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Narrative Neighbourhoods

3 April 2018

Narrative: “A spoken or written account of connected events; a story.”

We have been reflecting recently on the importance and challenges of creating a narrative for design and visual language in a neighbourhood that feels relevant and meaningful to local people.

One of the first books I read when I got to Architecture school was Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place. It was a book that shaped so much of my thinking and opened my eyes to the idea that we are all a part of the narrative of the places we live and that we can push to make these everyday stories have more visibility.

This idea is still at the core of everything we do, be it through the engagement activities we are running, a brief for a space we are writing with a community or a physical change. It is the people, in all their complexity and diversity that are the centre of the narratives we create and not something that we impose onto them.

We have all possibly levied the criticism of ‘it could be anywhere’ at a design or a new graphic that arrives in a place we know well. It is hard to juggle the informal, organic growth of places we consider to be rich in character and stories with having a commissioned role from a local authority implying there will automatically be more structure. Now I know we are not edgy street artists; our work is more about creating a shared narrative with the people who live and work in an area which we use to influence our proposals.

Our work for Alberfeldy Village is an example of one way to achieve this by creating a narrative collaboratively. For this project we created a travelling cart of curiosities to illicit stories and snippets of history that we used to develop a complex narrative reflecting the rich sights, scents and textures of the local area and the people who know it well.

One of the other challenges with creating a narrative is that as a designer you bring your own ideas and style to a project and sometimes this can be at odds with a particular place; ideas can feel contrived rather than authentic. There is nothing wrong with having a set aesthetic and of course we have preferences, materials, colour palettes we bring to our work. However, our philosophy is about understanding an area from within before producing any work and therefore our portfolio is more diverse. We are unashamedly collaborative in our approach, using the rigour of process to create a shared approach rather that having our own set of styles and aesthetics that we always use.

Anybody working in the built environment, particularly in an urban context, will be acutely aware of the potential criticism of this being another opportunity to gentrify an area and remove the very diversity and adhoc nature that makes a place so popular. To address this sense of removing of existing narrative our work embeds community engagement from the beginning so that the new or evolved narrative for a space is created collaboratively. We look back at the history of a space, gather insight on the present day and look forward to what could be; using the intersection of these stories to create a unique narrative specific to a location.

Ultimately our work is done when a piece of work we have helped achieve is taken on and owned by local people and we as authors become almost invisible. While we spend as much time as possible in a place when we are working on a project and we often work in places time and time again but if the intention is that the people who live and work there now will be there long after us therefore they must shape and own the narrative for their own neighbourhood.

Jane Jacobs knew this and so eloquently wrote:

“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

Jane Jacobs