Frangipane / Narrative as a Design Tool in Marginal Landscape

Narrative as a Design Tool in Marginal Landscape

Author: Marianna Frangipane, Politecnico di Milano

Supervisor: Andrea Di Franco, Politecnico di Milano

Research stage: initial doctoral stage

Category: Extended abstract

This research has the objective of experiencing and identifying new approaches for space modification in marginal contexts, based on the hypothesis that narrative may represent a possible design tool.

The research evaluates a design approach for marginal contexts, by focusing on the relational process and overall plan communication. These contexts are not defined by a geographical condition but rather characterized by complexity and turbulence 1 that determine inertia to modification. For this reason, they are increasingly placed on the margins of transformation and regeneration processes, a condition that risks feeding itself in a downward spiral, labeling these places as intractable. The disciplinary and traditional design gets into crisis, due to uncertainty that hampers the possibility of interpretation, thus defining an order that the design could reinvent and build.

From a design perspective, these contexts may be defined as ‘project orphans’ 2. The complexity generated by linguistic structures which are so fragmented, not dialoguing, and conflicting with each other renders it hard of finding a way to understand them. The lack of a sharable language generates the impossibility to define a straightforward space modification demand, thus a sharable design form, as well as a social form related to the different practices implied in the modification of the space.

How does design face these contexts where the space modification demand is not explicit? A possible approach needs to interpret marginal contexts and to trace possible space modifications, considering the projects as:

  • Tentative: an exploratory project that looks for the sense of the project itself, by revealing new possibilities for the modification of space 3.
  • Open work: a project amenable for future changes by the involvement of different players 4.
  • A social practice: the outcome of the architectural project practice is not directly identified in the architectural achievements, but rather in the structure of the relationships that underlies it 5.

How does design untangle this complexity without reducing it? «The time of uncertainty needs renovated tools for the design and management of physical transformation» 6. The research raises the possibility that narrative could be an effective design tool. According to Evelina Calvi in her ‘Tempo e progetto’, to connect languages and contents to architecture, considering the project as a bricolage action, the narrative opens up the possibility of establishing a dialogue that is no longer just internal to the discipline values, but extended to lived experiences placed in an already open horizon of ‘common belonging’ 7. Starting from the interpretation of the complexity through the contamination of discourses, the project may represent a temporary synthesis able to produce a configuration of the existing, connecting the fragments in an innovative way 8.

Architecture, in becoming concrete, is narrative (not a description). The research hypothesis assumes narrative in its operative and procedural implication exploring it as a tool to reveal the existing condition in a transformation process, by juggling between multiple and dispersed elements to promote a provisional synthesis and mediating between different temporal and spatial scales. In particular, the narrative is faced as a design tool to interpret, trigger, connect and store different forms of design knowledges. This concept is related with two main aspects, on one hand, which narrative forms allow knowledge exchange and are requisite for the project to build its sense, in the unfolding of the process, and how they affect the definition of the spatial modification; on other hand, how this complex knowledge, as result of multiple languages ​​and experiences, can be narrated, mapped and deposited to become comparable and operable. Herein my interest is focused on which forms may be implied to render the gathered knowledge during the relational project process sharable by making the best sense of the project itself and to become an operative legacy. Starting from this tentative and partial definition the guided question raises: What uses, forms and effects of narrative in the architectural project?

Starting from the attempt to define the topic, the methodological and geographical research framework, my first Ca2re represents an opportunity to start to analyze the uses, forms, effects of the design narrative, beginning from the observation of two action-researches I have been directly involved.

The first one is Cortile Spettacolare (2019-2020). The context of this experimentation is San Siro in Milan, characterized by a ‘super-diversity’ 9 expressed through conditions of fragility, linked to isolation and marginalization, and a dense network of players who dialogue on shared projects. Here the morphology of the rationalist open system, concluded by fences to delimit its crossability, generates a network of uncertain open spaces, between public and private use, which make this territory a fertile ground for reflection on the role and tools of contemporary design: the courtyards. Through a participative process that included a close dialogue with the inhabitants we designed and built an ‘open room’ in the courtyard. The project approach was multidisciplinary involving architects, urbanists, anthropologists, actors, and visual artists providing for actions in listening time and mutual learning with the inhabitants. The design process has been conducted through different narrative forms that have generated an open multidisciplinary knowledge: drawings, written texts, artistic objects, technical relations, spatial devices. They have taken value as relational devices by welcoming and contaminating each other through the multiple competencies (expert and ordinary) that have contributed to the design definition.
The second one is Campo-gioco Forma-azione (2021- ongoing). The context of this experimentation is Corvetto, a fragile periurban area in the South-est of Milan. The action research involves students from Politecnico of Milan, the local associations, the inhabitants in two different actions: a. the co-construction of a small pavilion in a public space b. the design of other underused or abandoned public spaces. Both activities represent exploratory and tentative purposes. The co-construction activity aims to generate a form open to appropriation, to question the context and orient the modification demand. The design activity does not aim to achieve the imagined transformation, but rather to generate narrative forms to trigger a virtuous process. The design action moves towards an interactive, dynamic and evolutionary dimension, which moves away from the image of the project as a mere pre-representation of the future 10. Thus, the narrative design forms are considered as ‘social objects’ 11, they do not aim at the construction, but at triggering the relationships that generate the project modification demand ‘from inside’ the contexts.
This research deals with narrative and its forms as design relational tools, capable of putting in tension the different parts (material and immaterial) of the complex landscape the project needs to relate with.

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