building stories

Architecture is more than design, more than building, more than the enclosure of space; it is also the stage on which life’s stories play.

Building Stories is based on the proposition that we can utilise place-centred fiction to find new ways of engaging with buildings, new ways of configuring our relationships with diverse built environments. Through these imagined stories we are reminded of the centrality of architecture in our lives, we see afresh the potential of buildings beyond their – sometimes exhausted – historical or utilitarian existence.

The first expression of Building Stories was a recent project of place-centred fiction in a small Italian town, that explored the potential for re-imagining our engagement with built environments. L’incontro, un racconto da camminare, (a ‘story for walking’), took place over a period of four months (late April – late August 2017) in the central Italian town of Casaprota (RI), under the auspices of l’Associazione Culturale SabinARTi. The aim was to foster a re-imagining of relationships to the town by combining two ways we come to know place: the spatial experience of place and the telling of stories that give meaning to place.

I selected certain sites of actual or imagined significance in the town and constructed a fictional historical narrative which responded to these sites. The story was installed on panels, each section at its corresponding site, so the narrative lead the reader on a journey of encounter: laneway, courtyard, archway, balcony, stone stairway, piazza, abandoned church. ‘Walking the story’ became an opportunity for renewed spatial exploration through an imagined cultural layer.

The community enthusiastically engaged with the project. For the launch, two local drummers lead the audience on their journey through the town, while local actors read the story to them. During the three months in which the panels remained in place, many‘walked the story’ individually. Characters from the story became absorbed into their relationship with certain sites: the one-armed Capitano Bassetti with the Palazzo del Gatto, for example; the would-be lovers, Alice and Mario, with the narrow vicoli of the medieval borgo.

For the regular August holiday-makers from Rome, ‘walking the story’ meant engaging with parts of the town they would rarely visit.

Building Stories is an idea conceived in part as a response to an exhibit at the 2014 Architecture Biennale, Luke Skansi’s I resti di un miracolo from Monditalia. Skansi has filmed a number of abandoned masterpieces of Italian architecture from the 1950s and 1960s, the period of the ‘economic miracle’. These were the sort of buildings that might have graced the covers of architecture periodicals sixty years ago, that told us we could live in the ‘now’. Today, they are abandoned, neglected, and all but forgotten, though they are not, as that description might suggest, in ruins. 

It is true, as Skansi points out, that these buildings are no longer occupied because the industries that flourished in Italy at that time no longer flourish. But that tells us only part of the story. The other part: we have found no way to reuse them, we have not been able to protect them, nor can we bring ourselves to knock them down. Skansi argues that modern architecture was never flexible enough, that its destiny is similar to the architecture of any historical period, sooner or later its time comes to an end. ‘Architecture has a very short life’, he says. Yet there we were, exploring Skansi’s I resti di un miracolo in the Arsenale, an industrial building that dates from the twelfth century! The ‘time of the Arsenale’ has not come to an end. His is an unconvincing argument, perhaps especially in Italy.

I think the fate of these buildings reflects a particular characteristic of modernity rather than one of architecture per se. It is ‘the spirit of modernity’ in modernist buildings that prevents us from imagining a future for them, that prevents us from imagining them as buildings to be rediscovered and re-deployed. Modernist buildings were never destined to grow old. But we know that buildings have histories, we know that they grow and change, that their use can be determined by our imagination.

Building Stories suggests that it is not the imagination of the architect required in the first instance, but that of the story-teller.

The 2018 Venice Biennale

Through a wonderful chance encounter during my stay in Venice that year, I was invited to submit a proposal for the 2018 Architecture Biennale. I submitted an idea for an installation around Building Stories, and the project was accepted into the ‘Time-Space-Existence’ exhibition in the European Cultural Centre at the 2018 Venice Biennale.

It was to be an installation in the Palazzo Mora of a bespoke object, that was literary in form and architectural in construction. It was such a buzz to be invited to the Biennale, given my own checkered history of being an architecture student, that I imagined visitors carefully engaging with the work, and even fantasised that others might take up the idea and enact it in their own particular situation.

It didn’t happen. The problem (as always) was funding – it had to be funded from the Australian end and, despite my best efforts, the money was not forthcoming. I haven’t given up hope, though, that some other opening for the idea might still emerge. There are always opportunities…

photos: Susanna Emili

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