Imagination and narrative and place
We live in a world full of things that we can see, touch, hear, smell and taste. A world of solidity and, well reality. But what if it were all an illusion, an imaginary world? Would this be useful or helpful to you as a designer? Felix Oppen suggests that it just might.
Recently my partner and I spent a weekend in Canberra the latest of several visits over the years. It was winter, quite cold, windy but clear skies. We were there for a couple of days only and we had a great time walking from hotel to markets and to the National Gallery. While Canberra was originally intended to have a comprehensive public transport system, it does not and is really quite car oriented. However, because of its flatness, it is still relatively easy to walk from place to place, you just have to accept that you may need to walk a long way. All in all, we enjoy our short visits to the city and occasionally think that it might be nice to stay longer, a year or two perhaps. A few days following our return from this visit we were talking with a colleague about the experience. He began to shake visibly and somewhat incredulously asked, ‘why would you visit Canberra?’ You see, he had grown up in Canberra but had left pretty much as soon as he could. While he returns it occasionally it is more out of duty than any sense of desire. It is not a city that he or many of the people he grew up with enjoy living in.
Canberra as a place was created to be the National Capital and to contain National Institutions; the federal government and associated bureaucracy, the national library, the national gallery, a national university, the national war memorial and so on. When you look at the plans for the city it is clear that it was designed around these institutions. The fact that people needed to live there was, or appears to have been, secondary. It is a city conceived around a rather theoretical idea of what people need to DO in a capital city rather than who they are or how they might live. It does not really encapsulate the true character of the people who built the country—messily human—rather a more idealised version of them and as a result large parts of the city are in fact rather bland and impersonal. Perhaps, not such a good place to grow up in.
How can one city engender such a difference of experience? Could it be that the place is in part created in our minds in some way? In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Yuval Noah Harari suggests that indeed the world in which we live is imaginary. We have imagined our social structures, we have imagined what we understand to be cities, nations and so on. On the whole he is talking about the concepts of city, nation, society, and religion even. And he is right, these are constructs that we as humans have been built to manage how we operate/cooperate—or not—with each other. We may believe they belong to some natural, external and immutable order but they are completely made up, imagined. I would also suggest that even the things we think of as real—a brick wall, a wood floor, for example, are in some ways just as imaginary.
These things are imaginary not in The Matrix sense where we are all existing in some womb-like pod and our experiences are being created by some sentient and malevolent computer. They are imaginary in the sense that we touch and see a brick wall and our mind interprets the sensory information and presents it to our consciousness as a brick wall. We believe this wall to be a real thing partly because of the sensory input, partly because we have the words/language to describe it and partly because we have a memory of having experienced this thing called a brick wall before. And we trust that other humans understand our brick wall to be what they understand to be a brick wall too. But can we be absolutely certain? Not wanting to get into semiotics and discuss signifiers and signs and the like, for the purposes of this article let’s assume that with a common language and a similar experiential data set if a group of people look at what I see to be a brick wall they will see the same thing. We all see and agree that it is real.
WHAT IS REALITY?
So we can understand at some level that the world in which we live, the perception of it is a construct that is recreated in our minds. In a talk from 2017 entitled Connecting People to Places, (deFrost, Talk #46) Carlo Giannasca, Head of Urbanite at Frost*collective, suggests that what we perceive as reality, as the world, the places in which we live and experience is nothing more—and nothing less—than information. That information is the data set that enters our minds, processed via our experience and created as images, sounds, textures, smells and tastes and that we perceive as reality. That processing involves, among many things, finding familiar patterns of experience, having the language to understand the information and other linkages that we build up over time through emotion and stories, some of which may be very intense but many no more than a whisper on a breeze.
Ultimately, Carlo and co-presenter, Mark Edwards, argue that reality is what we as humans perceive/believe to be real. In a rather beautiful demonstration of this Mark leads members of the audience through a demonstration of this perception of reality. They created a VR experience, with some reasonably good photography and what they freely admit to be being some fairly simple CGI renders of building interiors (a simple mock-up of a proposed apartment building). Looking at the imagery on a 2D screen with the actual room visible all around there is absolutely no way you can understand it to be anything other than the crude render they admit to. However, the reaction of one audience member to the environment when it was all she could see—the only sensory input was sight—and even though she was standing on a floor—her amazement at being able to walk outside the building six stories up, turn and look back at it and believe she was really ‘there’ is quite something to observe.
DESIGN AND PLACE
Our understanding of reality and of ‘real’ places are therefore created from the information we as people take in and (re)create in our minds. And to this reality, we bring our past and our emotion in order to comprehend it and to an extent to be able to universalise it—we, as a society, agree on this reality because our pasts and emotional experiences are similar so that we can describe to each other this reality in similar terms. Places exist only because of people. This is a totally anthropomorphic view I know. And I don’t want to disappear down a philosophical rabbit hole over it. I also acknowledge that it is a view that can and has been widely and often deliberately misunderstood. I am not suggesting the Judeo–Christian view that people are at the pinnacle of existence and the rest of the universe exists to benefit them. All I am trying to suggest is that from the perspective of design that if we, as people, don’t know if a place exists and/or we don’t have the language (verbal, sensory or experiential) to comprehend it, it is not much use to us until we do.
DESIGNERS AND PLACE
It is all very well to talk about place being imaginary. But what does this mean for designers? Because while what we experience might be a creation of our minds, humans as a whole tend to believe that this experience is real. And designers are involved in that experience of reality because we are often the ones making it. What are the implications for what we create? And how we create? To shed light on these questions I will draw on a recent interview conducted with Cat Burgess, Design Strategy Director, Frost*Design and Carlo Giannasca, Head of Environments, Urbanite (both are divisions of Frost*collective).
PLACE AND PEOPLE
Cat, who has a background in communication design, branding and more recently place branding believes place is about people and that you can’t really design a good/liveable/enjoyable place without keeping people in mind. It is true that almost all designers of places; architects, builders (and developers) do as well to some degree. Cat suggests that ‘the work we do can bring incredible value because we’re interested in bringing the human dimension to this planning and that’s, very much, what our philosophy is all about—humancentred design—using the capabilities and skillsets of the designer and the strategist applied to situations and projects and really get a better result for people. Because at the end of the day,
that’s what buildings and places are meant for. It’s for the enjoyment of the people who use them.’ And to do this successfully it is necessary to involve people from the outset. She says it is important that, ‘councils or developers or whoever our client might be, not to see master planning or architecture as a first step in designing place but to start with a vision for what that place could be and what human needs we’re trying to deliver against, and how it can speak to a higher aspiration.’
She gives an example … ‘I recently worked on a project for new customer airport a client was developing… originally they said, “We’re going to build a tech hub next to the airport. We’re one of the very few places in the world where you can have an airport and you can have an Air Force base.” They were starting to divide up the land and their name for it was, “NTL Tech Hub”. What is “NTL”, for a start? That’s the code share name for Newcastle Airport and “Tech Hub”, it’s almost become a generic term. It doesn’t mean anything. [Editor’s note; Newcastle Airport is adjacent to the Williamtown Airforce Base which is to be the eventual home for the Australian cohort of the F35 Lightening II fighter planes. Their impending arrival is the motivation for the development.]
We did a whole lot of interviews with people who represented the potential users for the new development and what we’re actually trying to uncover were insights into those people, about what had inspired them to go and work in Newcastle. There were very particular types of people. There were people who had chosen to leave the pressure of being in the city, they wanted the lifestyle of being in Newcastle, they were highly specialised, often, they were ex-RAAF. They were having a family, they wanted to have a farm. There
were people who had lived for generations in Newcastle. They were academics at the University of Newcastle. There was a very definite set of needs that these people had, sometimes some of the people who were going to be working there were the partners of people who were in the RAAF, and they had a life where they’re often moving every two or three years, and they just wanted to meet people and have places to socialise.
All of those needs were not at all on the radar in the original Master Plan which had been “Here’s a piece of land, here’s the access, here’s where the RAAF base is, here’s where the airport is.” It was all logistical. It had nothing of dimension to it and we did the work to add that to the plan, we did workshops and work on visioning everything. The whole concept for that development is now around this idea of uplifting; uplifting the emotions of people who work there, uplifting their capabilities, obviously, this uplift of capability and planes and all this sort of stuff. Then we went down into, well what does this mean in terms of place principles and what does this mean in terms of the brand? Then we created the brand name and brand identity and all that stuff.
The development is now called “Astra Aerolab” which talks about what they want to do, as well as the airports and planes, it’s like a living lab and there was going to be a lot of involvement with the University of Newcastle and local trade and all that sort of stuff. It’s interesting how language and image often gives shape to ideas and that’s what we’re after and helping people to do in this space too. It’s to communicate something that doesn’t yet exist.’
Using the language and techniques of brand making is interesting when applied to designed places because it is about the creation of stories, or narratives. It is through stories that we as people give meaning to an environment and make it a place. The stories marry experience with emotion but are, of course, imaginary in the sense we invent them for ourselves. Bringing the narrative into the design process early encourages the architects, developers, builders and councils to move beyond the ‘logistical stuff’ or the objects—the buildings—to eventual users. That narrative can even become part of the design process itself, if the design is prepared to cede a certain amount of control. An example cited by Carlo is of a university in the USA that held off completing the landscape architecture of some new grounds and allowed the students to indicate where the paths should be through the creation of so called ‘desire paths’, the paths of greatest convenience. (Frost*paper: The Paths of Least Resistance).
The thing about narratives is that they are in the imagination of the user, not in the property or place itself. Users attach their narratives to place. This means that in the end the entities attempting to create places—councils, developers, architects—must surrender a significant component of the creation to the eventual users. Kevin Lynch acknowledges as much in the opening pages of his seminal 1960 work on city planning The Image of the City, ‘we must consider not just the city as a thing itself, but the city being perceived by its inhabitants.’ The tools of branding as applied by designers and strategists when brought into the design process early enough might not pre-determine the eventual narratives of a place. They can, however, uncover a range of possible future narratives thereby allowing for the provision of a framework on which those future narratives could be built, that can be worked into the actual fabric of the environment. Not control of the creation of place, rather the creation of an environment that aligns with the researched requirements of the future users who will make it a ‘place’.
This framework, which is represented by such things as the place branding, is more than determining the right kinds of spaces that are fit for purpose. As Carlo says, it’s being ‘a lot more subtle in the way you interpret the values of the brand and how that can actually be delivered through more subtle lanes, videos or materiality, or working closer with the interior designer to bring a much more deeper, more grand representation of the brand.’ And it is about appropriate application of resources and options that can be embedded in the space such as, for example, technology, by asking questions like, ‘Who’s going to own that for the next ten years? Who’s going to produce content for it, how does it actually draft out with your ambitions and the way you’re actually going to run this space? It’s all those things you need to consider. Just because you’re banging out, expecting someone will worry about it later. It needs to have a purpose…, we interrogate the deeper need for that and how we can use technology to solve problems rather than something as a tick-the-box and we need to do some screens, that we’re going to specify this as part of the solution, rather than actually looking at what is the problem we’re trying to solve.’ To unpack this a little, the core of the ‘problem’ is finding what the users of a space need and how best to meet those needs.
I began this article stating that the world, the place, that we inhabit is in some ways imaginary. This may have seemed ridiculous and not particularly useful. However, any designer who is involved with product branding is aware of the imaginary nature of brands should understand what I am saying—there is nothing very important about a fizzy, sugary, brown liquid, but attach a red label with two words in script, spend countless hours and dollars carefully crafting an image and ‘it’s the real thing’ and the most recognisable brand in history with an awareness in the minds of hundreds of millions of people, even if they have never tasted it. Understanding the imaginary nature of place is useful to designers. It means we can create places, places that have a physical location and that have an emotional, psychological and spiritual location—in our minds. With design we can change places both literally and figuratively, and how they are used and who uses them and what a place is expected to be and why it is that way, because place is about people and what people imagine places to be.