Dialogues can be therapeutic; you make yourself heard, share your thoughts, experiences and frustrations. Most of the time dialogue takes place in the built environment. However, the built environment is not just the material backsplash to our dialogues. Of course, dialogues may take place in our built environment, and the built environment can be subject of dialogues as well. Another take on this would be to understand how dialogues, and other forms of language, may influence the built environment, or how they may contain valuable information about how communities understand, experience and value the spaces and places they live in.

The new research network Writing Urban Places, New Narratives of the European City aims to create a deeper understanding of narratives of the European City. The European network grant (a so-called EU COST Action) offers budget to organise exchanges between scholars from different disciplines and countries for a period of four years. As part of this, conferences, meetings and training schools will be organised, and a number of publications will be produced. The thorough exploration of urban narratives will be exercised in a series of site-specific studies, that will focus on developing scenarios for urban transformation in selected medium-size cities. In order to expand on the ways in which narratives can be interpreted the following targets will be explored theoretically as well as in case studies:

1. Meaningfulness: offering local communities and professionals the ability to improve their understanding of their built environment. The target explores historical narratives, oral history and literary cultural heritage in the (re)construction of urban identities.

2. Appropriation: empowering communities by improving their ability to project their hopes and feelings on their built environment. The role of local actors such as users, inhabitants and other stakeholders becomes crucial in urban processes – precisely because they are the ones who experience, appropriate and develop their environment.

3. Integration: offering concrete tools and methods for the construction of common grounds among communities, based on relations of meaningfulness and appropriation of their built environment. This section draws attention to architectural design processes, regarding architecture also as the transformator and communicator of narratives.

These projects will be developed within academia and will be published in a series of project reports. Also, three training schools will be organised once a year. The research network will continue for four years. The following dialogue between Bnieuws and Dr. Klaske Havik aims to create an understanding of the relationship between researching narratives and design practices.

Narratives and dialogues have always been present in society, still it is not a very familiar research topic in the fields of architecture and urban design. What has triggered the attention towards a better understanding of narratives?

The interest in narratives did not come out of the blue. For instance, the interest in narratives, by architects such as Bernard Tschumi in 1970's, can be seen as a reaction to the tabula rasa attitude introduced by modernism. At that point the social dimension of the city needed to be re-addressed. Out of this reaction various architects, landscape architects and urban designers explored dealing with narratives in one way or another. This also triggered the interest in literature as a field of research in relation to the built environment. The skill of literary writers to portray social issues and distinctive communities is insightful for understanding the social life and communities in cities.

Narrative is addressed as a way to empower communities in medium-sized cities. Could you explain why medium-sized cities are chosen and name an example of a city that the research is aiming for?

Indeed, one of the reasons to do this work is to strive for more socially inclusive developments. The network hopes to offer useful approaches to understand how urban space works socially and spatially.

We focus on medium-sized cities because there is already so much work done on the metropolis. While, if we look at Europe, we see many problems of demographic change and immigration that also have an effect on smaller cities. For instance, with colleagues of the network, we are working with the graduation studio of Methods and Analysis on Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. Skopje is a city that faces a lot of challenges in relation to different social groups, extreme effects of neoliberalism and complex political issues related to identity. In the past year, an aggressive narrative about Skopje’s identity has been imposed upon citizens by means of architecture: a huge transformation of the city center, with poorly designed neo-classical buildings. The students are exploring narratives at different social scales, to look at the impact of such aggressive narrative strategies, and to look at other narratives beyond these: the stories of everyday life in the city. They have collected narratives on different social scales: not only the political, but also the scale of the bar-owner, the fisherman and the inhabitant. By understanding the perspectives of a diverse group of people, the students discover that there are different ways of relating to spatial and social transformations. In that sense a narrative becomes a crucial tool to investigate issues of meaning and appropriation in the city.

It sounds like a sensible research method for analyzing urban areas. Can urban narratives also have use after the analysis, in the design stage?

Yes, it is exactly our intention to explore the potential of narratives in the design stage. For instance, when you are designing and move to a more narrative mode, you can try to imagine how different stories can unfold. In a design project, you might identity different possible characters and start adapting your design towards these users.

For instance, you could look at what happens to your design if you start to look from the perspective of children. Your entire visual field would be different, but also the way of using and appropriating space would be different. In that way, voices of different characters would help you become empathetic to future users. Designing from such a position allows for the inclusion of different voices and by that design becomes more dialogical or inclusive.

If we are talking about design becoming dialogical, some spatial designers and artist are known to tell environmental stories with their design or works of art. Do you think architecture also is a medium to express narratives, or, would you say the expressive side belongs more to installation-art and land-art?

Often, the role of art is to tell a story. With an artwork you can convey a story and as an audience you can choose whether to relate to it or not. As architect, you are designing an everyday environment for people, so you don’t want to scream a message all the time. I would be careful with saying that architecture should always tell a story. In architecture it also depends on the aim and function of a project; a housing project has a different role than a museum or a ministry. In public buildings it can make more sense to have a stronger narrative present than with other buildings. It is a matter of being responsive and responsible. Moreover, it is good to understand that there are always multiple stories and multiple ways to react to them.

What kind of advice would you give to students that are interested in researching narratives in their design studios?

I would recommend reading more novels and consider these literary works seriously as sources of information in how we experience our built environment. Also, there is a growing body of scholarly work on the relationship between architecture and literature. The book Writing place: Investigations in Architecture and Literature was produced here in Delft after a conference we held in 2013. Also, we started a journal called Writingplace Journal for Architecture and Literature, of which we expect the third issue in December 2020. Furthermore, there is my book Urban Literacy, Reading and Writing Architecture, and the book Reading Architecture. Literary Imagination and Architectural Experience, edited by our new colleague Angeliki Sioli.

Taking this knowledge to the field of architectural analysis and design, the challenge is how to develop methods that are applicable on multiple sites and at the same time are locally responsive. This is an issue we are exploring in our research network: how can narrative methods, such as the use of characters, and the analysis of local stories, be meaningful for very different urban realities? In our network, we will be working with cities all across Europe, and we are very curious if after four years we could identify both a shared methodological frameswork and very specific approaches to the studied sites.