Reading and Constructing Spatial Narratives Part 2

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

My last entry introduced my personal design perspective – the vantage point through which I view the construction and occupation of physical space. My design perspective is not based on my personal spatial preferences and quotidian habits, but is constantly attenuated while reading (observing, surveying) the spatial posturing of individuals around me. Each individual, in varying degrees in concert with and in contrast to other individuals, can provide spatial narratives through the dynamic animation of these postures. Some narratives are documented in video, while others are written, and still others are drawn.

With an ever-growing list of narratives to choose from, whose stories do I read? First I try to balance endogenous writings by major urban theorists from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries with exogenous texts by literary authors, anthropologists, and social scientists. These accounts form the theoretical basis for my perspective and they provide a scholarly foundation for my research, which otherwise quickly departs from traditional academic projects in the field of urbanism.

Before I can read blog posts, in other words, and call my analysis legitimate research, I should give a theoretical depth for my inclination to do so. At a basic level, narratology defines “narrative” as “the semiotic representation of a series of events meaningfully connected in a temporal and causal way… using an ample variety of semiotic media: written or spoken language, visual images, gestures and acting, as well as a combination of these” (Onega, Jaen and Landa 1996:3). The study of narrative texts is commonly associated with structuralism, and organized in Roland Barthes’ “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” (1996[1966]) into three ascending levels of description: functions, actions, and narration (Barthes 1996:48).

This foundational organization lends itself to the more specific study of spatial narrative, which sees “the units of narrative… as juxtaposed in space, not unrolling in time chronologically” (Smitten and Daghistany 1981:19), thereby allowing traditional narrative syntax to change. The placement and purpose of functions, actions and narration within a text now exist in a spatial hierarchy without necessarily revealing themselves through sequential agglomeration. This allows narratives derived from a particular space to be compared and analyzed simultaneously regardless of the temporal distance across which these narratives occur. When I introduced Baudelaire’s spatial narratives in my last entry, it was because I believe his accounts are still alive in cities today.

Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City” in The Practice of Everyday Life also serves as a primary example for this method of analysis. In his writing, de Certeau explains that individual “walkers… follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it” (de Certeau 1984:93); their “networks of moving, intersecting writings composed a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alternations of spaces” (de Certeau 1984:93). In essence, we cannot fully understand a physical space through one particular narrative, but must comprise our understanding through the  multitude of narratives converging upon diverse spaces. At the same time, we should be concerned with the relative agency of each individual to structure his or her trajectory through urban environments and situations and understand (and consider) his or her capacity to transform a space if desired.

If our aim is to create the ideal city, here defined as “the perpetual oeuvre of the inhabitants, themselves mobile and mobilized for and by this oeuvre (Lefebvre et all 1996:173), then an analysis of the inhabitants’ mobility, the documentation of their spatial story, is in fact central to the city’s construction.