NARRATIVE, METAPHOR, FICTION: HOW THEY MIGHT SERVE ARCHITECTURAL EDUCATION
DR MARIA VIDALI
UNIVERSITY OF THESSALY, GREECE
The methodology developed in this paper focuses on an aspect of the crisis facing architecture today: in the search for a highly technological, sustainable function of architecture, what is built remains disconnected from humanity and environmental reality. In the methodology proposed, place can be perceived and understood through various versions of reality. This allows the role of architecture behind a built work to be interpreted as recognizing the wider complexity of life.
The methodology is introduced through an excerpt from a fictional narrative, one of the eight fictional narratives from the PhD thesis “Liminality, metaphor and place in the farming landscape of Tinos: the village of Kampos”, (footnote, Maria Vidali Phd thesis etc).
The Narrative “My Water”:
At nightfall when the guests and villagers had gone to honor the party of the newlyweds, peace returned to the village streets. As the street lights came on, only three dark figures were to be seen in the village streets. They passed by the choreftra, the new square, headed towards Holy Trinity’s Church and walked hastily to the south end of the village. They were headed without speaking or using any lights to Messaria, making their way towards Iosif’s father’s field and the spring.
Iosif was among them. And in a low but hasty voice, he started giving instructions to the other two. That night, with all the villagers attending the wedding celebration, Iosif had decided to block the water flow with wood and stones at different points in the gully as it descended towards Loutra village. In this way, it would flow unequally into the properties and cause discord and arguments among the villagers. He thought that this would make everyone feel the way he felt about the loss of his water.
The water was cold and the steep gully was surrounded by big stones, rocks and wild plants making their work even more difficult in the darkness. But Iosif had brought torches and fuelled by his anger they managed to execute his devilish plan. After an hour, the only thing that could be heard was the water of the spring falling in the gully and filling the small diversion dams that Iosif and his accomplices had built. Now the water would have to travel along a much longer path to reach the village of Loutra.
Sunday morning found the villagers of Kampos in despair. A big flash and then a clap of thunder announced the weather to the villagers before the news on TV. Every farmer’s heart started pounding, for they knew that the gully had been blocked. The rain began falling incessantly, becoming heavier as time passed, and the thunderbolts kept everyone at home with no one available to check the gully. The memory of old BarbaYannis, found charred on his mule by a thunderbolt many years ago, was still fresh.
By 6:25 that morning, when first light reached Kampos most of the farmers had reached their fields in Messaria.
“Chaos, what a disaster!” Manolis managed to mutter.
“Panagia mou,” exclaimed Nikolas holding his head. Hiding his face, tears started to run down his cheeks when he saw seven of his sheep had swept away by the water. The water had destroyed the boundary walls of his field and had drowned the animals further down in the gully.
This story is set in Kampos, a village of sixty-five inhabitants on the Greek island of Tinos, in the Aegean Sea. In Kampos, one of the oldest farming villages of Tinos with a long agricultural past, the boundaries created by low stone walls and alleyways primarily define the farming landscape that permeates village life.
The topography of the village is dictated by place and time, through seasonal changes, family life, farming, communal and religious life. Though fictional, this excerpt is rooted in a specific area, a particular place on the island and in the world, and is an interpretation of it. It allows for an understanding of the village territory which draws in historical, ethnographical and anthropological considerations. It is explained through the vein structure, of the main street and alleys that branch out to the fields. There is an undeniable “hierarchy”, rooted in the church and religion, the animals, the farming, the family. But there is also a constant metamorphosis of village life through these hierarchies and this affects places established by the boundaries of communal and private properties, as well as the temporal schedules of habits and customs.
The excerpt about life in Kampos is accompanied by a thorough interpretation of the meaning of property, water, community, conflict, the need for order and coexistence with nature. It is also followed infused by the kind of awareness defined by Emmons, Fenerstein, Dayer and Phinney that “drawing, like storytelling, exists across the ambiguous dimension of reality and fiction”. “Architects actively construe stories while drawing; and the ways these stories are constructed are inseparable from the way a project is designed”. The book Confabulations: storytelling in architecture illustrates Frascari’s exploration of architecture as an art that seeks an “expansion of architectural potential, integrating poetry and technique so as to engender, it may be hoped, fabulous buildings”. This volume depicts the role of narrative as an essential tool of design. The authors wish this to convey a more substantive understanding of what storytelling may offer to architecture.
Indeed, as is pointed out, “Architects build stories while buildings edify inhabitants. Storytelling and architecture are fundamental forms of what philosopher Nelson Goodman calls ‘world making’”.
RESEARCH ON AND COMPOSITION OF THE METHODOLOGY
The methodology presented above takes shape in the village life and landscape of a specific case study, that of the farming landscape on Tinos. Initially, boundaries as revealed through texts (old and contemporary contracts), space, movement and habit were explored. These boundaries defined a series of liminal spaces.
In the context of the present work, the term liminality inherently possesses the characteristics and connotations attributed to liminal spaces in architecture, i.e., spaces that represent areas or rather situations allowing
for different co-existing levels of interaction that are both ambiguous and transformable through negotiation. This may also imply communication, conflict or agreements, including a metaphor of what this space can signify in different situations of the villagers’ or people’s everyday life. Naturally, this negotiation would not be possible without language and narrative. Language consists in communal metaphors, stories and fictional beliefs that bind and unite a small community within a farming landscape. In contrast to a more urban situation this community still retains a quality of life in close connection with nature, architecture, the private and public realm.
Implementing this Methodology within a Case Study: Theoretical and Philosophical Framework
Initially, the research on the case study of a traditional village was based on archival work of available contracts and testaments. These concerned the island’s land and water ownership that reflected specific values and principles, which were seen as components of a special manner of imagining reality. In effect, extended
recorded interviews with villagers were undertaken and assembled into an archive of village’s oral histories without interference in the narrative, unless the topic became totally irrelevant to the description of village life. This led to a compilation of stories and information about the village and its landscape.
The approach to understanding lived place was influenced by the seminal work of French Philosopher Ricoeur, who describes the world of the text as “a spatio-temporal world of the relationship between universal time and historical time and thus mediated by the places of memory in the same way as relationship between geometric space and inhabited space is mediated by the stories inscribed in these places of memory”. The present approach also incorporates an understanding of the importance of “meaningful regionalism” emerging through traces, histories, testimonies and an “authentic dialogue”, as described by Pérez-Gómez.
By adopting fiction through the use of phenomenology and hermeneutics, the intention was to introduce another architectural dialogue, based on language, words and narrative, as a new “space of experience”. Fictional narratives were created out of the villagers’ stories, their spaces, their life with animals, the life they have together. However, the various plots of these narratives and the story excerpt in the introduction are imaginary. Through these one becomes fully aware of Ricoeur’s claim about how words in a sentence can reveal a discourse in the world, giving language the function of creating images. One also becomes aware of the poetic metaphor connected to our body in the form of feeling, according to Spitzer. The act of reading, at the final stages of the work, will enrich it with new interpretations and further allow it to be reinterpreted in new historical contexts.
WHY NARRATIVE, METAPHOR AND FICTION
This case study focusing on the small community in the village of Kampos, led to a development of a perception of what life is like inhabiting the spatial and social complexity of their village architecture. This cannot happen only through architectural drawings, nor by studying descriptions of the village’s architecture nor by analyzing anthropological references. Through the narratives that bring out the reality of the village and the imaginary world of its inhabitants, one becomes aware of the value of metaphor as the natural language of a communal life that is inextricably linked to the natural and built environment. Stories connect language with the mimetic action, the habit, which in turn connects our physical and mental experience with the environment, place and space.
The fictional narrative was adopted in order to discover and reveal the truth through fiction/story/myth, as proposed by Ricoeur: who sees the “mediating role” of fiction as a weaving procedure of the different elements that make up life. This complexity of life is what narrative tries to imitate. Hence, in each fictional narrative, there is an interpretation based on the spatial organization, again followed through in fiction with a hermeneutical intention and a view to revealing another reality of life in each place. Hermeneutics, anthropology and philosophy are used to approach place from different perspectives and provide another version of its reality through the story’s interpretation.
During the last year, this methodology was used in a Contemporary Urbanism course, using the city of Athens as a case study. Students from American universities that were visiting Athens for the first time learned about the history of the city, the theories that focused on specific urban and social issues and the methodology as described above. Local narratives, field trips to certain areas of specific historical, urban and social interest, interviews with the locals allowed them to gain experience and formulate their own understanding of the city. This became evident through their own fictional narratives as a composite of their historical, social, ethical, spatial and urban perception of a city that they had never been to before. Reality took shape through a fictional/imaginary plot that helped anchor their experience. Excerpts from a student’s narrative: “Even though the crisis was ostensibly masked by upscale shops, there were small lapses that cracked its pristine image: the scarfed homeless woman holding a perfunctory sign; generic koulouri stalls in competition with each other.” “Orange trees carelessly dropped their fruits as pink bougainvilleas teased the walls.
Young Greeks littered the steps over coffee and cigarettes, with no real boundaries between private and public space.”
The same methodology was used with architecture students at the University of Thessaly. Based on traditional village architecture, the course sought 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.
This methodology led to a structure of both metamorphosis and concreteness in the village becomes words through narrative and metaphor, unveiling a different manner of perceiving and interpreting the local topography and becoming an initial formal form of a local narrative. Through this research, it became clear that the reality of the village could be perceived and understood through the combination of its different versions. This kind of investigation provides a way of bringing an intensely human and intimate face to what dwelling means, which is a critical aspect of design for the world we live in today.
Why this Methodology is Important as a Paradigm for Design Studio Education - Conclusion
This methodology and the study of Kampos led to a different understanding of space, of place and of deeply embedded ways of life. This approach may be of particular importance at a time when architects, planners and design professionals are preoccupied with ecological and sustainability issues, struggling to find novel and ever more efficient solutions. Despite the changes dictated by external imperatives, these ways of life in the village continue to contribute to a psychologically and physically healthy and fulfilling lifestyle today, one that extend from the private sphere to the public realm.
This research and methodology provided a new perspective as to how Kearney, with reference to Ricoeur’s work, explores the ability of language to open up to new worlds, not as the sum total of subjectivities, but through the productive linguistic imagination. It is “the metaphorical imagination”, he states, that “not only combines the verbal and non-verbal, it also produces new meaning by confronting a literal with a figurative sense”. Bringing together the meaning of narrative, imagination and interpretation, as practiced in the village of Kampos, its public and private realm, but also its landscape, one experiences how “semantic innovation”, also mentioned by “the linguistic (hermeneutic) imagination” according to Pérez-Gómez, allows us to identify the relationship between “tradition and innovation”, which is indispensable to the “proper social functioning of architecture”. Imagination is common to both language -as narrative/ fiction/ story- and architecture.
In this work, metaphor, narrative and fiction are presented as tools for architects towards a broader understanding of what the world that we design for really is. They are introduced as a way of escaping from the preoccupation of what this world should be according to contemporary social and political commandments, given that urban rules also fail to reflect a deep understanding of the reality of a place. Metaphor, narrative and fiction allow for different more grounded versions of reality to emerge. They equip architects with a way of interpreting the local tradition or urban structure into a contemporary way of living and innovation, without responding to architecture and dwelling through form and fashion. Instead, they force them to tap more into the social and ethical function of architecture, a “meaningful regionalism” related to humans and the environment.
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