Reading and Constructing Spatial Narratives Part 1

This is an entry by guest author Christina Calabrese, an urban planner and designer from Brooklyn, NY. This is the first in a series of articles based on her graduate thesis, Reading and Constructing Spatial Narratives (Harvard GSD ’10).

“Which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of the miracle of poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience?

It was, above all, out of my exploration of huge cities, out of the medley of their innumerable interrelations, that this haunting ideal was born” –Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen, 1869.

Where do we derive our creative impulses to design? As an architectural designer and physical planner, I use and value visual language as a means of communicating ideas for the physical configuration (and reconfiguration) of the built environment. I believe the words of this language comprise photographs, sketches, diagrams, and maps; they are punctuated by contextual shifts in perspective, scale, and themes.

While these elements are a means of transmitting my ideas, my fundamental source of inspiration is derived from the stories behind these objects: what compelled the pause to document a moment in space and time? What situations are being called into question, exalted, or memorialized?

I believe these questions are important for designers to ask because they encourage infinite, nuanced answers. A photograph is taken by an individual, an observation is written in one hand. Thousands of people may capture the same physical space, from the same physical vantage point, but their instincts to do so could vary significantly.

Baudelaire thoughtfully shares his motivations for writing down his urban observations in Paris Spleen, a collection of short works (typically no more than 500 words) that were originally published in Parisian periodicals. In “The Crowd,” he writes,

“It is not given to everyone to blend into the multitude…Those who cannot people their solitude can never be alone in a busy crowd. The poet rejoices in this incomparable privilege, that he can, at will, be both himself and another. Like a lost soul searching for a body, he enters when he wishes into any character.”

Through this concise explanation I find a clear opportunity to begin my own creative design process. For this poet, and for other like-minded urban dwellers, a bustling environment forces them to personally define their public and private spaces. One space can exist in the other; an individual can partition public space for his or her personal use, or conversely maintain social affiliations despite physical solitude. For others comes a propensity to belong both socially and physically, or to be both socially and physically alone.

When these individuals interface, the degree to which their spatial and social definitions conform or challenge each other determine how the physical space itself is defined. When I read these spatial narratives – these first-person accounts of everyday life in cities – I believe I become more capable of helping to shape the story as it progresses, accommodating the disparate and analogous trajectories within the construction of a larger narrative that continues to be written.