of our story, or our life. But that does not make our life less complete, as a life. And this is a profound truth. The house drawn by a young child is charming even though one might not find it very convenient to live in it if it were built. And this is so, partly because we have a great deal of experience with houses. We know that the house of a child will probably not have taken account of the sophistication that domestic life can acquire in its arrangements. I would prefer to have my house designed by someone who has a more sophisticated understanding of dwelling and I would welcome it, were he to look at the problem of dwelling with the freshness of a child. That is what makes designing a richer experience. I am sure that a life with a smaller world and a smaller language could design perfectly adequate things. And I am also sure that such a person would be able to derive great pleasure from a good building. After all the stories used by the designer are complementary to the stories made of the building by the person undergoing it. A richer story is simply that, richer, fuller of experience. I would therefore prefer to have a designer who has a good story to design for me and who can make that story come true in his design.
Paul then said yes but I do not always want a story. I get tired of stories. I sometimes just want to get on with stuff without having to be made subject to a story. This tiredness is an important problem to deal with. It is recognisable. Niels compared it to walking through a street and being bombarded with advertisements and surplus information. Such tiredness might be a cause for us to enjoy the aesthetics of minimalism: the desire to live in a kind of conceptual silence without being constantly ‘disturbed’ by information. Such a minimalism focuses the mind on the matter in hand, and reduces us to the Benedictine ideal of giving all your attention to what is at hand at this moment. It stops your attention wandering. Another reason to explain this tiredness might be the wish not to have to think about things, a laziness in other words, a wish to be immersed in a story of which you are yourself not even conscious; you are merely living in space, behaving and acting and not stepping back reflectively to take stock by making a story about what you are doing. You become, what Heidegger might describe as ‘dangerously absorbed’ by the things about you; you are like a leaf prehending the wall as it is blown along the breeze that is given its direction and character by the wall. In such a mood your behaviour is that of someone familiar with his surroundings to such an extent that his acting in those surroundings becomes intuitive and largely silent. Such absorption is delightful, it is what T.E. Lawrence described as happiness. So both ways of Paul being tired of stories are enlightening.
Familiarity does not get rid of the story but makes the story part of an intuitive and practised response, so that one does not have to give that response one’s full attention. Familiar stories are what buildings tell when they are part of a community and try to tell us what they are about. And so we arrived at the duck and the decorated shed of Robert Venturi, whereby the duck tells us through its whole appearance what it is about and the decorated shed is a generic shed with a specific message written on it or on a billboard close enough to make the connections. Niels put to us the question which a transparent building is, with glass facades, lit from within so that, for instance, you could clearly see policemen at work, wearing police uniforms and generally behaving like policemen (whatever that means…), so that you would know that the building concerned a police station. We weren’t sure what to make of this transparent box, which, in the sense that it was a generic box appeared to belong to the decorated shed category, but, because it delivered its message about policeman working there by showing the policeman working there, it would also seem to qualify as a Duck.
And then, I am not sure who it was (Peter, Matthijs, Daan?) said but wait a minute, this is not about being a police station, it is about the client wanting transparency and having a story about wanting the police to be a transparent and open institution, it is about propaganda! So we agreed that a story is attached to a language which is attached to a community negotiating meaning with each other. A building telling what it is about may be concerned with expressing its programmatic function, but may also embody the aspirations of that program or the aspirations of the community or owner of the building. It may even have the specific purpose of lying about these things, deliberately telling false stories, or telling false stories in the hope that they become self-fulfilling prophecies. I told the strange story of the beginning of architecture, about the first architect, Imhoteb, who became a god with special healing powers, but who, when he was still an ordinary architect, was commissioned by King Zoser, the great unifier of upper and lower Egypt, to build a necropolis with fake houses and fake rooms and fake doors and real windows opening out from a small room where Zoser’s Ka, sculpture containing his soul, could sit and look out for all eternity, and how the King wanted a racing track built so that the priests could, with a little help, demonstrate that the king was alive and well running around the race track as a mummy, helped by his priests. This is architecture telling a story in virtual spaces, a story that would be incomprehensible without the accompanying beliefs of the Egyptians who wanted this building and their King come alive in their use of it. It is an architecture in which the story is a story of power and hope: architecture trying to extend Zoser’s power beyond the grave.
And that is helpful as that made the problematic role of the medium come to light. As Floor rightly remarked, in telling the story you reshape it. In fact, because you receive what you are told into the context of your own experience, your own situation and your own ability to make sense of things, being told a story is in fact the same as remaking or re-producing that story in your experience of it. And if that is true then statements are enough to make stories, just as demonstrations or the showing of something is enough to make a story.
We show something, we make some sort of statement and that demonstration or statement is received by a person. And that person receives it into his experience of things and into the web of thoughts he is at that moment concerned with and into the spatial context he finds himself in at that moment and with those raw materials he must necessarily make a story. Why necessarily? Because he must place what he is being told in relation to himself and ignoring something is the degré zero of doing just that. The story someone makes is their way of placing themselves relative to their environment. You remake stories you are told, statements made and things shown, such as buildings, into a story or narrative. In other words you are never a neutral medium. Everyone makes stories and with those stories does stuff and makes sense of stuff. The story you tell, the story you make, tells people about you although what it says about you is not always clear. Moreover it is interpreted and reshaped into someone else’s story as it is disseminated. I was reminded of a story told me by my friend Raoul Snelders about the medicine men in the Dogon.
Depending on who is listening he will have different stories to tell about why he is sacrificing the chicken in that rather unpleasant way of his. To friends and intimates he may confess that he does it to keep the women quiet so that they leave him in peace. The women, he knows, are afraid of such magical rituals. But to the women themselves he will say: beware, I shall put a spell on you! Receivers make their own story and become senders of their own creation which is then remade and reshaped in the images the story evokes even though the actual words may well remain the same.
We were tired. We paid for our drinks and left. It had been a good talk.
Contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
copyright © jacob voorthuis 1994-2015
All written material on this page is copyrighted.
Please cite Jacob Voorthuis as the author and Voorthuis.net as the publisher.