Academic Tricia Austin on uncovering a place’s true identity and how to use conflict to your creative advantage
6 minute read
Tricia Austin is a pioneer, well-practiced at searching places for stories. Heading up the MA in Narrative Environments at UAL, the course seeks to explore the frontiers of where story can take us, creating original experiences and spaces underpinned by narrative. And Tricia takes us all to the forefront.
A natural instigator, Tricia's energy brings together the talent to identify and magnify the soul of a place. She has a great sense of who and what works well in the melting pot of placemaking, and the role narrative has to play in enhancing the feel and function of an environment. Whether through a striking social installation, or the subtlety of an audio-time capsule hidden by Regent’s Canal, she guides her students to push at the edges of making great places.
So who better to give us an introduction to the subject? We meet Tricia on campus at Central Saint Martin’s in London, where she enlightens us as to how to use narrative as a tool to craft places with meaning, and how inter-disciplinary collaboration can erode the hierarchies within such complex design projects. She maintains that everyone cares deeply about space, and won’t be satisfied with a stapled-on story or brand that carries none of the true tale of the place. That might lead to conflicting opinions, but there, in the teasing out of those strands of drama, is where narrative enters the scene.
What triggered your passion for narrative in placemaking?
My background is sculpture - I was interested in materials, space, volumes and form. Then I found myself teaching at Central Saint Martins on the MA Communication Design where I was trying to understand the underpinning principles of communication and semiotics. In other words, teaching people that everyday objects aren't just functional, that they have other meanings. It is a symbolic world that we all live in.
How did the MA Narrative Environments course start?
Peter Higgins (exhibition designer and founder of LAND design studio) highlighted that there was no course in the UK that teaches different design disciplines to work together. As these different disciplines were siloed in the education system, they found it difficult to communicate effectively in practice. Consequently, there's an entrenched hierarchy in design. I mentioned this to the Dean, Jonathan Barratt. He said, "Tricia, we need a new MA, and you're writing it."
Through the course, our job has been to chip away at those hierarchies, and breed a new generation of people who can work together from the beginning.
How would you define narrative placemaking?
I think it's a space that tells us a story. But that's easier said than done.
It's often not obvious to clients that narrative is a great tool, because they are concerned very much with numbers. James Alexander (formerly a destination masterplanner and now CEO of Event Communications) puts it well: you need business people who can crunch numbers, calculate risk and return on investment. You cannot do without them. But by themselves they are very capable of creating meaningless, boring spaces.
What urban developers need is art and design to give them content. You need to bring the functional and economic aspects into line with people’s imaginations and their sense of belonging.
What kinds of people are an asset to placemaking?
We need people who understand the space - designers and architects - because what they see is dimension, volumes, light, materials, levels and sightlines. We need people who understand the symbolism of space, like graphic designers, who can identify cultural messages. We need writers. The content doesn't always have to be expressed through verbal language but it’s one of the methods we use. We need people who come from a project management or business perspective, so that they understand some of the bigger economic issues at stake. We also need psychologists, who are interested in other people's values and behaviours: the societal dimension of space.
How do you research place?
We do site research, which is basically what architects do. We do social research - talking to people following them around, intervening in everyday routines to see how they react. We do historical and contextual research — finding out the history of the place, the political context, the economic context. You’re building a very big picture. You've got to understand how things work in a place and what its current assumptions are before you can think about how you might enhance it through its existing assets.
We recognise we're dealing with complexity, but dealing with complexity is exactly what narrative does. Narrative is really a way of remembering. Of course, it is also a way of persuading. It can be turned to any purpose — anybody can use a story to do anything, good or bad.
Dealing with complexity is exactly what narrative does.
What I think Adam Scott (co-founder and creative director at experience design studio Freestate) expresses very well is that any new development isn't just the structure. You’ve got to have events unfolding over time. You have to animate space. If it's done in a top-down unimaginative way, it comes across as corporate. If it's done in an open, flexible and participatory way, people co-own it and that’s what you want.
How does this approach relate to places on a large scale, such as cities?
The problem with cities, as Thomas Sevcik of Artesia says, is that if you want to position them, or brand them, or use story to elevate the reputation of the city, it’s not the same as branding an object. If we have an object - let’s say a staple gun - I can put any logo I want on it and it can't speak back. It's completely under my control. I cannot say "London is a great city for swimming," unless people agree with me. You can't impose a brand on a place. It's got to grow out of it.
There also needs to be a sense of possibility, of freedom, for people to enact what they want to enact. People care so much about space. I think developers forget that. Everybody has an extraordinary amount of time put into how their places work - where they work in their office or what their home looks like, or where they plan their holidays, or where they belong, their nationality, where they come from. People are interested in narratives because they're leading somewhere, where things aren’t totally finished. They're drawn to possibility.
Space is also contested. When you talk to different people, you're going to get different stories and different aspirations. Narrative thrives on drama and conflict. It's actually in our interest to work with contested spaces because that's what interests people. You don't want them to physically fight and be destructive but you want people to enter into a debate about what they want for their space and how the space works and what could happen next. And people get passionate when there's somebody they disagree with.
That's one of the things that designers do really well: mediating the conflict, but also turning the conflict to be productive.
Narrative thrives on drama and conflict. It's actually in our interest to work with contested spaces because that's what interests people.
If you were to give one piece of advice to people working in narrative placemaking, what would it be?
Work from what's there. Don't try and impose anything that's not. Don't lie. It won't work. Really good research will fire up your imagination. It will also fire up the imagination of a client and all the people that you're working with who inhabit and use the space.
Be playful with it. Be daring. Take risks.
If you go back to theory, look at A.J. Greimas, the semiotician who came to prominence in the '60s who we rely on. He identified three axes of dynamic within narrative. One's about desire; one's about knowledge; and one's about power. If you go out into the environment and look for knowledge, desire, and power, you will be able to see where these contested flows emerge and how they are knit together.
I think that's where we have a major contribution to make, because nobody else is doing this in terms of how narrative corresponds to spatial research. But you don't have to invent the content itself. It's there already. We're just surrounded by it.
What do you hope for the future of placemaking?
If you look at Europe since the Second World War, or China for that matter, you'll see that urban space is growing more homogeneous. The cities all look alike. Values, traditions that are interesting, that create identity - they are being effaced by people just trying to make money, throwing up buildings as quickly as possible without any view on what they mean. By doing that, they’re eroding swathes of cultural memory. The problem with this is it’s a Cartesian view of space. It's just a dimension. You just measure it. It’s a highly commodified view of space: you can buy and sell it.
What I would love to see is more difference, responding to the values system of the location and its inhabitants. History is important but not all history is great - some histories are dire, and some traditions are appalling and you wouldn't want to continue them. But you need to reflect upon them.
I’d love to see places for people, where people belong. Places that feel and look good, because I don't think we can leave aesthetics out of it. When we say, ‘look good’, it doesn't mean that they all look the same; it means they look and express their identity in an effective way to their particular audience.
Then place becomes this amazing asset. When people go and see each other's spaces, they have a fantastic adventure. It encourages tolerance: other people live in different ways - and that's all right.
How do narratives help people to connect to place?
The power of narrative is so strong. People think in stories, they remember stories, they love stories. And everybody understands what a story is. It’s strange, but it seems to be a function of the human mind to think like that.
This narrative design process can become debased if it’s turned into a formula: “we'll have a version of that for this place.” This happens in touristic areas, where you’re taking real assets and turning them into theme parks. There's nothing wrong with theme parks, but they need to rely on something grounded, which has credibility, rather than taking something off the shelf.
This narrative design process can become debased if it’s turned into a formula: “we'll have a version of that for this place.”
So there is no formula, but it's more about an approach, or a toolkit?
Exactly. When you think about how writers struggle to write good books, it's the same thing. We have to work hard to make good places, but we've got all the tools.
On which note, Tricia takes us outside down to the canal at Kings Cross, on the Granary Square steps looking south at the Canal
What is it about this particular place that you think holds a story?
I love this bit of space — the way you can access the water. We also did a project here. We were looking at placemaking, and how art and design might be able to reinforce a sense of place. The students found that the whole place was full of different sounds. So they decided to do a project where they asked the local community for a ‘sound gift’ to the future populations of King's Cross.
You'll see there's a blue plaque and behind it is the recording that our students made of people's wishes for the future sounds of King's Cross. Ordinary citizens have their own blue plaque. The presence of the plaque reaffirms the sense of belonging of the local people who contributed to it to the new Kings Cross development. Underneath is a time capsule, which will be opened in 2025. Then we'll be able to compare what people thought in 2012 - their imagination and wishes for the future.
What principles could other developers take away from the way this place works with the surroundings?
This particular design is a connector. It connects a very hard environment to a natural environment. It’s a place for people to gather, where strangers can be together comfortably. It feeds into this whole other infrastructure in London: the canal system, which has its history as well. But basically, it's a social space in the urban environment with this pleasurable quality.