8/09/2009

What can storytelling bring to architecture and urban planning?

I spent a lot of time, saturday, on finding books and magazines for August. I knew Holidays wouldn't help me. I found nothing, except New Volume issue: the # 20.
This new issue focuses on "Storytelling", "Storytelling" in Crisis time. This is not the first issue which questions the issue of crisis, for those who do not remember: check the issue # 9. A quick remind will give us the direction of this article: The # 9 issue wondered what architecture can do facing with crisis.

Here is the following: examining crisis by "fiction." But let me start with discussing on the concept of "storytelling." For French, what I am, the notion of "storytelling" is quite new, if not "strange." Storytelling is common in America where, to take an simple but logical example (other examples can be chosen such as sport, everyday life), politics is linked with storytelling, as French politics specialists Christian Salmon reports in his essay "Storytelling." In France, it is not. What does "storytelling" mean. In French, storytelling means "conte", "fiction." So, for French, it is hardly impossible to link politics with fiction. It is no sense, in a certain way. But time goes, and society changes. Now, even in France (for many journalists, and thinkers, this new tendency is viewed with horror), it is not "reality" that is important but, "fiction", say: a story that you "create" as a receptacle in which people can inscribe their own story/reality in order… to escape reality. Or, else, to live your life "differently" than in reality. in few word: Fiction permits to forget everyday life problems. Yet, if we follow Christian Salmon's point of view, associated with fields such as politics, news, etc., "storytelling" is used to "format people" in order to alienate. And in this case, "storytelling" is no more "fiction", but a way of managing the world, he writes. Often associated with Storytelling is the emergence of new technologies, and Internet, early 1990s — communication between individuals change — that have transformed, not only politics, news, but also common people everyday life, if not to say lifestyle. This says: our perception of the world has been changed. According to Christian Salmon, Storytelling does not help to accept or to do with crisis. Rather it helps to envision it in a positive way: change is possible.

Now let move from politics to architecture.
I haven't yet finished to read Volume # 20. I only read three essays, that of journalist Nicholas Lemann, that of blogger Geoff Manaugh, and that of Imaginario Constructivo. So the aim of this article is not to review Volume, but to engage a discussion on the concept of "storytelling" as it used in terms of architecture, and urban planning.
Before buying Volume #20 — I usually read editorials before buying a magazine — I've read carrefully Jeffrey Inaba's editorial. Jeffrey Inaba begins to write as follows "Storytelling communicates facts, but it also builds upon real-life accounts to enrich public expectations and elevate beliefs. To these ends, it is worthwhile to get reacquainted with the children's story. Although regarded as a vehicule to escape reality, the children's story, and in particular the fairy tale, could again help to elucidate larger social and political storylines." His viewpoint is not too far from Christian Salmon. Yet, in contrast with Christian Salmon who denounces the fact that the border between reality and fiction is erased, Jeffrey Inaba examines the issue of storytelling as a possibility, or as a "means of understanding our time and constructing a narrative of response". #20 guest editors were invited to consider crisis in these terms — as a strategy to construct a narrative of response.
Architecture, as Inaba writes, is linked with story, as story is the foundation of architectural proposals. In this case, architecture can be a tactictal tool to build the after-crisis city. Do not imagine that guest editors deals with "storytelling" in naive manner. Some, as journalist Nicholas Lemann in his very instructive essay entitled "News Report," invite us to consider "fiction" with indulgence, otherwise: narrative is ok when you view it as a tool among others, and not as The tool, say, the solution, or "The Promised Land" to quote Robert McLeman's title.
Reading the first articles of this issue makes me think of a book I read 4 years ago: Mori Minoru's manifesto "New Tokyo Life Style Think Zone", he edited in 2002. The main aim of this book was to write new "scenario" for a new-Tokyo-as-a-global-city. Different propositions were drawn with precise case studies that could have helped urban planners to draw new urban renewal plans. Destruction of old wooden-built single-detached houses and small and medium-scaled condominiums, in particular those built in tiny plots, as it is usual in Tokyo and Japanese cities, I summarise, seems to be the response to recover city land uses errors and envision a Tokyo more respectful to its inhabitants and its urban environment. This strategy of destruction permit to reuse and transform these tiny plots into a large plot (fitting tiny plot together into a large-scale plot increases FAR) for macro-scale projects (see also Atelier Bow-Wow Tsukamoto Yoshiharu and Almazan Jorge' response "Scrap and build"). To what extent can we speak of "storytelling"? As we know, Fiction is one of the foundation of architectural proposals. Here, using "storytelling" help to make Tokyoites dream a brand new Tokyo. One can consider it as an urban marketting. But whatever: the aim is to offer hope and dream to inhabitants who regularly denounce Tokyo bad urban conditions, and, in extenso, Japanese cities. Otherwise, It, in a certain manner, helps to adhere to the project.

I would like to finish off with this: What If?… Cities, a blog-project, directed by Madrid-based young Architecture firm Ecosistema Urbano. Let's start: What if? … cities can be feed in real time by its inhabitants, say, a city reactive but not proactive.

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