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Multiple perceptions as framing device for identifying relational places

Title: Multiple perceptions as framing device for identifying relational places
Author: Claudia Acholz and Louise Brandberg Realini
Affiliation: University of Lugano, Switzerland
DOI:  10.3384/svid.2000-964X.12238
First published: 2012-12
Year: 2012
Pages: 38-45
Number of pages: 8
Language: English

SVID, Swedish Industrial Design Foundation/Linköping University Electronic Press, Linköping University, Sweden

Publication type: Journal article
Journal: Swedish Design Research Journal
ISSN: 2000-964X

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We have presented an inquiry method in which citizens talk about their relationships to their built surrounding, raising problems, strengths, changes and dreams. It allows citizens to understand and describe their urban experiences and makes it easier for architects to recognize frameworks and rules inside the context in which they are asked to intervene.

We would like to underline three main results: First, stories materialize, also past ones, and they become visible identity points. Memories are not flying rootless in the air, but they can take tangible forms. Hence, we can locate them through their relationship with material situations, and this allows us to make the invisible stories present.

Secondly, a deeper urban portrait of the areas surrounding the three key projects is drawn by identifying local centres (‘identity points’) with their actual presence (‘time’) in the public mind, discovering furthermore that they are not only representational buildings and places, but also minor, less conspicuous venues, like bars and restaurants and anonymous buildings. These places are culturally and emotionally more important for residents and have a stronger anchorage in time and place. But their ‘times’ are independent from the date of conception and stylistic form. They can be animated and hence change their status of presence through new interventions.

Thirdly, identity places with a higher spatio-temporal relationality allow for more playful handling of changes by enacting linkages between past-present-future. As reference points for future developments they may ensure a certain continuity of thoughts and times enabling new interventions that are immediately integrated into the urban tissue supporting an overall positive urban transformation. Although they are not stable, identity points may still indicate which way to go, by offering a loose framework for new projects as part of an existing reality. We would therefore like to emphasize that the identity points can be seen as switchers in an urban reality (Weichensteller). Hence it is important to know which are the identity points in a context and how they are inscribed in space and time, because their temporality, as described before, can inform planning and design processes. It might also help to decide when to protect, adjust or transform certain places. By acknowledging this aspect, we start to understand the long-term tendency of an urban system, that includes both subjective information (invisible emotional relations) and existing spatial relations.

We thus transcend the impetus of a spatial order and suggest to take also temporality as an inspiration source for new architectural projects. Using this awareness as a framework for new projects calls for thinking about new objects as being part of an existing reality, that is also made of various emotions, materiality and stories of places. Hence, a city’s past offers inspirations and becomes a foothold for contemporary tasks, without wanting to recreate the past.

The outcome is another reading of today’s reality, where artefacts - beyond functionality, form and usability – mediate between individuals and society, between past and present and represent the territory from the citizens point of view. In the view of this, we offer another view on the urban reality, grounding projects on the stories, not only the histories, of the places involved.

Through a dialogue within a specific spatial setting, we limited objective available data by positioning inhabitants in the framework of an emerging urban project and thus, acknowledging their role as co-creators of urban space, without removing the creative process of the architect that can be built upon this different urban portrait.

Based on the experience gained so far we argue that a narrative interview technique can be used to increase the context awareness. The method better supports small areas of observation, as it helps people to stay focused and tell more stories rather than just list places. We believe that this kind of analysis through the eyes of people, linked to memories of their lives and related to intervention areas, can be of incredible value for the architect. A personal, yet multiple perspective on the urban reality, through an intuitive understanding, might help to suggest new patterns or structures that respond to a larger group of people. This attitude allows both a more human-centred and context-specific approach to urban planning, which is of relevance beyond the city of Lugano.


We collected a variety of spatially located information in relation to emotions, sentiments and affections, but there is still the challenge in mapping that “lived space” without losing the essence of it. Thus the portrait needs to be enriched by additional visual evidences (drawings, archival and/or contemporary photography) and deeper site observations (user behaviour, activity pattern, spatial orientation, stakeholder involvement). We propose that all this different information should find a common ground in the form of 3 storybooks, one for each key project. Pieced together by a new narration, they might help an overall social and historical understanding of the site to unfold.

The storybook will be an open story, a lived story, where the leading plot is composed by the story elements extracted from the narrative interviews. People’s voices, that are embedded in specific places (Lefevbre, 1974), will be arranged in a simple sequence (ante-narrative). Their expressions will remain leading characters in the text, because they include more context, more meanings, motivations and attitudes, than mere descriptions of specific built elements. They describe best the way people live the city today. Otherwise, fine information like: saying every day hello to the man who is selling chestnuts in front of the pastry shop, a child’s accident with a car on the main square or citizens’ project proposals would be lost.

Our ambition is to create a city portrait out of what ordinary people appreciate, of how they lead their lives, rather than out of what experts see or want to see and represent. By acknowledging spatial narratives, the architect might be able to generate projects which emerge from within, recognizing the creative potential of the relational web inherent in the place. This ‘collective frame’, made of local knowledge such as emotional, visual, functional and spatial relations; could help and inspire architects and planners offering codes that await a translation into form.


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SVID, Stiftelsen Svensk Industridesign | Svensksundsvägen 13, 111 49 Stockholm | I 08-406 84 40