Frangipane / Narrative as a design tool in fragile contexts

Narrative as a design tool in fragile contexts

Author: Marianna Frangipane, Politecnico di Milano

Supervisor: Andrea Di Franco, Politecnico di Milano

Research stage: Initial doctoral stage

Category: Extended abstract

“It matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; […] It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories”

Haraway D. J., Staying with the trouble

The research follows the idea of exploring new approaches for spatial modifications in fragile contexts, by developing narrative as a possible design tool.

Architecture nowadays needs to transcend the reductionism paradigm and to work on real substance and complexity. How architectural design can face complexity without reducing it? The key text in challenging a different spatial understanding is “The production of space” by Lefebvre. His analysis of space, summarized by “(social) space is (social) product”1, places the production of space in a broader social, dynamic and political context. Lefebvre’s idea of space needs to be even expanded by other factors dictated by global, ecological, and virtual networks2. From these multiple interactions and feedback stems the impossibility to make a certain prediction: each design's spatial intention escapes the promoted one, and often goes beyond the purpose. Hence, from a design perspective, we need to start from the consideration that “the territory is how you use it”3. At the core of this conception emerges the critique about the way design reduces society to social demand and the invitation to consider design (and the related research) as a tentative practice, by experiencing the possibilities.4

Figure 1

In those territories where uncertainty meets multi-problematic, such as spatial, social, and economic issues, an additional layer of complexity hampers the design effectiveness. These are “exclusion territories”5, where the overlapping of a series of heterogeneous problems and the concentration of unresolved issues exacerbate the difficulties in interpreting context complexity. Here design slips into crisis, due to the lack of a sharable language, the impossibility to define a straightforward space modification demand, a sharable design form, as well as a social form related to different practices implied in the space modification. These contexts reveal social inequalities and gaps among the territories, as described by architects, urban planners, anthropologists, sociologists, and economists. To face and contribute to effective actions in these contexts architectural design may embrace Morin’s thought that closely relates the inequalities challenging to the complexity6. Here the complexity and related fragility open the opportunity to rethink and regenerate our cities, to experiment how spatial design could co-operate to shape possibilities related to “how will we live together”7.

This research topic relates to the effectiveness of possible design tools and methods when related to fragile contexts. The design field research stems from my personal experiences and its feed by the observation of these contemporary practical experiences, that “shift the focus of spatial attention away from the static objects of display that constitute the foreground of so much architectural production, and moves it onto the continuous cycle of spatial production, and to all the people and processes that go into it.”8 The parameters that direct the research focus are the following design features: First is the project process related to existing and transforming reality. This is related to a research process that does not have the aim to define models, but rather to identify a methodological approach to feed an interaction process that proceeds over time by embracing the unexpected conditions. Second is the relationship between the plurality of players that operate in the space modification process. Assuming both the cooperation (transdisciplinary) and the conflicts as “mutual knowledge”9 sensors. Third is the design unfolding through tentative forms, by considering the design forms in an exploratory terms, as a tool through which possibilities of living are revealed: “tool and not the aim of a relational process, such as that which is fed by personal poetics, corresponds to the authorial model still widespread”10. The experiences of that tentative design have visible short-term effects: building temporary local relationships, revealing some existing conditions, triggering some new uses of the space, opening some modification possibilities.

Nevertheless, citing Palermo “This idea of a weak and uncertain architecture is suggestive, but at risk, because it could easily become elusive, ephemeral, irrelevant and therefore conservative, due to an excess of disengagement”11.

The outcome of tentative design process cannot be described through general explanations, neither with the conventional design tool as the plans. During the design exploration process each unique experience is not directly identified with the architectural static achievement, neither only with the definition of a future configuration, which is not predictable. The design outcome relates with the project path: how the new situation came about. In this vision the design process oscillates between the action and its observation in an auto-reflexive practice to nourish both the pertinent (local) and disciplinary knowledge. The inquiry issue to investigate concerns the effective design knowledge traces (tacit knowledge) to render explicit for instructing the modification process over time, in a long-term vision. The central mechanism by which design knowledge is conveyed, by providing a bridge between tacit and explicit, is narrative. Thus, the relationship between design and narrative is the field of observation where the research focuses.

The research approach relates to negotiating and understanding spatial design by means of process-oriented narratives. What narrative forms, uses and effects in the modification process? At this stage of my Phd the concepts of “narrative” is linked to a signification tool that operates in the design research process. This assumes operative and procedural implications by revealing the existing and conflicting conditions in a transformation process, by promoting provisional synthesis and mediating between different parts and people12. Second as a tool favouring interactions and allowing mutual knowledge exchange. To build up correspondences13 among the plurality of players that are involved in the production of space and “to make kin in lines as a practice of learning how to live […] with each other in a thick present”14. Third as a tool to organize the experience. The process of social and thus spatial construction of reality is interwoven with communicative practices. Within them, narrative practices play a role, whose specific performance is to provide, disseminate and preserve ways of selecting and connecting the elements of our reality. Narrative as a design tool has not to be considered as an innocent field of the agreement but a tool for “staying with the trouble” by relating with the spatial modification possibilities. What potentialities and limits of narrative in the architectural project?

The research structure includes different sections: the first the Theoretical framework based on selected readings and relevant scientific literature by defining a possible state of the art and a historical glance, in order to explore the relation

between narrative and design and how it changed from the premodernity to the contemporaneity. The second Experiences Repository based on redraws, interviews, and direct observations of relevant case studies (both my and others experiences) to structure storytelling that makes them comparable. The experiences are considered as exempla, not as best practices. The task is to define a toolbox to improve the project effectiveness in complex contexts and build a shared knowledge in the field. Redrawing projects process by mapping their narrative form/relational devices/documents/material and immaterial traces. The last section relates with the definition of Design methodological perspective for fragile contexts.

Figure 2

  1. Lefebvre H., La production de l’espace, Éditions Anthropos, 1974
  2. Awan N. et al., Spatial agency. Other ways of doing architecture, Routledge, 2011
  3. Crosta P.L, Pratiche. Il territorio è l’uso che se ne fa, Franco Angeli editore, 2010
  4. Crosta P.L., Bianchetti C., Conversazioni sulla ricerca, Donzelli editore, 2021
  5. Fava F., Lo zen di Palermo. Antropologia dell’esclusione, Franco Angeli, 2008
  6. Morin E., Introduzione al pensiero complesso. Gli strumenti per affrontare la crisi della complessità, Sperling & Kupfer, 1997
  7. Biennal exhibition: How will we live together 2021
  8. Awan N. et al., Spatial agency. Other ways of doing architecture, Routledge, 2011
  9. Giddens A., Social Theory and Modern Sociology, Cambridge, 1987
  10. Barbieri P., Contests in flight, in Ardeth 1, pp125-136.
  11. Palermo P.C., I limiti del possibile, Donzelli Editore, 2009
  12. Ricœur P., Architettura e narratività, in: Francesco Riva (Ed.), Leggere la città, Lit Edizioni, 1996
  13. Ingold T., Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture, Routledge, 2013
  14. Haraway D., Staying with the trouble, Duke University Press, 2016