Could narrative be placemaking’s secret superpower?
Something’s changing in the way we conceive and construct places — and it’s not just creative, it’s narrative. The million dollar questions still apply: how do you make a place with soul, a sense of identity, a place that truly means something? I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a hunch. I think narrative could be placemaking’s secret superpower, so I’ve started an interview series, Local Legends, to explore how and why.
Stories may sound soft but they’re mighty. I’m not alone in thinking this. The design platform Common Edge recently made a plea to ‘put the narrative back into architecture.’ Tim Waterman of the University of Greenwich has called for landscape architects to avoid one-liners and embrace the complexities of stories. And developer Martyn Evans has rallied for architects to master the art of storytelling. But ‘telling’ is not the same as ‘making’ so how do we build with narrative?
Story is a spatial tool that I’ve designed with for years. At RAA — the exhibition design studio where I honed these skills — we transformed content into physical experiences that spoke of a culture and society. Before that I people-watched with anthropologists in the plazas of Barcelona — studying design for public space and observing how everyday life played out with more drama than a telenovela. Through experience, I know that creating a space around content has emotional impact. And I’ve seen how places communicate their narratives through the public realm. So what if we went bigger and connected these two worlds? What if we applied this story-driven design approach to the way we create places?
Finding this ‘lingua franca’ is the starting point for Local Legends — a research project that sets out to establish the value of storytelling in placemaking, and how to use narrative to make better places.
By better I mean places with spirit. With character. Places that build belonging. These are huge concepts, and if you’ve got deadlines to meet chances are you don’t have time to explore them, let alone go about making them.
Sense of place is not a line item. When I talk to local governments and masterplanners, agents and developers, they’re often excited but somewhat bewildered by how to use stories. While they know a story makes a place stand out, there’s a tendency to step aside and hand it to the marketeers and public artists once the design process is over. And that’s too late.
Why the disconnect? It’s a mismatch: ‘soft stuff’ operating in a world that’s (literally) concrete. The two modes of thinking are oil and water. But if the story remains on the surface its impact is only skin deep, and its value won’t have come to fruition. Balancing these conflicts is where narrative enters the scene.
It’s human nature to use story to understand the world and our place in it — our mode of translating between a culture (the soft) and its context (the hard). Narrative is our common language. It draws together different voices around a universal vision. It helps us navigate complexity. It thrives on conflict — good news in resolving opposing agendas. And don’t underestimate it’s entertainment value. Narrative captivates.
Used it with flair and this approach can reinvent failing cities, create consensus and build belonging. But it’s still a nascent art that few employ. In London, masterplanners JTP have embraced narrative in creating the Placebook, a visionary guide to the development of Battersea Power Station; Muf practise this brilliantly in the guise of architecture/art. Central St Martin’s explores the frontiers through its MA in Narrative Environments, and some of their savviest students are providing insights to this project.
But places aren’t just the domain of those that build. And let’s face it, even the most charismatic of architects or designers doesn’t pack movie theatres or sell out print runs.
So perhaps it’s time placemakers learnt how to tell an epic tale from those that do it best. And you’ll be surprised at who that is.
Each of us has the capacity to be brilliant storytellers about place. We are all innately connected to places and define our lives through the tales we tell about them: our nationality, the neighbourhood we grew up in, or the landscapes we travel to. This is a profound art, with roots so deep we take them for granted. But it’s an art we have to decipher to bring its value to the fore.
There’s a pool of talent we can learn from to figure out how this connection works. Unite the cinematographers, poets, travel writers and street vendors of this world with the community planners, developers and landscape architects, and you’ve got an inimitable mix: a powerful and poetic understanding that’s ready to supercharge placemaking.
Bringing together storytellers and placemakers is the premise of Local Legends. The research sets out to define a new perspective and a process — narrative placemaking — based on the notion that something as simple as a story adds immense value to our cities, landscapes and destinations.
What makes a great story?
How do you dig deep to find a place’s genuine narrative?
How can you use content as a material to design and craft a place?
When do you invite in those who belong there to make the story their own?
The project aims to respond to these questions by:
Listening to expert storytellers and placemakers — interviews with legends in their own fields: from an Oscar-nominated cinematographer in New York to a disaster reconstruction expert in Paris; from an archeologist changing perceptions about Mongolia to a curator building character through art in London’s Olympic Park.
Looking at places defined by story — analysing legendary locales, from the spellbinding Forest of Fontainebleau in France, the glory and tragedy of Mexico City’s Tlatelolco, or the hustle of New York’s Navy Yards.
Learning from this community — distilling insight into new tools, tactics and techniques, to create a connected community and a more established practice.
If you work with narrative (or want to), know a locale or a project that does, join the conversation — the story won’t write itself after all.