Architects are natural storytellers – it’s a process that is inherently built into our creative process - and when used properly, it’s one of the very best tools in our tool bag.’ - Bob Borson
Architecture and the places we design have stories to be told and uncovered. As designers we can utilise a place’s creative potential to drive change, growth and transformation in a way that also defines the character and quality of the place. In this Monologue, Part 1 Architectural Assistant, Lydia Owen, discusses the role storytelling can have within architectural design and the significance this concept has in shaping a community and the environment that is subsequently created.
The way we conceive and create places is evolving and becoming more complex, and storytelling is becoming an important design tool in the realisation and creation of meaningful spaces. While storytelling, in a traditional sense, can be described as the sharing of words and actions to reveal elements and images of a story, storytelling in design is based on the construction of a physical narrative by organising spatial, socio-economic and environmental relationships. Architecture is an ever-present form of visual storytelling; the built environment has the ability to capture the history of a place and tell that story through space.
Every place has a story to tell, and for many, our fondest memories are tied to a specific location. We understand and connect with places through stories, due to the strong emotional bonds that we form with them, experiencing not only the physical character of a space, but what it feels like to be there. In acknowledging all that makes a place - its past, purpose, people, context- we can create spaces that transcend time and make for more engaging, personal and compelling user experiences. Creating an authentic narrative can build the identity of the place, given its consideration of the human and social context because ultimately people value places that mean something to them.
The Lake District is no stranger to stories, myths, legends and folklore, passed down from generation to generation. My final year project at university, the ‘Story Collective’, was guided by storytelling, building on the history of folklore in Cumbria, and looking to these stories for design inspiration. My project explored how communities along the Cumbrian coastline would equip themselves for life after the decommissioning of Sellafield Thorpe Reprocessing Nuclear Plant. Currently standing as a key landmark in Whitehaven’s identity, the project sought to embrace the area’s history and local character in creating a new narrative for Whitehaven post-Sellafield.
The design itself encourages the culture of storytelling through its architectural form, including immersive reading nooks and a storytelling auditorium. The nook structures sought to represent every story, with panels illustrating key moments within each narrative. As more local tales are discovered these nooks would appear to grow through the space, eventually spilling into the surrounding landscape to conceptually represent the vast number of stories native to the area. The project’s aim was to shed light upon these stories and act as an archive and library for local myths and legends that might otherwise be lost, hidden, or forgotten within Whitehaven’s history.
As well as responding to a local context to envision a place, storytelling can be particularly successful as a tool for navigation around a space. Architects can attempt to predict and map out the user journey, suggesting how the built environment could be inhabited. The creation of personas to represent target individuals allows designers to consider the user experience of everyone who engages with the site, whether that be to visit or live. Storytelling can also be a crucial device in the sharing of ideas where we can develop narratives as a mechanism to educate someone on the thought process and guide them through, not only, the physical aspects of a place, but also what it feels like to be there, how it is experienced.
These applications of storytelling in design are embraced in JTP’s belief that every project is unique and requires a no one-size fits all approach. We believe that all the places we design should have a story. Stories in placemaking and architecture evoke strong emotions; we understand and connect with places through these stories.
Our approach of understanding the DNA of a place is fundamental to this success. Places have history, geography, and microclimates; as well as the social, cultural, political and economic energy that runs through the daily lives of the people who live there. We take time to understand these elements to inform our design process, and then use every detail to answer the community’s needs and achieve an overall vision.
At JTP, we also use our ‘Place Branding’ approach to create place narratives which tell a memorable and authentic story, achieved through placemaking and cultural concepts, naming, graphics and narrative. This adds identity to our placemaking projects by linking place and context with people and culture, all of which is informed through research and engagement.
Our collaboration with The Place Bureau, a strategic studio who run ‘Design Like a Storyteller’ workshops on creating meaningful and characterful spaces help to create a bespoke training programme for our team – ensuring we integrate narrative placemaking at the very start of our all projects, so that we can better define the way we create, communicate and experience places. The Place Bureau’s knowledge sharing, and place visioning approach looks at the physical place through various cultural lenses to pinpoint a distinct local identity which makes that place special and will ultimately end up guiding the project and design process.
JTP have embraced such narrative ideas in creating the Placebook, a visionary guide to the development of Battersea Power Station devised from a series of workshops, expert discussions, urban research and study tours, which ultimately sets out the project’s masterplan vision. The Placebook’s aim was to understand the current context, identify contemporary trends and speculate on the future of the site to continue the inspiring legacy of Battersea Power Station. By taking into consideration how people will want to live, work, shop, play, learn and connect, it presents a fresh and unique take on how to evolve a derelict piece of industrial infrastructure over a 15 year time span into a flagship piece of Placemaking fit for the 21st century.
We are all innately connected to places and define our lives through the stories we tell about them. Something as simple as a story adds immense value to the spaces we inhabit. Every place has a story and successful architecture and placemaking can and should uncover these stories for the everyday user. Whether it is a well-known story that permeates a location or a hidden history that is essential to how a place came to be, all users should leave a place feeling more informed, aware and connected. Designers should be creating open, collective experiences that transcend time and make for more appealing, intimate, and meaningful experiences for everyone who visits or lives there.