Space as medium of communication
Imagine material environments as communication channels; in other words, picture place as a communication medium, as powerful as television, text messaging or music. Questions immediately arise: how are spatial communications constituted? Who or what authors the messages? How are communications transmitted, interpreted, valued or resisted, and re-authored by users? How is place, as a medium of communication, implicated in notions of societal and cultural resilience?
Let me turn first to place-based layers of communication and how spatial communications may be constituted and transmitted. I am suggesting that place communicates implicit narratives through structures and materials, in other words, through landscaping, architecture and objects.1Potteiger, M & Purington, J (1998). Landscape narratives: Design Practices for Telling Stories, John Wiley & Sons. The second layer of communication comprises of lighting, sound, smell and temperature. The third layer consists of still and moving image and text in the place, which can communicate through explicit narratives. The fourth layer consists of digital interfaces which also communicate through explicit narratives. The fifth layer of communication is the behaviour of people in the place which can produce both explicit and implicit narratives.2De Certeau, M (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press.
‘This position stands in contrast to conceiving places as simply functional products of instrumental rationality, or products of visual aesthetics.’
All five layers are understood by users through a geographical / historical / cultural framing of the location and each one of us will interpret spatial communications from our own cultural perspective. Places, then, are contested, but I argue that these frictions should be seen in a positive light because they can prompt new thinking and action, or, seen from the perspective of the design of narrative environments, my field, the frictions emerging from place create dramatic conflicts3Creimas, A J (1987). Actants, Actors, and Figures, in On Meaning: Selected Writings on Semiotic Theory, London: Pinter pp. 106–120. and narrative drivers that can unfold into new co-created strategies and design actions that have significant potential to enhance societal resilience.
This position stands in contrast to conceiving places as simply functional products of instrumental rationality, or products of visual aesthetics; in other words, the approach overrides a quantifiable, positivist materialistic approach which casts places as fixed, inert settings or backdrops. My position takes materiality and locality and assigns agency to place at a local scale. It conceives of place, as an active socio-political actant which is open and porous.4Fogle, N (2011). The Dialectic of Social Space and Physical Space in The Spatial Logic of Social Struggle; a Bourdieuian Topology., Lanham: Lexington Books. It conceives of place as temporal,5Massey, D (2005). For Space, Los Angeles: Sage. as experiential, as malleable, and as continuously and, without exception, subject to different and simultaneous interpretations, regulations and contestations through the social, physical and digital realms. As such it conceives of place as fluid, adaptive, capable of being creative and disruptive.6Deleuze, G & Guattari, F (1988). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Athlone Press.
Let me now turn to who or what authors the spatial communications and how these communications are interpreted, valued or resisted, and re-authored by users. Junkspaces7Koolhaas, R (2002). Junkspace, October, 100, pp. 175–190. proliferate in 21st century. The physical destruction of war, the advent of mass industrialization, rampant commercialization driven by multinational corporations, lack of sensitivity in urban planning, and over reliance on certain digital tools are among the reasons we find ourselves living in smooth, bland, meaningless places and socially alienated environments. As designers our central purpose is to engage in agonistic struggle8Mouffe, C (2013). Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically, London: Verso. to create places with strong identities that inform and connect users and / or enable users to inform and connect with each other. Our process harnesses learning and exchange. Designers of narrative environments are strategic designers who transform places, through series of material and digital interventions. Such an approach sets out to create physical / virtual, coherent and tolerant and democratic systems by provoking users’ thoughts and actions. Learning, exchange, tolerance and co-design in localised networks9Green, J (2014). Disruptive Abundance: a Scenario in which More is More, [lecture] available at https://replay.arts.ac.uk/index.php/video/419. present the possibility of evolving quick, creative and resource efficient responses to risks and dangers, whether they be physical, such a food shortages, or socio-spatial, such as urban alienation, or economic, such as the erosion of traditional markets.
‘We work with a temporal axis mapping and envisioning the “before, during and after” of a project. We are not designing ‘solutions’ to “problems” but proposing new possibilities and situations. We produce critical and speculative narrative environments.’
Questions of politics and ethics automatically arise when considering why you design and who you design for. We aim not to impose pre-formed political solutions based on a political ideology but rather to enable stakeholders to recognize each other and the content that surrounds them, to communicate with each other and rework their conditions in negotiation with each other.
Our practice takes the form of collaborative, multidisciplinary, team-based design. By design I mean in-depth data gathering and analysis of specific locations which enables us to identify the conflicts at play in the particular place, for example, history and / or regulations of the space being at odds with the current use or aspirations. This then leads to creative interpretation of insights and then onto to the development of design strategy and visualization in the form of storyboards showing the look and feel of the environment and anticipated human behaviours and the arcs of interactions. We work with a temporal axis mapping and envisioning the ‘before, during and after’ of a project. We are not designing ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’ but proposing new possibilities and situations. We produce critical and speculative propositions. Wherever possible we build and test the design with real audiences / users / residents and iterate the design according to results from our tests. A great deal of our research and design development is about understanding our audiences / users and indeed co-creating interventions with our users applying empathy and investing in social capital. Our focus is on user engagement, not just material resolution, or aesthetically driven design proposals. We see users and their behavior as the dominant dimension of the resilience of place.
Our methodology comprises of folding narrative onto place and / or revealing the narrative(s) of a place. Each step of the practice is enacted through a narrative approach: place is understood as a construct,10Lefebvre, H (1991). The Production of Space, Oxford: Blackwell. as is narrative;11Porter Abbott, H (2002). The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Cambridge University Press. place is understood as authored or co-authored; place is understood as dramatic sequences, events, characters and actions, some nested within others;12Chatman, S (1978). Story and Discourse, Cornell University Press. place is understood as contentful, alive with meaning and messages;13Greimas, G J (1990). Towards a Topological Semiotics in Narrative Semiotics and Cognitive Discourses, London: Pinter, pp. 139–159. place is understood as discourse, that is, actively ‘telling’ and communicating diverse and conflicting perspectives (these narratives are often non-linear and might best be described as different story-worlds);14Herman, D (2002). Story Logic, University of Nebraska Press. place is understood as always having audiences and in many cases as being co-authored by its audiences or users. Importantly we see all narratives of place as shaped by their context, that is their surrounding geographic location and infrastructure, their history, their politics, their economics and social and cultural norms.
Our projects take many forms interconnecting digital technologies with human behavior in physical space. However digital technologies are always seen as a means to an end that serves a socio / economic purpose rather than a driver of behaviour. Our projects are situated across a broad range of cultural, commercial and community environments. Our approach can be used both to analyse and to design places on different scales from a single room, to a whole building, to a city street, to a city quarter or a whole city. We work on shops, markets, clubs, cafes, offices, museums, schools, homes in council estates, city streets and squares and historical sites. We work with what is ‘to hand’ the physical grain, the social dynamics, the cultural codes that constitute our daily lives. We use place as a medium of communication that, subject to collaborative, co-creation and iterative design, presents tangible, real world opportunities to foster cultures of resilience.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Potteiger, M & Purington, J (1998). Landscape narratives: Design Practices for Telling Stories, John Wiley & Sons.|
|2.||↑||De Certeau, M (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press.|
|3.||↑||Creimas, A J (1987). Actants, Actors, and Figures, in On Meaning: Selected Writings on Semiotic Theory, London: Pinter pp. 106–120.|
|4.||↑||Fogle, N (2011). The Dialectic of Social Space and Physical Space in The Spatial Logic of Social Struggle; a Bourdieuian Topology., Lanham: Lexington Books.|
|5.||↑||Massey, D (2005). For Space, Los Angeles: Sage.|
|6.||↑||Deleuze, G & Guattari, F (1988). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Athlone Press.|
|7.||↑||Koolhaas, R (2002). Junkspace, October, 100, pp. 175–190.|
|8.||↑||Mouffe, C (2013). Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically, London: Verso.|
|9.||↑||Green, J (2014). Disruptive Abundance: a Scenario in which More is More, [lecture] available at https://replay.arts.ac.uk/index.php/video/419.|
|10.||↑||Lefebvre, H (1991). The Production of Space, Oxford: Blackwell.|
|11.||↑||Porter Abbott, H (2002). The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Cambridge University Press.|
|12.||↑||Chatman, S (1978). Story and Discourse, Cornell University Press.|
|13.||↑||Greimas, G J (1990). Towards a Topological Semiotics in Narrative Semiotics and Cognitive Discourses, London: Pinter, pp. 139–159.|
|14.||↑||Herman, D (2002). Story Logic, University of Nebraska Press.|