ARCHITECTURE BEYOND THE BUILT FORM. UNDERSTANDING AND IMAGINATION
DR MARIA VIDALI
COLLEGE YEAR ATHENS/ DIKEMES, GREECE
The aim of this paper is to reveal the importance of a deeper understanding of space and place prior to the design process. It also aims to reveal the importance of the role of the architect, irrespectively of drawings and modeling tables, but mostly connected to the world of text and language.
As a student in architecture myself, I soon realized during my undergraduate studies in Great Britain, as is also the case elsewhere, that studio work is based on assignments/ projects related to urban narratives as tools for imagining spaces and eventually create meaningful living spaces. Later on, working as an architect, I realized that the same was true regarding the importance of narrative into my work, when presenting my work to clients and sharing common metaphors of their own life integrated into an architectural narrative, which was deeply related with the place and landscape of the given site and environment.
The book Confabulations: storytelling in architecture reveals 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.” Teaching recently the course "Understanding and Imagination before Designing” at the School of Architecture of the University of Thessaly in Greece, and also a contemporary urbanism course, “Athens through time, space, narrative” in a studies abroad programme, allowed me to explore how the process of narrating and creating fictional narratives of space and place create a different understanding of what life is, in addition to creating a stable ground for the imagination to rely upon and flourish.
UNDERSTANDING BEFORE DESIGNING - A COURSE ON A FARMING LANDSCAPE
”Understanding and Imagination before Designing”, is a course which is based on a case study on the traditional architecture of a village on the Cycladic island of Tinos. The course analyses life in the village through the creation of a file with a collection of observations, texts, interviews, narratives, stories that a new architect should be aware of in this space before beginning to imagine and creating a new piece of architecture in the traditional structure of a village or any other small community. What should an architect know beyond thinking or designing the structure of a building in order to analyse and understand an existing spatial and social situation in depth? In architectural theory, tools of interpretation are given through different approaches, so that architecture and art can be understood as practices that were traditionally used to connect man with his community, place, religion, and environment. But how are they implemented?
Kampos, a Cycladic village, where the low boundary stonewalls still define the rural landscape, the structure of the village and the characteristics of its inhabitants. Initially, students had to develop tools for understanding and interpreting the landscape of a traditional village much closer to the University, both through the existing architecture and the everyday life of the villagers. Spatial, social and ethical boundaries were discovered through texts and stories about the village, through various public and community spaces, the structure of the family house, people’s coexistence with animals, the influence of religion, and the everyday practices of the inhabitants in this complex territory. By examining twelve different spatial and social situations, the course sought to reveal the following: the structure of this society and the traditional village structure and its relationship with myth; the history of its construction; the basis on which the architect should use his/her imagination before implementing a new piece of architecture within this complex structure. In the course, extracts of narratives, contracts, maps, photographs and videos were used, so that the students could consolidate their understanding of the different issues of village life.
UNDERSTANDING NARRATIVE AND IMAGINATION - A COURSE ON URBAN LANDSCAPES
“Athens through time, space, narrative” course investigates Athens as a city evolving in time, bringing together historic and contemporary architecture, as well as spaces of the communal, public and private realm. The course is addressed to students from American Universities and different departments during a semester of studies in Athens (studies abroad programme).The purpose of the course is to reveal the complexity of the Mediterranean metropolis by asking students to create their own narratives about the city, based on an archive of observations, photographs and images, sketches and records.They will then be asked to write their own stories about the city through their experience and understanding of the city’s places and urban spaces.
The course is composed of lectures followed by related field trips, single and group assignments which help them see and imagine life in Athens. It focuses on the Athenian landscape and its environs, on the social, cultural and urban fabric, in order to shed light on the boundaries and spaces of crisis, migration, but also of negotiations and coexistence, as this takes place between the ancient and the new, between the centre and the edges of the city.
The aim of the course is to help the students understand the urban characteristics of Athens, its complexity.This is a complexity that is interwoven with the coexistence of spaces, from the perspective of their spatial, cultural and social structure. Students have the opportunity to see how traditional planning is sometimes abstract and distant from reality and how the tourist image of 'quaint' is not at all what a city is about. This in turn puts the emphasis on the importance of dealing with the complete, in-place, reality of human conditions.
During the process of research before teaching this courses, I realized that, through listening and creating stories- from the citizen’s life in urban or even farming landscapes, space and landscape consist of a series of metaphors on the nature of dwelling in every part of the world, in specific urban or farming landscapes, with a contemporary way of living, but still connected to contemporary life or tradition/ past as a mimetic action to the present time. The students of this course created their own narratives based on the metaphors of Athenians on their reality in the city, fused by their personal experience in the city as a variation of truth. During this study and experience I kept in mind the relevance and discovery of truth through fiction/story/myth as argued by French philosopher Paul Ricoeur,who claims that “what has to be questioned is the overly simple equation made between life and experience. A life is no more than a biological phenomenon as long as it has
not been interpreted.” As he further explains, the “mediating role” of fiction as a weaving procedure of different things that make up life. This complexity of life is what narrative tries to imitate.
Pérez-Gómez makes an even stronger claim in this direction, according to which “metaphor is more than the “master” figure of speech; it is the central form of linguistic expression for enactive consciousness once it finds itself facing external reality. It is an articulation of truth in the manner of the Greek aletheia, Heidegger’s “revealing concealing” that must take the place of “truth as correspondence” as normative for human understanding”. Imagination appears common both for language as narrative/ fiction/ story and architecture. Through fiction, students brought together understanding and imagination and were able to root their experiences and observations in the space of the city. Furthermore, Grassi also identifies another aspect of the role of fiction in general, namely the way this “metaphorical imagistic form of language,” as he describes it, can offer another manner of philosophizing. Kearney, referencing Ricoeur, explores the ability of the language to open to new worlds, not as a collection of subjectivities, but through productive linguistic imagination, “the metaphorical imagination”, as he states, that “not only combines the verbal and non-verbal, it also produces new meaning by confronting a literal with a figurative sense.”
THREE FOREIGNERS AND AN OPENING DAY - EXTRACT FROM FICTIONAL NARRATIVE ON THE VILLAGE OF KAMPOS
Extract from a fictional narrative from personal research on the Cycladic village of Kampos.
“The village was silent, while the natural landscape at the outskirts of the village were inundated with the scent of pollen and the colors of spring. Footsteps were heard on the main village street. Kyra Anna and Foteini were approaching. Kyra Anna was older than Foteini; this is why people called her Kyra. They were both late and were now walking hastily towards the church. The church seemed dark and cold, compared to the light and warmth in the courtyard of the church this spring afternoon. That day, there were twelve women. They were all kneeling in front of the benches of the church with their koroneta in hand, each saying the prayer to the Virgin Mary, some with loud voices and some with lower voices.Their fingers rapidly moved along every bead of the koroneta following each prayer.When the prayer ended and the women went out of the church, they continued to socialize and chat in the courtyard of the church.”
“ Kyra Anna covered her head with a colorful scarf and said goodbye to the other ladies. She wanted to visit Xenoula at the museum and hear the news about this month’s opening and celebrations. No sooner had she wrapped up her hair with her scarf than Eleni stopped her.
“Where are you going? Sooner or later the villagers will arrive to decide about the church’s land.”
“Holy Trinity’s land?” answered Kyra Anna with an expression of surprise.
“Aaah! You weren’t there last Saturday at the church, when the priest announced that Mrs. Zana, the museum artist , asked for private use of the adjacent land to the museum, which belongs to the church! So the priest informed the parish committee and the committee invited all the villagers to decide whether to grant the request.”
“Kyra Anna left the church courtyard and turned left, passing by the most remote part of the village where the doors of the houses were closed since the previous summer and the cellars looked forlorn and empty. She passed under the old vaulted archway and left the old stables on her left and the beautiful old and luxurious house of Filippousis family, where the wild artichokes and fig trees had grown big to the point of covering most of the garden. She then turned right towards the house that Mrs. Zana, the artist, had had refurbished a few years ago. She passed underneath the vaulted archway that supported Mrs. Zana’s newly refurbished courtyard that also formed its entrance door. A few steps further, she opened the old gate at the end of the passage under the vaulted archway. She walked through Simos’ courtyard and the small open space, which was formed by Stratis’ and Antonis’ thresholds, courtyards, and houses. There on, she followed the alleyway that connected this area to the big set of steps that ended in an equally small open space formed by the front of Stratis’ house, including those of Nikiforos and Katerina. She stepped down the last steps and leaned against the wall of the house that now had become part of the new museum’s courtyard.”
The in-between spaces in the village and its landscape –where conflict and solidarity coexist– as places of dwelling and negotiation revealed to me the importance of language for understanding the meaning of these spaces as private or communal, but also as deeply-rooted ways of dwelling. Dwelling is fully engaged with the environment, which is still imposed by nature’s forces, the religious and ethical order as part of a traditional community life, within both the private and public realm. This psychosomatic equilibrium connected to human relations, the environment and architecture, and the village atmosphere, are conveyed through language in this and seven more fictional narratives.
In this study, a series of old contracts, which reflect a perception of the value of land and property connected with the land’s production and cultivation, convey a pre-poetical, pre-hermeneutical description.This represents another anthropological description of the place, given so as to be reconstructed under different situations and conditions. There is actually a series of interpretations from contracts and interviews to fiction and then the interpretation of the fictional narrative. Then, phenomenology and hermeneutics can help to understand and interpret these spaces, which are created by a series of spatial, social, ethical boundaries and actually exists through the negotiation and narration of stories that take place in all spaces of the village or the city. As Gadamer claims “the principle of hermeneutics simply means that we should try to understand everything that can be understood”
This research consists of a series of metaphors and interpretations, which in turn produce a series of realities, a series of truths. Archives were used with the intention to produce fiction as a way of interpreting and
revealing the reality of the city or the village. The fictional stories are an intellectual construct of the things that make up this reality.
As stated by J. Malpas “narrative can be seen as structuring [...] both memory and self - identity, as well as the places, the landscapes in which self identity is itself worked out and established.” 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 or city structure and life. It is extremely important for architects to develop an understanding based on the different experiences that take place within the village structures and which can lead to interpretations in architecture and design closer to a human way of life and closer to life’s actual complexities.
Within contemporary architecture that still seeks to keep novelty in architectural projects alive in contemporary and traditional societies, language and narrative forms can become tools of understanding and revealing the truth of these societies in relation to architecture and the environment. Primarily texts, related literature, contracts, testaments, verbal history connected with the place can help us understand the community and the inhabitants’ perception of ownership and dwelling through a different set of metaphors and interpretations.Gadamer claims that “in language and only in it, can we meet what we never “encounter” in the world because we are ourselves and merely what we mean and what we know from ourselves.” This knowledge from ourselves also involves emotions.This represents another way in which through fiction we connect ourselves with space and the environment.This is the reason why writing a fictional narrative helps students to understand, connect, root their experience into space and the environment, allowing them to imagine life as a social and cultural interaction where place, space and environment are involved.
Today, though we gravitate towards new contemporary sustainable ways of living, we search for things beyond the human way of life, beyond the complexity of architecture, we do not look for what connects us to social life, spatial qualities and the environment. In this course students are invited to understand this relationship between contemporary or traditional life and the complexity of architecture, place and environment. Students become equipped with tools to understand and interpret local traditions in modern life. Narrative and fiction equip students with a way of interpreting the local tradition and culture without responding to an architecture and a way of dwelling through form and fashion, but by revealing the social and ethical function of architecture as a substantial expression/reflection of the relation between architectural tradition, on the one hand, and people, places and the environment, on the other.
10. Jeffrey Malpas, Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
11. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. and eds. Linge E. David, (Berkley, Los Angeles, London:
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