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Building Stories
Lisa Findley & Marc J Neveu
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The call for this theme issue, written well over a year ago, and pre-pandemic, began with a conversation about a course Lisa was planning to teach on the relationship between stories and architecture. The course didn’t happen, but it did lead to a series of conversations and finally a theme proposal to the JAE editorial board. One of the comments in the discussion around the theme proposal has stuck with us; is there anything new that can be said about architecture and narrative? It’s a good point. Didn’t we have our fill in the theory-heavy 1980s and 1990s, when everyone could claim to have read Derrida and Deleuze? Indeed, we did have our fill! Of course, however, both architecture and narrative, and the connection between them, remain. The explosion of platforms for storytelling, from TikTok to blogs, from YouTube channels to digital self-publishing, gives air to myriad perspectives and previously unheard voices. Simultaneously, platforms for sharing architecture like Instagram and ArchDaily show us wide-ranging building types, modes of representation, and geographical coverage.

Stories and buildings both orient our lives, but in different ways. In stories we are othered. That is, stories of others—real or imagined, in books or on a screen—help us to see from another perspective, to empathize, to imagine other ways to cope with disasters and trauma, and to expand our capacity to be human. Architecture, intentional or not, frames our lives and our world, allowing us to see the world in new and even unexpected ways. We experience both buildings and stories over time. Just as books and films offer a variety of temporalities—narrative time, story time, and reading/watching time—architecture unfolds across a range of time, through our daily and annual routines and rituals, and on and on, across our lifetimes. As built artifacts, buildings weather and materials age. The meaning and experience of buildings, just like books and films, evolve. The sharing of stories and the shared experience of architecture build connections among us. Stories, like architectural form, are translated and interpreted across time and cultures and help to form, and also reveal, our identities—as individuals and cultures.

In the call, we posed a series of questions. Among them: How do the acts of storytelling and building intertwine? What possibilities emerge when we consider the building of worlds and the worlds of building? How has architecture been inspired by stories? How has it been understood through fiction, film, and other forms of storytelling? How do architects utilize storytelling techniques, existing narratives, and invented plots to imagine real possibilities and possible realities? What is the contemporary role of representation in these projective futures? Further, what is the role of storytelling in pedagogical practices?

The call was well received and elicited a wide range of responses. There were more essays on film than expected, a number of others were focused on pedagogy or on politics, while still others were much more personal and reflective in nature. Very few presented a theoretical position vis-à-vis literary theory. Much of the design content, and, certainly, the solicited content is dependent upon forms of representation, both as illustrative of a story and demonstrative of narrative techniques. With the many essays we reviewed, as well as all that has happened in the past year, new questions began to emerge; Is there any truth to fiction? Given the competing and contradictory narratives, which story does one believe? Or are they each, in their own way, all true? Whose story is it to tell? And, relatedly, whose building is it to build? Whose place is it to be built upon? How do literary traditions relate to architectural traditions, and what do they mean in a global context? As expanded territories of landscape and regional scales shift, how do we challenge narratives of place?

Many of these questions were raised in the selection of Scholarship of Design essays. Conflating architecture, narrative, and politics, Amy Catania Kulper, Lucy Siyao Liu, and Matthew Bohne’s essay and illustrations dig deeply into the architectural setting of the January 6 insurrection in Washington DC in seven scenes and is accompanied by a series of provocative reconstructed images. Luis Hernan and Carolina Ramirez-Figueroa’s diary-like essay proposes that the tradition of Magical Realism, rather than science fiction, may be a better lens through which we can understand a current state of domesticity. Written over a series of six semifictional days (and temporalities), the essay details the life of two Latin American academics teaching in the UK. Building on, or at least in reference to, a somewhat impenetrable essay by Paul Ricoeur on “Architecture and Narrative,” David Leatherbarrow posits that, just as fiction is contrived, so too is architecture made up. Through a series of stories about Philadelphia he demonstrates that just as architecture productively meets previously unmet needs, stories may also alter, enhance, and enrich our own character.

Billy Fleming furthers the conversation about stories, place, and pedagogy in a report on a series of interdisciplinary design studios that leveraged design thinking in advocacy for the Green New Deal and its position and politics around social change in regions of the United States sidelined by shifting economies and technologies, and hard hit by climate change. Composed as a series of tales, Arthur Leung’s essay expands our thinking about climate change response by taking us to a coastal floodplain in British Columbia. The tales uncover the various perspectives of landscape knowledge in the region: oral histories of a Great Flood from the Indigenous Coast Salish peoples; a telling of the history of extractive pragmatism by colonial settlers; and an account of the present-day drained landscape and hardened infrastructure threatened by flooding from both sea level rise and increasing rainfall. The final tale is a design vision of negotiated reclamation that seeks a new story: a reconciliation of the past, present, and future.

Klaske Havik and Angeliki Sioli’s essay describes a series of pedagogical experiments, paired with a discursive text grounding each exercise. In the abstract, the authors explain that imagination will lead to innovation. Perhaps, but we think the real value lies in the bringing together of reading, telling, writing, and making to reveal what was always there but not yet seen. Rather than innovating, the projects uncover, reveal, and expand place. Relatedly, but projectively opposite in direction, Ipek Türeli’s essay demonstrates how filmic techniques (rather than themes) may be used to examine the built environment and then propose new projections for the urban night. In what might be considered a more normative scholarly essay, Eliyahu Keller examines Lebbeus Woods’ 1988 project Underground Berlin and a corresponding film script coauthored by Woods, in an exploration into affinities between cinematic thinking and architectural imagination. Placing Woods’ professional and theoretical engagement with film within the constellation of discourses regarding film’s relationship with the built environment, the essay posits Underground Berlin as a unique example in which visionary architectural drawing, cinema, and storytelling intertwine to leverage architecture’s capacity to operate politically in the world.

l drawing, cinema, and storytelling intertwine to leverage architecture’s capacity to operate politically in the world.

The Micronarrative and Design as Scholarship essays range widely with thoughts and stories. In a moment when being at home has attained new significance, Andrew Witt investigates a pedagogy of fictional worldbuilding through the engagement of unconventional texts such as manuals and promotional material. Amelyn Ng further expands on the representation and implications of the lockdown by exposing the unequal spaces of the pandemic. And in her essay, Dulmini Perera unpacks the genre of cautionary tales to discuss the role of fiction as a productive catalyst to reframe design problems, using specific examples centered on the home. Through insightful rereadings of historical accounts and archival material, several design essays dig in, revising stories of the past to engage with current disciplinary discussions. A micronarrative by Galo Canizares and Stephanie Sang Delgado discusses a pedagogy around past and present cases of carceral enclosure, both actual and imagined, as a critical tool to examine abolition. Doug Jackson’s witty piece weaves anecdotes and criticism to expose how different versions of stories reflect and denote unaddressed larger social issues. In engaging with archival research, Nicholas Andrew Pacula presents a case for unpacking the contested agency of architectural drawings and Rebecca Williamson reveals the role of unknown female figures intervening in the work of eighteenth-century architects. The urgency for social justice through stories that need insightful retelling is further exemplified in essays by Patty Heyda and Tania Gutiérrez-Monroy, the latter of which reframes identity politics and the Mexican Revolution. Pedagogical methodologies and projects that use narrative and its tools to construct reflective design work can be found in the Design as Scholarship essays by Adam Modesitt and Carrie Norman, and Zahra Safaverdi. Zachary Tate Porter’s Micronarrative broadens the operationality of narrative and storytelling as a tool for disciplinary critique. Finally, Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy’s Seuss-like essay is actually a story.

When we first imagined this issue, we thought to solicit fiction or excerpts from literature. In thinking it through, however, and fueled by our mutual connection to the work of Douglas Darden, we decided instead to focus on the practice within architecture that produces one of the discipline’s own versions of fiction: visionary drawing. As architects, we all know that while certain intentions and backstories may inform the making of a drawing—and, indeed, a building—what is read into it by a viewer is wildly varied. This is part of the provocation and delight of such drawings. So rather than inviting fiction or opinion essays, we curated a series of representational practices that use drawing to tell stories. To start, we stole the theme title for this issue from the graphic novelist Chris Ware, who was amused by our theft and has generously shared with us three pages of his Building Stories: depictions of the human inhabitation and daily life of a modest apartment building.

We also invited four architects who engage in visionary drawing as part of their practices to contribute drawings and short narratives to accompany them. Clement Luk Laurencio continues Ware’s engagement with urban living with a labyrinthian drawing of his COVID-era apartment as both shelter and space of confinement, as an intimate holder of domestic emotional life as well as a rationalized building. Providing a more optimistic counterpoint to nature’s resilience, Anya Kempa envisions a recovering Everglades where humans, plants, animals, and water combine into a renewed ecosystem. Oneida Nation architect Chris Cornelius brings the nonhuman world into a gentle and intimate connection with three collage drawings of elevated dwellings, each attached to a story of human-landscape relationships. Ifigeneia Liangi’s whimsical sunlit drawing is both visionary provocation and illustration; the playful toylike quality of the characters masks adult questions of the vast, still waterworld.

The proliferation of voices over the past two decades, through social media and other forms of communication, has destabilized any sense of a shared narrative in our world. This incredibly powerful shift expands the agency of previously silenced points of view. More and diverse voices are being heard, injecting ideas and experiences into the public realm, enriching our shared lives, and disrupting previously hegemonic narratives. As demonstrated in this issue, film, literature, art, and architecture are potent ways to clarify and communicate these narratives. As we have seen, however, this multiplicity of voices also has, from a certain distance, the unintended consequence of leveling all narratives to the point where anything can be truthful and, as a result, everything might be a fiction. Architecture gets entangled in these contests of truth, which inevitably become political. Recent examples include disagreements over the physical and political effectiveness of border walls, contested valuations of “classical” architecture, the invasion of once sacred spaces of democracy, and most recently, a clamoring debate over what constitutes infrastructure.

If we conflate building and storytelling, and all narratives are valid, how does one begin to evaluate, value, or find meaning in the building environment? Given the contested state of both our borders and our histories, how might we understand the cities, landscapes, and places in which we live? Recognizing that structural barriers exist, who has access to the process and means of building? We conclude there is, and will continue to be, so much more to explore about the relation between architecture and narrative.

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