RMIT University
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Building Stories: Retelling Pasts and Presents and Building Unpredictable Futures for Stories and Buildings

posted on 2024-07-09, 05:19 authored by Edward Hollis
This research engages with the building of three stories. Each one is about a building: a disused colonial school in Tasmania; a decaying glass room in Rajasthan; and an industrial landscape in West Bengal. Their stories narrate their development between their origins in the nineteenth-century British Empire and the present. Each story is also ‘about’ writing. This research considers what happens if we apply spatial intelligence (van Schaik 2013) to writing: verbing as well as nouning the word ‘building’. This research engages with three aspects of this operation: framing fictions, fabricating space and time, and telling for retelling. Each might apply to buildings or stories: both of which can be both ‘fictional’ and ‘factual’; both of which structure time and space; both of which can be handed from generation to generation, preserved and altered every time. As the ‘-ing’ implies, ‘building’ is an ongoing activity rather than, as the theorist Giovanni Corbellini says of architecture, the reproduction of an idea (Corbellini 2018, 38). Buildings can ramble or run to ruin in ways that architecture cannot. Buildings can be reused and adapted. Buildings live lives beyond those of their makers. Adaptive reuse is no longer the peripheral practice it was when I started practicing as an architect in 1991, but its (largely Eurocentric and implicitly modernist) dogmas are challenged by new situations today. What does a beautifully crafted shadow gap or a process of patient excavation – what does the progressive layering of historical time actually mean in a fast-changing Asian city, for example, rather than the Venice or the Rome that spawned them? Building Stories attempts to make new sense of this practice by narrating the ways in which, in different times and places, other people have lived or are living with ‘build’-ing in diverse ways. ‘Story’ is also a vague term, its sea overflowing the containers and conventions of fictional or factual writing; associated, Walter Benjamin writes, with fairy tales and their tricksters, unreliable narrators, and the implication of untruth. (Benjamin [1936] 2019). Many architectural thinkers discuss buildings as texts, designing as authoring, and so on. However, this research reverses the analogy to explore how methods more commonly used in building design and construction – including diagramming, drawing, materialising, and animating – can elicit, generate, structure, and communicate stories. As buildings, these stories become not just the static verbal representations of static objects but also something that can unfold in time, in telling and occupation. This means that unlike much of the literature (including architecture fiction, historical fiction, alternative history, ficto-critical writing) that forms one context for the practice explored here, the ‘end result’ of the practice of building stories is not only textual, and nor is it always finished. Rather, the building is reproduced – storied – through multiple means, including drawing, speaking, making, and animating as well as writing. In some cases, those means include inserting stories back into the buildings they imagine, triggering subsequent cycles of stories, imaginings, and interventions. Bringing the two words together amplifies their ambiguity. Building Stories is a series of stories about buildings that could be understood as history, manual, or guidebook. However, the process of building stories also engages with the structuring of stories, their design, and their possible occupation through telling and listening. In heritage preservation, storying and building come together as a single practice. As the experimental preservationist Jorge Otero-Pailos suggests, this can become an experimental project of reimagining, reproducing, or cocreating buildings from the past (Otero-Pailos, Langdalen, and Arrhenius 2016). Worlds in which memories are disputed, resources often scarce, institutional support absent or labyrinthine, whose protocols for preservation are often seen as crude imperial impositions, are worlds that invite experiments with the reproduction of change in space and time through practices like that of building stories. How might my research contribute to these practices? First, for this PhD, I have created building stories that aim to be what Otero-Pailos calls ‘institutionally unrecognisable objects’ (Otero-Pailos, Langdalen, and Arrhenius 2016, 39) that negotiate the interzones between heritage, narrative, or architecture. Second, the notion I develop of the story as a quasi-autonomous ‘image’ of its subject offers an approach to preservation that transcends material intervention: when it is impossible to ‘save’ everything, it may be more useful to story some things instead. Third, this ‘image’ is not static but, as a story, unfolds in time and space through retelling. Building Stories is like the buildings it shows, things that will not just be read or told but can be retold and, indeed, invite retelling, perpetuating their own existence beyond the circumstances of their authoring. This research asks how we can build stories that invite retelling, just as we might build a building that (explicitly or not) invites diverse and unpredictable occupations or rebuild one in the knowledge that our work will be transformed or undone. All too often, even when redesign or retelling is undertaken or invoked, the project of adaptive reuse is understood as the ‘final’ version of the building; the critical retelling of the tale is understood as authored and autonomous; the act of preservation or heritage interpretation aims to preserve a building, removing it from the flow of time. Nonetheless, the methods I have developed through the practice of building stories aim instead to release them to swim in time instead, using the fluid medium of storytelling to understand, to narrate, and to thereby intervene in the processes of changing buildings and, thereby, building change.


Degree Type

Doctorate by Research


© Edward Hollis 2024

School name

Architecture & Urban Design, RMIT University

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