Narrative: Building Architecture around a Story

Narrative: Building Architecture around a Story

In architecture, narrative prioritises human experiences and the need to shape them into stories. It places the emphasis on a building’s meaning rather than performance. To architects, the enduring attraction of narrative is that it offers a way of engaging with the way a city feels and works. Rather than reducing architecture to a mere style or an overt emphasis on technology, it foregrounds how buildings are experienced. [1]

In essence, narrative is a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious, presented in a sequence of written or spoken words, and/or in a sequence of ‘moving’ pictures. Above all a narrative is a form of communication, in other words, a story unfolding until its meaning brings revelation, which implicates a narrator and a recipient.

oma-rem-koolhaas-parc-de-la-villette-paris-france-1982
OMA-Rem Koolhaas, Parc de La Villette, Paris, France, 1982

Architecture can be constructed around a narrative. For example, in architectural competition, the architect is absent when designs are reviewed and judgements are made, to convince both the jury and the public of the potential of their vision, an emphasis on the ‘process’ is crucial. A likely way to approach this issue involves developing a narrative disclosure that, using precedents and influences drawn from inside and outside the building culture, tells the story of the process of design. The design proposal is therefore wrapped in relevant, yet diverse, reference that gives it credence and helps to bridge the gap between established thinking, analogy and innovation. [2] This is a communication tactic that induces the viewer to comprehend a design proposal in terms of a ‘plot’ and to judge its efficacy against the processes that created it. This strategy is designed to build-up revelatory expectation in the viewer-listener; consequently, it is important that the narrator- designer satisfies those expectations. [3]

Parc de la Villette by Bernard Tschumi, Paris, 1982
Parc de la Villette by Bernard Tschumi, Paris, 1982

Many architects have described their buildings through a sequential experience in terms of an unfolding narrative, such as, Rem Koolhaas, an ex-movie maker. Koolhaas sees the approach and entrance as ‘introduction’, movement into and about the building as unfolding ‘plot”, and, as in the structure of movies, the journey peppered with measured ‘mini- climaxes’ leading to an ultimate ‘climax’ or denouement. Still, when talking about narrative in architecture, one name stands above the rest — Nigel Coates.

London by Nigel Coates
London by Nigel Coates
The text accompanying this drawing predicted: ‘The City has become an agglomeration of shinning steel towers of light jammed in among the nineteenth century buildings have been replaced by Neuromancer medievalism. No longer a museum, the city is both living history and living future’.
NATØ group // L-R: Peter Fleissig, Melanie Sainsbury, Catrina Beevor, Mark Prizeman, Christina Norton, Carlos Villanueva Brandt, Martin Benson, Robert Mull, Nigel Coates, photograph, 1984, Copyright Sheila Rock.
NATØ group // L-R: Peter Fleissig, Melanie Sainsbury, Catrina Beevor, Mark Prizeman, Christina Norton, Carlos Villanueva Brandt, Martin Benson, Robert Mull, Nigel Coates, photograph, 1984, Copyright Sheila Rock.

Nigel Coates, a foremost figure in the field of narrative architecture, along with eight of his ex-students, founded the avant-garde NATO (Narrative Architecture Today), the experimental movement to explore the stories of buildings. An attempt to make Narrative Architecture work, on paper, in models and in a spirited magazine, of which just three issues were published, through his Diploma Unit 10 and the AA. The results were not, appreciated by external examiners, including James Stirling and Ed Jones who declared that the anarchic, punky drawings they were presented with were ‘unassessable’, which — lacking proper plans, sections, elevations and perspectives (worm’s eye or otherwise) − they were, at least in conventional terms.

Coates has been a much loved professor of architecture at the Royal College of Art, and a cult tutor before that at the AA. His ability to draw from so many strands of contemporary life and to weave these into provocative new ideas about architecture, design and the city infused and mapped with a genuine love and understanding of architectural history, make Coates an undeniably attractive personality, a provocateur and activist shot through with irrepressible energy and a genuine sense of fun, along with that of the eye-catching and the absurd. [4]

Ecstacity by Nigel Coates, 1992
Ecstacity by Nigel Coates, 1992
This drawing samples a central part of London between Trafalgar Square and Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Ethereal new structures add a new energy to existing buildings. In the centre of the Aldwych  crescent, the Giant Albion reclines as an artful reminder of the human psyche of the city.

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Narrative: Building Architecture around a Story

Narrative: Building Architecture around a Story In architecture, narrative prioritises human experiences and the need to...

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