Narrative Architecture – Telling Design Stories

Narrative Architecture – Telling Design Stories

One of the most satisfying aspects of travel is to learn about another culture by looking at the material characteristics of a city’s buildings and by inadvertently stumbling upon gatherings of people going about the daily living of their company, school or civic culture.  It is an art and a responsibility to our traditions to continue to make buildings that are materially provocative and that create places for unique cultures to visibly and publicly flourish.

/ Technological Hybrids, Lo-fi & Word-buildings

An theorist who has written extensively about this is Jeremy Till. Marie S.A. Sorensen reviewed his book in NEXT – the Fall 2013 Issue of Architecture Boston Magazine: Architecture Depends, Jeremy Till, MIT Press, 2009, Reviewed by Marie S.A. Sorensen AIA

Full Text:

“I sit on the roof deck of a tall building north of Boston. I am on the deck for the view as much as the sun  – and for the ability to measure Jeremy Till’s words against the multiples before me: cars, bridges, buildings, smokestacks, trains, trash piles, and repair materials expediently affixed; many, many ‘messy’ contexts. Through the lens of Le Corbusier, or the German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, I see a coherence of taut edges and landmark spires framing the Merrimack River. I return a phone call and give a quote for architectural services (a referral from a local hardware store).  Five thousand dollars. The quantity is misunderstood. How much can you pay? Five hundred.

“Is the view from the street more reliable than the view from the tower? Till’s project in Architecture Depends is to pull apart the certainty with which most architects approach their work. A coach who can see the bigger game, fiercely loyal but pushing for improvement, Till coaxes and prods toward relevance. He looks to anthropology, spatial geography, community planning, and literature to tease out the ‘situatedness’ of buildings, an issue that only he and a few others have defined with such attention.

“Mess – Till’s central concept – is both at odds and at one with architectural practice. Mess is the unpredictability of interactions with buildings resulting in alteration, and mess is fragility: the ‘…reality that [buildings] always enter the social realm as transient objects… .’ Coach Till would like us to appreciate weathering and other changes in buildings’ appearance due to natural causes, either harnessing them or marking milestones of “positive transformation toward completion” as David Leatherbarrow and Mohsen Mostafavi have done in On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time.

“Debunking Modern and Beaux Arts pedagogies alike, Till does not reject design ordering principles altogether; rather he refutes the certainty of holding onto one set of principles as opposed to ‘remaining open.’ How then does Till decide what things look like? What does he consider enlightened practice?

“Till holds that progress is false but is an inventor of methods, his favorite two being technological hybrids (‘Lo-fi’) and narrative. Till’s ‘Lo-fi’ architecture rejects the wasteful fetishism of high-maintenance design – curtain walls of clear shiny glass, for example, cleaned acrobatically at great expense. Till enjoys provocative jokes. At Interbuild, a high-profile British building materials tradeshow, he and Sarah Wiggelsworth (architect, his wife) make a compressed hay bale wall sheathed in polycarbonate that instigates shouting into a mobile phone from one onlooker: ‘I am standing in front of a fooking haystack and they are calling it the future!’

“Narrative as an ordering principle – memory-images cast as words, then as buildings – is also fruitful for Till. He explains how the design of his home was negotiated with Wigglesworth over several weeks as they told stories of spatial memories to each other while walking through the back streets of London. Later, he cites a ribbon-cutting ceremony in which Frank Gehry allows that his inspiration for the Guggenheim Bilbao was his grandmother’s carp pond, experienced as a child; Till stands by, willing ‘Frank’ (whom he presumably knows) not to lead us to the conclusion that he has made ‘fishy space.’

“In Architecture Depends, Till has both whet our appetite for more provocative hybrids and ‘word-buildings’ and set the stage for an extensive project that bridges anthropology and psychology: a longitudinal ethnography of the occupants of a building or district; complementing this, a study of people’s visual habits and spatial memories. While arguing for the view from the street, Coach Till, now Head of Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in London, is an inducted member of the tower tribe.”