Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Book - Architecture and Narrative

Stories are part of the human identity and allow to deal with the aspects of time other than the immediate present. It provides a tool to communicate, express or invent activities beyond the here and now. This activity is directly linked with the construction of memory and ultimately leads to the creation of identity. The most common use of the story is probably the report or oral transported information, very much in the sense of tales, fables and myths. However in every field of our everyday life the narrative plays an integrated role. The same is true for science and practice. For a very long time and probably still is, the narrative is associated with an anti objective view and therefore needs to be overcome. Nevertheless a lot of fields have silently made great use of stories and the power to create stories. The media for example relies heavily on it. In this context, architecture might not be the most obvious field to also relay on stories. But it actually does and has always done, even in the context of modernist doctrines of absolute objectivity. Recently the topic has become more fashionably again and the narrative emerges as a new term to describe processes and creations. Probably the rise of methods, such as system theory and network theory, the story as a transformer of the process managed to gain importance again.
The new book ‘Architecture and Narrative’ by Sophia Psarra published by Routledge in 2009 is here trying to provide a conceptual foundation to the idea of the story in architecture. To do so, it heavily relays on built examples, who are examined and during the process a logical argumentation is developed to illustrate the viewpoint of the narrative in spatial arrangements. The book is structured in four parts and can be geographically be described as a journey from Greece to the United States with a stop over in England. Those locations coincide with the authors career. The examples then line up the Parthenon and the Erechtherion, the Barcelona Pavilion, the Sir John Soane Museum, the Natural History Museum London, ending with the MoMa in New York. However it not only relies on built examples, part two is examining examples in literature.
The idea of the book is described by the publisher as: “Looking at how meaning is constructed in buildings and how it is communicated to the viewer, this intriguing study will be of interest to anyone concerned with architecture and culture; from architects to museum specialists and exhibition designers.”

Image by urbanTIck - Book front cover

The examples are examined in detail, piece by piece or by section of the narrative and then sequentially pieced back together. The examination covers a number of different areas a techniques. It does not relay solely on for example theory or literature on the subject. The argumentation is mainly constructed along spatial observations which makes the discussion interesting. For spatial investigations Psarra’s past association with Space Syntax shies through. The explanations as well as the illustrations relay heavily on concepts developed in the context of Space Syntax, such as the concept of the room connection description (was discussed on this blog HERE) or the concept of axial views. It does make sense in the context of the book, however it also creates paradox situations, as for example with the concept of reflexion in Sir John Soane’s Museum.
Nevertheless, I have read the book with a constant mental nod and a growing satisfaction. It provides a beautiful collection of examples together with structures or narrated examinations and release the reader with a ‘I wana go out and do my own observations on narrative now“ feeling. What more can you demand?
Image by urbanTick - analysis drawings of a series of viewpoints inside the Sir John Soane Museum

Psarra, S., 2009. Architecture and Narrative: The Formation of Space and Cultural Meaning, Abingdon: Routledge.

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