Narrative, metaphor and fiction as tools in architectural education
Dr Maria Vidali,
University of Thessaly, Greece
I experienced this research as an architect, researcher and author of eight fictional narratives followed by scholarly interpretations that were guided by phenomenological and hermeneutical methods, anthropological principles and ethnographic observations. The goal was for the research to reveal a deeper understanding of the role of the architect by introducing the world of text, a tool for architectural education that is distinct from drawings and modeling tables. After all, narrative and the imagination have been tools in the hands of both architects and authors. As argued by Emmons, Fenerstein, Dayer and Phinney,drawing, just like storytelling, exists in a different dimension of reality and fiction. Architects make stories while drawing. The ways these stories are made are inseparable from the way a project is conceived and designed.
Two fictional Narratives
I would like to introduce this methodology with an excerpt from a fictional narrative. It is one of the eight fictional narratives that shaped my PhD work on “Liminality, metaphor and place in the farming landscape of Tinos: the village of Kampos”. It was derived from research on land contracts and documents, interviews with the villagers and personal/first-hand experience.
Excerpt of fictional narrative 1: My water
This time of year, three weeks before Easter, at the edge of the village, at the boundaries of the garden areas and the village core, down the wide steps that lead to the peripheral street, the “new well” , as they still call the place where the women of the village do their washing, echoes with sounds of splashing water, female voices, dragging and shoving big heavy pieces of fabric. It is time to clean the carpets that kept the houses warm and dry. In the vaulted space of the new well, in the middle of the room’s back wall, the faucet is set against a layer of marble stained with mold. One either side, there are cisterns made of stone surfaces: layers of marble define a space for washing burlap by hand. White powdered soap is sprinkled on the slate floor. The smell of the soap blends with the green olive oil soap that older women still use. Clean fabrics, soaps, rings and watches are usually left on the marble surfaces next to each sink. Female hands, rough, raw and blistered by the heavy load and the cold water, work intensively on the voluminous fabric. Water flows down the conduits into each basin. Fragiska and Zozefina are chatting. The village’s new stories are always welcomed with eagerness and curiosity, despite feelings of stress or discomfort.
Lenio cleaned up the area where she was washing the carpets and got ready to leave. Zozefina was waiting for her husband to help her carry the carpets and lay them out over their terraces or in the sun in their courtyard to dry.
While she was waiting, Katerina showed up, walking hastily towards them. “Good afternoon. Whose carpets are hanging all over my wall?” Katerina asked.
“Lenio’s carpets, Katerina. She left a few minutes ago,” Zozefina replied, relieved that it wasn’t her carpets drying on Katerina’s wall. Katerina, without saying anything, walked back to the village center, passing by her house and her colourful garden walls.
Excerpt of fictional narrative 3: The local festival
It was around midnight and people were still arriving. The air vibrated with folk dance music and the sound of clapping and laughter. There was a light euphoria, the a result of the chemical combination of raki and honey in the human body.
Suddenly, we heard a huge clamour, as if things were collapsing on top of each other, followed by a long crackling noise and people yelling. A thick scent of honey filled the air of the plateia (square) and possibly the whole village. I managed to move away from the crowd, which was becoming thicker as people moved away from the plateia and squeezed on the street, and got on a bench so I could see over the crowd.
“Oh my God!!” I yelled. The five, huge caldrons had fallen and all the honey that they contained pοured on the plateia and the people there. When I had first seen them earlier in the afternoon, I thought that it wasn’t a good idea to put them next to the dancing floor. There were people covered with honey. I could see their hair still and shiny, their hands clothes and shoes covered in honey . Some were stuck on the dancing floor as honey was everywhere. Those who had managed to escape from the honeyed, sticky floor of the plateia, were trapped in their honeyed shoes, clothes and hands, by which they transferred the honey everywhere around. The only place untouched from honey was the the band stage, which was elevated. The musicians continued playing music, while villagers tried to find water to wash away the honey that had spread everywhere on the plateia and had spilled over the streets and alleyways of the village. Within an hour, there was honey everywhere, which dissolved with the first light of the day, when bees and other insects joined this honey festival.
Place of research
Excerpts one and three are set in Kampos, a village of sixty-five inhabitants on the Greek island of Tinos, in the Aegean Sea, which boasts a long history of agriculture. In Kampos, one of the oldest farming villages of Tinos, the boundaries created by low stone walls and alleyways primarily define the farming landscape that permeates village life and its structure/the structure of village life. Though fictional, these excerpts are rooted in and are interpretations of specific areas places on the island and the world.
The core of the village of Kampos is surrounded by the gardens and fields, by the property of the farmers and animal breeders who inhabit it, and by dry hills, springs and cultivated land. Kampos’ landscape is a striking example of how human beings, architecture and environment negotiate their boundaries, creating on a daily basis liminal spaces based on villagers’ ownership of land, water, private and communal goods, reflecting their permanence in a place. Movement towards the fields, towards the animals, the gardens and the church establish different hierarchies in village life. One can also imagine “hierarchy” emanating from the church and religion, from the animals, from farming, from the family. There is a structure of measures, relationships and distinctions in constant dialogue with the relentless continuity of earth, sky and seasons. This structure of metamorphosis and concreteness in the village becomes words through narrative and metaphor. Communal metaphors, stories and fictional beliefs bind and connect this small community together in a farming landscape, which still retains a quality of life closely connected with nature, architecture, the private and public realm, by exhibiting features found in contemporary living.
In this research, the term liminality and liminal space inherently has the characteristics and connotations attributed to liminal spaces in architecture, if we also add the feature/concept of negotiation, which may imply communication, conflict or agreement, including a metaphor of what this space can signify in various situations within the daily lives of the villagers. The experience of liminal space poses a discontinuity and leads the occupant to question their surroundings, thus leading to heightened awareness of the space as a transformative threshold between distinct spaces as explained by Zimerman.
The methodological framework
Contracts and testaments connected to the island’s land and water ownership that consist of a set of norms, rules, principles, and values, were part of a distinctive manner of imagining reality, of perceiving and interpreting the local topography, initiating a preliminary form of a local narrative. By starting to interview the locals with the intention of gathering as much information as possible about the village life, by listening to their narratives, the gossip and rumours in the village, I realized that there was a different understanding and metaphor of life in this set of topography/topographical setting. I understood the claim made by Pérez-Gómez, i.e., that the qualities of place are always enacted through myths: people share oral, ever changing stories intertwined with the landscape. Architecture helps us share a social communal context, a social context that started to unfold through the villagers’ narratives.
I imitated their story-telling, creating fictional narratives out of their stories, their spaces, their life with animals, the life they have together. However, I worked based on an imaginary plot. I followed Ricoeur’s argument about how words in a sentence can reveal a discourse in the world, giving language the function of making images. “Unless we go back to the world, space cannot be conceived,” as Heidegger states. The space and topography of Kampos is conceived in this research through the stories of the everyday interactions of the villagers, their connection with religion, their rites of passage and the imaginary, their conflicts and agreements. For example, at the village well, the women chat while washing their carpets and heavy fabrics. The walls within the village structure create ambiguities about their communal or private use. The attributes of honey reveal the metaphor of what the plateia (local square) stands for the villagers’ lives. It can connect and bind together the village community, though sometimes in a “sticky/ unpleasant” way, in the eyes of its younger members. A series of interpretations emerges from contracts and interviews to fiction and then the interpretation of the fictional narrative .
The fictional narratives that emerged from this research were based on the imaginary plot of real and fictional stories that I initially became aware of as another architectural tool to better understand and explore the idea of a “meaningful regionalism” as described by Perez - Gomez as another dimension of dwelling inherent in the traces and habits created by language. Stories connect language with mimetic action, the habit, which again connect our bodily and mental experience with the environment, but also with place and space. According to Crossley “language affords us a grasp upon the world by condensing and mapping it,” while the stories of the villagers and the fictional stories allow us to grasp and understand the space of Kampos and to perceive its realities. This knowledge from within ourselves also involves emotions which, through fiction, allow us to connect with space and the environment.
Why this is important?
The situation in the village of Kampos is of a great importance to me, because today architects, planners and designers are focused on new contemporary sustainable ways of living, on a search outside the ways humans live and outside the complexity of architecture, of all the things that are connected with social life, spatial qualities and the environment. Despite our contemporary and highly technological way of living, this way of life and spatial understanding in the village, the continuation of the same habits and patterns of the past, still contributes to a balanced physiological and psychological lifestyle both in the private and the public realm. The way of living in Kampos could be a response to some of the prejudices and difficulties that affect many other cultures in our globalized world. This village, just like other villages on Tinos, allows us to observe different ways of living and spatial perception through architecture, but also through the use of narratives of its inhabitants.
By adopting fiction through the use of phenomenology and hermeneutics, my intention was to reveal another architectural dialogue based on language, words and narratives as a new “space of experience”, as sated by Pérez-Gómez.
Putting together this research, I realized with the help of Kearney that in the transition from description to interpretation, the imagination is active more as “language” than “vision”. And, as he claims by citing Ricoeur, imagination is a “semantic innovation”, an indispensable agent in the creation of meaning in and through language. By bringing together the meaning of narrative, imagination and interpretation as experienced in Kampos through its public and private realm, but also its landscape, I experienced how “semantic innovation”, also in the sense of Pérez-Gómez’ “the linguistic (hermeneutic) imagination”, allows us to search for the contact point between “tradition and innovation”, an indispensable element for the “proper social functioning of architecture.” Imagination is common both in language as narrative/ fiction/ metaphor and in architecture.
Why narrative, metaphor and fiction are important in the architectural education
This small community helped me develop a perception of what life is in the spatial and social complexity of their village architecture. This complexity of life is what narrative tries to imitate as Ricoeur states.I believe that this could not happen merely by tracing extensive architectural drawings, examining architectural descriptions of the village’s architecture, or by modifying on each occasion our anthropological references.
Hermeneutics, anthropology and philosophy are used to approach place from different perspectives and provide another version of its reality through the interpretation of narrative and fiction. During the last year, this methodology helped me to teach a Contemporary Urbanism course, using the city of Athens as a case study. The students, who came from American universities and were visiting Athens for the first time, were told about the history of the city, about the theories on its specific urban and social issues and the methodology as described above. Local narratives, organized field trips to certain areas of historical, urban and social interest, interviews with the locals allowed them to gain experience and formulate their own understanding of the city. This was revealed through their own fictional narratives as a composition of their historical, social, ethical, spatial and urban perception of a city that they had never been to before. Reality took form through a fictional/imaginary plot which helped them anchor their experience. The same methodology was used with architecture students in the course "Understanding and Imagination before Designing" during the last semester at the University of Thessaly . Based on traditional village architecture , the course seeks answers on what a young architect should know beyond the structure of a building, how he could understand the complexity of life in order to analyse and understand an existing spatial and social situation in depth before beginning the design process. Interpretative tools were given through different approaches, so that architecture could be understood as a practice that is traditionally used to connect people with their community, place, religion, and environment.
Architecture, the spatial nature of boundaries in fiction and interpretation can be used for a deeper and better understanding of the different realities of the village structure and life, one of them being the vagueness regarding the boundaries of the water use and land use, the identification of the foreign/unfamiliar space, indicating the difference between the public realm and the communal space. This also includes realities established/imposed by the Catholic Church, the meaning of cleanliness shaping liminal spaces for social and religious events, the respective roles of men and women, how imaginary stories, myths and darkness underwrite social life in the village. For young architects it is extremely important to develop an understanding based on the different experiences that take place in the village structure because these can lead to interpretations in architecture and design closer to a human way of living and the actual complexity of life. A truth (aletheia) is described through fictional narratives: a truth described through the poetic process of the metaphor.
Architecture today needs to remain focused on keeping novelty in architectural projects alive in contemporary and traditional societies, based on a profound reality of place and not as a mere fashionable trend. Language and narrative forms can become tools for understanding and revealing the truth of these societies in relation to architecture and the environment. Metaphor, narrative and fiction allow different versions of reality to emerge. They equip young architects with tools that allow them to connect local traditions with the contemporary way of living and with innovation, revealing the social and ethical function of an architecture related to humans and the environment.
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