Storytelling is as old as the hills. Even before the help of writing, universal myths were shaped by the oral tradition. Narratives enabled phenomena powered by the unseen forces of nature to be ‘explained’, and corralled into a system of beliefs. Their overarching themes lie at the heart of the major religions. Narratives that personify ethical or existential questions have profoundly shaped our understanding of space; these mythical tales and parables have the power to mediate between the spatial configuration of the universe, of heaven and hell, and the everyday world and its reality of survival, sustenance and territory. Within the framework of these spatial geometries, narratives can engage with the medium of space, and form the basis on which architecture can be given meaning.
With roots in the Latin verb ‘narrare’, a narrative organises events of a real or fictional nature into a sequence recounted by the ‘narrator’. Along with exposition, argumentation and description, the narration is one of four categories of rhetoric. The constructed format of a narrative can extend beyond speech to poetry, singing, writing, drama, cinema and games. Narration shapes and simplifies events into a sequence that can stimulate the imagination, and with its understanding comes the possibility of the story being retold – verbally, pictorially or spatially. Though they may involve shifts of time, location and circumstance as the dynamics of a plot unfold, for the viewer or the reader, stories progress along a sequential trajectory.
In architecture the linearity of the narrative function dissolves as the spatial dimension interferes with time. In architectural space coherent plot lines or prescribed experiential sequences are unusual. The narrative approach depends on a parallel code that adds depth to the basic architectural language. In a conventional narrative structure, events unfold in relation to a temporal metre, but in architecture the time element is always shifting in response to the immutability of the physical structure. While permanence should be celebrated as a particularly architectural quality, inevitably we should be curious about its opposite. The difference between a mere image and a work of art lies partly in its endurance – of existence but also of meaning. In architecture, that endurance is both positive and negative, depending on whether the public buys into it or not.
The various physical parts of a space signify as a result of the actions – and experiences – of the participant, who assembles them into a personal construct. The narrative coefficient resides in a system of triggers that signify poetically, above and in addition to functionality. Narrative means that the object contains some ‘other’ existence in parallel with its function. This object has been invested with a fictional plane of signification that renders it fugitive, mercurial and subject to interpretation. If a conventional narrative in a work of fiction binds characters, events and places within an overarching plot framework, in an environment narrative carries all of the above, but the fictional or self-constructed might be tested against physical reality. Narrative‘fictionalises’ our surroundings in an accentuation of explicit ‘reality’.
Narrative and the city consciousness
If in Britain we saw the use of narrative begin as a countryside sensibility in the 18th century, by the 20th century it was more strongly embedded as an urban experience. This desire to imitate literary landscapes suited the English, whose approach to power had by the mid-18th century evolved into a gentlemanly language that listened as well as commanded. Their picturesque and random nature enabled British cities to retain some sense of naturalistic mystery. Despite the shock caused by infrastructures imposed to accommodate the needs of the new industrial age, these cities had enshrined the randomness of nature in their matrices of parks, squares and gardens. London, particularly in the well-to-do west, was a loose fusion of development and parkland that had once been hunting grounds well before the invention of the Garden City at the end of the 19th century.
Note: The Garden City Movement was a visionary alternative to the chaos and squalor of British urban life. It was the brainchild of the pioneering Ebenezer Howard, whose book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898) became its manifesto. Through better housing, better union between town and country, and better community bonds, Howard proposed that a better civilisation could be created. Not content with merely theorising, however, he set about making his dream a reality. Thanks to his tireless energy and toil, Britain’s two garden cities were created, Letchworth Garden City (1903) and Welwyn Garden City (1920).
Although many ideals were sought in an idealised version of nature, by the late 19th century capital cities like London or Paris were acquiring a temperament of their own. The search for the sublime could be fulfilled amongst the grime, confusion and big crowds of the burgeoning city. There was a prevailing notion, expounded by the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–67), that the congested urban environment could trigger a bewildering and poetic state of mind which could be accessed through the technique of soaking up impressions of the city while wandering. The flâneur – a ‘paradigmatically male stroller who, equipped with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the city and its denizens, travels incognito through the most varied milieus’ – could be both voyeur and participant.
In the early years of the 20th century the Italian Futurists were able to blend this bewildering impression of crowds with the galvanising effect of the machine. These seething masses might have been shoppers on Christmas Eve, an audience leaving the theatre and mingling with people on the already teeming streets, or indeed troops caught in the smoke and confusion of battle. Later, the Situationist International, a predominantly French art and political movement based on Marxist principles that was formed in 1957 and dissolved in 1972, would advocate the undertaking of the dérive – a technique of urban wandering which, as cultural commentator Tom McDonough has observed, has its roots in the poetic flânerie practised by Baudelaire and other 19th-century inhabitants of the metropolis.
Narrative as an architectural pursuit
Post-war advances in engineering triggered much more invention when it came to the architectural envelope. Long before brands had any direct effect on buildings, the sweeping structure of TWA’s terminal suggested that the glamour and excitement of flying began on the ground.
Note: Eero Saarinen’s Flight Center opened as the main terminal for Trans World American Airlines in 1962. The TWA Flight Center reflects the innovative and pioneering design and architecture that emerged in the mid-twentieth century, influenced in part by the developments and technologies that came out of the race for space. Saarinen’s experimental use of concrete and glass created a futuristic and unique style—a lunar landscape on the ground—while modern amenities like baggage carousels, passenger flight tubes, and an electronic departures board made it state-of-the-art for the golden age of travel. Designated a New York City landmark in 1994, and included on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, the structure is a lasting example of the new knowledge, techniques, and industry Kennedy promised in his We Choose to Go to the Moon speech.
The narrative of flight translates well into this pure structure.Every TWA passenger would begin or end their journey in this building. These previously unachievable soaring curves are not only eagle-like; they suggest flight itself in their trajectories. Flying while still earthbound, the structure keys the experience of the city into the system of airports and aircraft that completes an international and inter-urban reach which, by the 1960s, was becoming a reality.
Frederick Kiesler, Endless House, large model, 1959.
At around the same time, the Endless House by Frederick Kiesler is another example. Though never realised, this exercise in psychological formation challenged the tenets of Modernism, applying Freudian thinking free from the conventions of walls, roofs and floors. The inhabitant would be able to wander from room to room as the mind shifts from thought to thought.
Note: On the smaller domestic scale, landscape assumes a different meaning in which narrative can be used just as effectively. As in Gaston Bachelard’s seminal work on the psychological effects of the house, The Poetics of Space (1958), Frederick Kiesler (1890–1965) was interested in giving form to the liberated state of mind that had been unlocked by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). To both, the house was a complex three-dimensional container of all our dreams and fears. Kiesler, a multi-talented Austrian-American iconoclast, theoretician, architect and theatre designer, spent much of his career designing spaces that had a sense of time as well as place. In his Endless House – never built, but influential nevertheless after being exhibited in maquette form at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1959 – he wanted to realise a building that you could inhabit as if it were your own body: ‘man and his environment are caught up in a total system of reciprocal relationships’. Elevated on stilts, its loops and interstices are uncompromisingly curvaceous and body-like. Moving from ‘room to room’, you would leave one psychological space and, although physically entering another, there would be a lingering trace of the one you had occupied only moments earlier.
The last example takes us momentarily into travels of the mind. Not long after the optimistic Americanisation of Europe in the 1950s, some like Kiesler were more interested in how architecture could be a vehicle for a more personal journey. There had been numerous calls to arms in a string of passionate manifestoes occurring throughout the 20th century, but architect Ettore Sottsass (1917–2007) frequently held architecture at arm’s length. Yet he constantly adhered to the discipline by testing it against every other conceivable medium – photography, ceramics, furniture and of course his famous red Valentine typewriter (designed for Olivetti in 1969).
Ettore Sottsass, ‘The Planet as Festival’, Study for a Temple for Erotic Dances, 1972–3.
In the wake of the counter-culture revelations of the 1960s, architects everywhere considered dropping out as a serious option. Sottsass spent long periods in India, and translated his experiences into the totemic architecture that described a state of mind.
Far from the cosmopolitan conditions that had inspired much of the architecture of the 20th century, by the early 1970s Sottsass had turned towards ideal imaginary forms with a self-sustained temple-like singularity. Influenced by the counter-culture thinking of the 1960s, Sottsass ‘tripped out’ on an introspective hippie otherworldly vision. The series of drawings known as ‘The Planet as Festival’ (1972–3) depicts architecture as totems and evokes a utopian land in which human consciousness is awakened through freedom from work and chores and the use of technology to heighten self-awareness. Firmly rooted in the imagination, and deliberately detached from any idea of context, these are experiments in a spiritual form of travel that, despite the freedom, retain complete control. His architect’s sense of social responsibility had moved on to a higher artistic plane.
To move the concept of the city forward, some architects began to stand back from it. Only then could they translate the complex post-industrial decay that by the late 1970s had enveloped the Western metropolis. The demise of traditional industries, coupled with new ways of distributing goods that took warehousing out of urban centres, had resulted in a Postmodern form of urban decline that left many buildings devoid of purpose and vast areas eerily abandoned. There was room for an approach to architecture that would ultimately eclipse functionalist ideology.
Emilio Ambasz (ed), Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art (New York), 1972.
Iain Borden, Joe Kerr, Alicia Pivaro and Jane Rendell (eds), Strangely Familiar: Narrative of Architecture in the City, Routledge (London), 1996.
Nigel Coates, Guide to Ecstacity, Laurence King (London), 2003.
Robert Klanten and Lukas Feireiss (eds), Beyond Architecture: Imaginative Buildings and Fictional Cities, Gestalten (Berlin), 2009.
Neil Leach (ed), Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, Routledge (New York, NY; London), 1997.
Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1960.
Rick Poynor, Nigel Coates: The City in Motion, Fourth Estate (London), 1989.
Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Collage City, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA; London), 1978.
John Thackara (ed), Design after Modernism: Beyond the Object, Thames & Hudson (London), 1988.
John Thackara (ed), Design after Modernism: Beyond the Object, Thames & Hudson (London), 1988.