An Architecture Manifesto


Buildings which enrich the experience of the moment, or at least fail to detract from that experience.

Some good buildings intentionally blend the line between nature and culture. Those buildings are difficult to photograph. Most easily-photographed buildings are sculptures in space – attempting to stand forward from nature or local context, often to the point of contrasting – and tend to disappoint when experienced in person. They are akin to the fashion expert who brings no books to the book club. Like us, building design is a balance between the contemporary and the timeless. My goal for buildings is to tilt the scales towards a timeless quality.

This modest goal requires buildings avoid superficial attempts to suggest “meaning”. This is the failing of expressionist artistic artifacts that often rely on dualistic expression to convey “meaning” about something other than what is at hand. Modest buildings, like other artifacts of craft, express the process of their creation and persistence. While the details delight, the overall design helps the user engage with the environment and neighbors, not estrange them by being overly focused on one audience.

Persistence is critical

The most sustainable building is the one that is maintained. Neglected, buildings will return to the Earth. We can buffer buildings from this fate by making them important to people who have stories involving that building. Buildings are performance stages where we set the plays of our lives. Once we stop setting our stories in a building, it is truly doomed. The long-lived building is kept healthy by human hands. We adore that which helps us see beyond our day-to-day shuffle. That which orients us to an expansive view points out a way towards broader perspectives.

In addition to hosting good stories, good company, and insight, a building needs to be efficient and flexible. A wasteful or constrained building is like a beautiful hat that is too small and constantly needs gold threads replaced. You will eventually discard it for a floppy sun-hat that is less attractive but more practical. In buildings, this is accomplished by designing for a “loose fit” that we can renovate later; by directing resources towards a stronger structure and greater utility-capacity rather than towards fancy finishes.

The Uncanny Valley

Aesthetically, an abstract design built without regard to the subtle differences in land, light, breeze, and views is like an android. An android looks a lot like a human, but its designed-perfection lacks the common thread of humanity: time and our adaptations in the form of foibles, neurosis, humor, and wisdom. There is something uncanny that distracts us, and if it is too close a simulacrum, we fall into the “uncanny valley” which the object of design cannot recover from.

Most, if not all, of us harbor a love of antiquity and respect for elders

Such antique culture is the backdrop for our own stories. Old buildings’ stories lend orientation and depth to our stories by being tangible links to our history. When people see the utility or function of a building as still valid to them in their day-to-day lives they will make the time to affect any required repairs. Veneration for the elder is normal as it reminds us that there is continuity in the human realm.

The ironic truth is that we look favorably upon the past but with the full insight that only hindsight grants. We were all just as confused in the past as we are now, but we now understand that earlier territory and would like to go live there. Obviously, this is not possible. We each are facing new challenges as we age, our children age, and the wheel of life spins on. Nostalgia is a kind of mourning for the past, and we need each other’s help to stay focused on the opportunities before us right now. Buildings designed in a historical mode cannot deliver us from the present; rather they lead into the uncanny valley of theme-park design.

Our homes tend to become an extension of our state of mind

It is filled with our belongings. We decorate with reflections of our mind, creating a personal model of our neurosis and aspirations. Thus the power of geomantic arts like Feng Shui are not limited to working with Kami, Drala, and faerie folk, but an actual input channel to working with our minds. Architects can facilitate such personal work, but your habitation needs to be intentional. My role as architect ends when you take possession of your home, but my aspiration is your home helps you achieve your aspirations.
We use buildings both as vessels for our neuroses and containers for realization. They are an expression of our desires and aspirations. They are on display for all to see. They are artificial constructs of culture and our personal desires, aversions, and inattention. Done well they are commodious, flexible, efficient, locally adapted, and adaptable to future generations’ needs.

They are commodious, adaptable, facilitate hospitality, and easy to maintain.

Each is a container that mitigates the natural elements for human activity.

Nostalgia, on the other hand, is a desire for a simpler existence.

Even without a design theme, a home is highly suggestible

 

Lost in Boulder, Colorado

 

 

I grew up a neighborhood kid. If I saw different parts of Boulder it was because of the indeterminable car-rides with my parents.
When I was a boy of about 7 or 8, I got permission from my dad to ride my bike to the bookstore about 10 blocks away.
I had lied–my intention was to ride out to the big bookstore at least 40 blocks away.
I got lost. 

Jason and Dilgo Khyentse R.

I rode past the Trident, a book store I’d already tapped out of their best options.

About 1/3 of the way there was the old army-surplus store my dad took me to several times. I remembered that there was a map of the town on display in the store, so I went in there to get my bearings. Total failure: it was a tourist map (none of the landmarks I needed where on the map). 

map of the route

I kept riding, further than I’d ever ridden before

This was a scary adventure, because I had no idea how far away that bookstore was! Moreover, while I knew what it looked like and what was around it, I didn’t have a map of the intervening space. Being driven by my parents, the automobile had allowed me to have two independent domains that I knew had to be linked, but I didn’t know how. 

Boulder skyline

That day my domain expanded dramatically by using systems. I knew my home was at the foot of the mountain (and the sun set behind that mountain), and the streets of the city were nearly all cardinally aligned. My whole sense of “city” emerged. Nodes became connected by grids. I noticed the street numbering system (east to west) and the street names (north to south). I still thought I could influence traffic lights with the powers of my mind, but I did know where I was.

 

IS THINKING ACTION?


He stood there.
In the middle of a riot, with tensions high and water-cannons on stand-by, he just stood there.
He was not trying to stop a line of tanks.
He was not impeding the British cavalry.
He stood there—in public—

and thought.

 

Erdem Gündünz

In 2013, there was a dramatic uprising in Turkey initially inspired by the desire to preserve a public park. Erdem Gündünz, an artist, was struck by the portrait of the political idealist of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). There, in the contested space, he stood and thought for eight hours.

 

 

The Life of the Mind

This is a modern example of what is described in the “Life of the Mind” (Arendt, 1978) as one of the few moments when thinking had a direct political expression.

Normally, thinking is a withdraw from the apparent world to develop fictional worlds. It is an act of storytelling, of developing “what if?” scenarios.

Thinking is not, in fact, a fact-oriented process. Science and cognition is fact-oriented, and seeks to turn the cogs to make the machine of science extrude a new answer that was better than previous answers.

Thinking is not reasonable. There is nothing that needs to lead to thinking, it is not in order of any process, there is no reason to think. When I want to make bread I do not think about it: the reason I add the starter to the pre-mixed dry ingredients is that is the correct order. Thinking about this order would only distract me from the order that has reasons. Thinking withdraws me into my fabricated mental world, and disassociates me from my senses–the sensible world where cooks do their best work.

(caveat: there are moments when both cooks and scientists engage in thinking to create something wholly novel and delicious, but it is not the core of the cookbook or method.)

Thinking is largely an activity without a use. It is somewhat difficult, but we can all think. Most of the time we reason based on past experience from our senses. This “2nd Order” thinking as Schank (1990) and other refer to it is not storytelling, but a mental state that relies on understood patterns that easily lead us astray because they are based on old data, rather than new givens from our environment.

As a useless activity, it, like storytelling, is given little credence. You can’t think a phone into existence. You can’t think a new research paper, you must write a research paper. You can’t think dinner on the table, you must cook. I can’t feed you by telling your a story, but we need stories more than bread itself.

In addition to the setting, and the characters, and the plot of a story, it must spontaneously give rise to a theme. The theme is the take-away, the lesson learned, the warning. The theme is the ultimate culmination of all the action. It is the what everything “means”.

THINKING AND STORYTELLING ARE FOR THE SAKE OF MEANING

Different from truths which must invariably be consistent under all circumstances, meanings are infinitely variable depending on the context. The meaningful-ness of bread is quite different to me if I am starving or if I am gluten-intolerant. Bread is not “true”: to some it is salvation to others it is poison. My individual story makes the bread meaningful. What I think about bread makes it meaningful to me. It is true that bread is a carbohydrate, but “bread is poison” is not true, it means that I am gluten-intolerant.

Keeping with our culinary example, thinking and reasoning quickly gets very triggering: it is true that eating meat ends an animals life, it is not true that “meat is murder”. What eating meat means to some people is equated to the politically egregious act of murder. But the same people would not say when a lion kills a deer that the lion is a murderer. To humans, the ending of a life is murder, but to most other animals it is necessary.

We as humans have polity between us that allows us to live together and cooperate to reduce suffering (both minor and major suffering—from “I want shoes but can’t make them” all the way to “I can’t get any bread, but others will share”). The story we hold in common defines the themes which we all agree to.

When we do not agree on themes is when we have political disagreements. When we do not agree on a theme it is typically because we do not share the same story in all its parts: settings, characters, and plots. In the story of vegetarianism, for example, the meat-eater does not see the animal as a victim in the story. As a result, the theme of the story is quite different between the vegetarian and the meat-eater. Everyone can agree to the facts, but if they do not agree on the characterization, then the lessons learned from those facts are quite different.

STORYTELLING AS ACTION

Thus political differences are all about storytelling. Using stories well was the core of Rhetoric as described by Aristotle. Once a story takes hold it becomes meaningful and inspires actions. This is the goal of all political speech.

When someone stops, thinks, and fails to take action, they are making their immobility meaningful. In that moment, when he refused to be influenced by the themes of either side’s political story, his thinking shocked both sides of a political debate. The thinker, in failing to act, has disavowed the ideas currently prevalent.

That failure to act, is a powerful moment in any political debate because it is the very definition of being “undecided”. His very inaction causes a frisson of potential: something new could arise because a story, a “counter-narrative” is playing out in his mind. Doing so publicly is an inadvertent statement to both the mobility (“mob”) and the ruling party. The subtext is “This is not true. So what does it mean?” This is not civil disobedience, it is thinking.

What followed was examples of political statement using the same inaction. But the original moment was thinking acting politically. The situation caused a dancer to be still.

STORYTELLING IS POLITICAL SPEECH

None of this post should be construed as a political statement in favor of any agenda here above described. It is a discussion on how thinking through the story of relevant actors, in a particular setting, can lead to revealing the meaning behind contention. Doing so publicly is meaningful to all parties concerned. Thinking is available to all of us at all times, and is necessary to examine the narrative of others. In that examination, we can see past our own 2nd order thinking and develop compassion. 

STORYTELLING AS POLITICAL MAP

Narrative Infrastructure proposes that we can speak our oral history and then map those stories. How those stories over-lap spatially becomes a starting point for finding intersections of themes. From this we can build a common world reconciled to our varied stories.

Lean more at NarrativeInfrastructure.org

REFRENCES:

Arendt, H. (1978). The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt.

Aristotle. (1929). The Art of Rhetoric (J.H. Freese, Trans.). In Cambridge: Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

Schank, R. C. (1990). Tell me a story : narrative and intelligence. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Image Credit:

Hurriyet Daily News

Video Credits:

“Arabian Nights” (2000) Hallmark Entertainment
“The Standing Man – Erdem Gündünz” (2014) SAMAR Media

 

meta-infrastructure

Telephone poles are the original community billboard. I cannot imagine a more perfect metaphor for local social media. “Lost dog”, “Garage Sale”. As our communities grow increasingly decentralized, these distributed post-boards have become essential to local free speech.

As much as we’d prefer to bury the lines and clear our sky of wires, these old-tech telecommunication infrastructure were co-opted by the local community and pressed into service to help neighbors talk to one another.

Given that digital communication is going to slowly make these obsolete, we should capture the benefit they unintentionally added to our communities.

 

We need a place to share locally, by locals, for locals

local Narrative infrastructure 

Ask your elected representative to build public map of narratives. Review the white paper here:

CALL TO ACTION

Feel free to use the form letter to send them an email:

FORM LETTER

The drums start at sundown in the Medina

Don’t get caught on the plaza after midnight.

Down the side alleys off the Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakesh, the unwary can find perdition or boredom, but never salvation. It is choked with vast sprawling food stalls, dozens of entertainers—from monkey and snake wranglers to henna artists—but the princes of the Fnaa are the storytellers.

For centuries, Marrakesh has been a center for culture of North and West Africa, drawing entertainers, artisans, and merchants. By day, it is an enormous open-air market where you’re equally likely to get run down by a donkey as a motorbike. But at night, the pavers open to reveal a network of cooking gas and electricity. Several dozen mobile kitchens appear, seemingly from nowhere.

The songs of a dozen countries from a dozen different musicians begin drift across the square, competing for your ear with the sellers of treasures and grilled meat.

The storytellers are easy to find. Look for a ring of silent people staring at one old man. He gesticulates, shouts, then whispers to one small boy, his stories pulling you inwards and closer till the circle is intimate. 

Just as he reaches the peak of the action, he holds his audience, breathless, and passes the hat. When the hat jingles, he closes the action. Everyone breaths out a sigh or laugh, the tension released and the story concludes.

You’re so caught up you ignored the lady daintily applying a lace-work of henna to your left hand while a snake charmer wrapped a python around your right arm. Don’t get caught on the plaza after midnight.

Once there was and twice there wasn’t…


they take you places full of meaning

As I sat upon his magic carpet, I reflected wise fools seek truth while shrewd artisans sift for meaning. King Solomon was so focused on building his temple that he discarded this carpet—a gift from the Queen of Sheba honoring his wisdom. Give the king his due: truth endures, while the transitory is toil.

But I’d rather fly than walk.

If we do not tell its stories, the city unravels.

They are only as strong as the warp and weft that holds the beautiful knot-work. 

The city is the context –from the Latin “with textile”–for a vast number of simultaneous stories (Childs, 2008; Rogers, 2013; Filep, Thompson-Fawcett, & Rae, 2014; Bakshi, 2014.) The threads that make up that textile are themselves the threads of previous stories that form the warp and weft of the narrative infrastructure. Media ties into this infrastructure and expresses new stories much as the knots of a rug display a pattern. Most media studies focus on the macro pattern expressed by the knotting, but offer only token reference to the underlying structure.

 

 

This is an example of a worn rug that has lost its knot-work and exposed the weft in one location, and the underlying structure destroyed in another area. If the city could be lifted up by the narrative infrastructure—as artistically suggested below—presumably abandoned urban space would be left behind. 

Could urban change professionals use these gaps as opportunity-zones to propose projects that might mend these parted strands of community narrative? Based on the mapped community stories of a city, areas that fall through these holes be presumed to be low in local sentiment. Community resistance to renewal and redevelopment is likely lower where people do not tell stories.

The converse is also true: if stories are not told about a neighborhood, there won’t be strength to resist change to the warp and weft. All great works crumble, and all threads unravel. So we must follow the example of Odysseus’s wife Penelope’s example: ever be unraveling and reweaving our beautiful works. If we do not tell its stories, the city unravels. Tell the meaningful stories!

References:

Bakshi, A. (2014) ‘Urban Form and Memory Discourses: Spatial Practices in Contested Cities’, Journal of Urban Design, pp. 189–210. doi: 10.1080/13574809.2013.854696.

Childs, M. C. (2008) ‘Storytelling and urban design’, Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability, 1(2), pp. 173–186. doi: 10.1080/17549170802221526.

Rogers, D. (2013) ‘The Poetics of Cartography and Habitation: Home as a Repository of Memories’, Housing, Theory and Society, 30(3), pp. 262–280. doi:  http://dx.doi.org/l 0.1080/14036096.2013.797019 .

Thompson-Fawcett, M. and Rae, M. (2014) ‘Built Narratives’, Journal of Urban Design. Taylor & Francis, 19(3), pp. 298–316. doi: 10.1080/13574809.2014.890043.

 

 

   Narrative İnfrastructure

Democracy is the least-worst political system

is the greatest lie of the United States of America

 

4th of JULY 2021

As an architect watching this film, I kept thinking our world would be impossible without lying. I saw all the settings of the scenes: city streets, cafes, banks, homes. I ran all of these through my head. How would I get this built by only telling the truth? I couldn’t see a way to do anything in civilization.

The premise of the film is an alternate world where everyone tells the unvarnished truth about everything going on around them. It is a hysterically funny film. 

In reality, everything that gets built starts off as someone’s fiction in their head. An idea is a fiction. Even an idea about something real but not physically present is a fiction. If you can’t point at it, you have to convince your conversation partner that it is real without it physically being real. That describes every project I’ve ever worked on. Everything in the built environment starts as a fictional story.

When I concoct a fiction, I try and embellish it with all manner of common material that you might already have in your head. Your experience is the target of my new idea. I want to add my new idea to your experience. You’ll listen to my idea and if I do a good job of adding in elements you already understand, you will likely map your own experience to my idea and say, “Yeah, that makes sense.” In the most literal terms, you are saying, “I can validate your story with my memory of my five senses.” That is your share of my story (referred to as the audience share). If you don’t have a portion of the story already in your head you will have no interest (the thing that rests between us: inter-rest).

For me, to ethically get a building built, I need to lie about best- and worst-case scenarios. I say lie because a scenario is a little scene—a one-scene play, a fiction. Neither the potential good nor bad results have happened yet; so, I can’t say, “Well, it’s self-evident. You have to build your building this way.” That would never be true if the building was yet un-built. I have to convince you, or con you into agreeing with my point of view.

When you listen to me tell stories about a building, we have interest and you will likely support maintaining that building. When we stop telling stories about a building, we lose interest. It falls into disrepair, and eventually it suggests its own story of decay or danger. We don’t like our cities to have stories of decay, danger, or disinterest. We attack such buildings with demolition permits—another kind of story that is told to the Public Works Commission to convince them that we have a dangerous structure that needs to be demolished before it hurts someone.

Everything around you is based on stories. They are how everything gets built, sustained, or demolished. As an urban change professional, stories are often my asymmetrical advantage in debate, but whoever tells the best story wins.

So a nation—founded on a pack of noble lies and derived from long-dead French and Greek thinkers—is a story-in-progress.

As soon as we finish one part of our common built world, another part falls into disinterest. We are constantly telling stories to re-build the United States of America. The public must have access to stories if they are to exercise agency in the built environment, including in the building of our laws. When you, the public, record your memories in stories in an organized fashion, you can out-tell the professionals; whether they are developers, politicians, or entrepreneurs.

In commemoration of the American Revolution—to help us remember—you must now demand a public infrastructure of stories. Democracy is the least-worst political system? Today, Americans reaffirm their common values, but what is uncommon is equally impactful to our union, and we owe it to ourselves to hold our stories in common. Join me and invite your elected representative to build a public narrative infrastructure.

*All images and videos are property of Warner Brothers Pictures

 

   Narrative İnfrastructure

WHAT WAS GRANDMA’S GREATEST NIGHT OUT?

Grandson’s middle-school project saves classic theater in St. Pete

 

ST. PETER Wisconsin

I approached grandma Clara to ask her questions about her life in St. Peter during the 80s for my social studies class. Nerd that I was, came over with a microphone and computer showing a map of St. Peter. Clara viewed the consent form from the school—which she signed, including her email.
  As she talked about her family, her friends, and jobs, life at the church, etcetera, I would occasionally interrupt to check I had the location in her story correct, even bringing up street photos 

  She was sad to think someone wanted to tear down the old theater and re-posted to the NGO site on her social media. Several of her friends also shared their stories from the theater. They tagged the NGO and later that week the NGO sent them a link where they could enter their address and get the contact info for their elected representatives.
  Her and her friends wrote their reps and said they have many happy memories from the Rialto and asked that the demolition

to remind her if she was unsure.
  She talked for over an hour. She hadn’t talked this long in years! When she concluded, I tidied up   emailed her a copy of the recording and map; “For safe keeping” I said. A week later I emailed her a transcript and asked Clara to play the other video and check the transcript for accuracy. Clara found one or two wrong words, and changed her mind about the location of one of her stories.
  Once I had the corrected transcript, I sent it off to the Uni Mappers, and a 

permit be denied. A staff member of the rep wrote back, saying that it was almost impossible to deny the developer the demolition permit. The building wasn’t officially historic, it had been abandoned and was no longer compliant with fire code. Later Clara learned that her representative made a deal with the developer (who wanted to make the ground floor shops and condos above), that, in exchange for expedited permitting, he would change the shops in his design to a

week later all her stories were published to the Narrative Infrastructure website. The website emailed her a special code for her stories, and it directed her to write down the code and put it with her important papers.
  She spent an afternoon browsing the locations of her stories located around the city. She could turn on and off other stories that overlapped her own. Some were from the 60s, other s much more recently. Using the slider bar, she could turn on stories by decade and found stories she was sure were by one of her old friends, even one story she knew was about her! But the names were all changed.
  A couple months went by. I was very grateful when he got a B- on my interview project. Then next day, grandma got an email saying one of her stories was published to another website! Clara went to the address and found it was a Non-Profit group trying to save the Rialto movie theater where she’d gone on a really nice date once. There was her story about the date! Even though anonymous, it was fun.

combination retail space and small theater.
  The developer was given a special permit that he needed anyway, and once he thought about it, he realized having both retail and entertainment meant the same commercial space was being used day and night. This is more lucrative, and the added evening traffic meant a higher perceived sense of safety for the potential condo buyers. One perk the new residents would enjoy as member of the condo association was a significant discount for renting the theater for special events.
  The Architect for the new project was instructed to use the original theater as both theme and ratio for the new building. She preserved and restored the theater marquee, and the double front doors. After the new frame was up, these were reinstalled in the same locations. The building was much taller, but it looked and felt very familiar at the street level.
  The developer sold every condo before construction was completed. Grandma Clara and I went to the grand opening together.

Special Edition

01 APRIL 2021  NARRAITIVEİNFRASTRUCTURE.ORG