There is something so personal, and yet so collective in the way we comprehend our cities. Sure, as individuals, we all experience our surroundings differently, and yet these inevitably respond to the culture and space it is conceived in. Still, we can agree that, no matter where, the culture or race, every space has a story to tell. Throughout this article, we will gain insight into how architecture can become the architectural language of our cities, the stories they tell and its power to change our perspective of the world surrounding us.
Storytelling in Architecture | Architectural Language
“The universality of the narrative makes us members of the species homo fabula and our stories connect us, even when they distinguish us from, each other and the world.”,
-P. Emmons and L, Phinney (2018)
Bearing this in mind, architecture can be conceived as a way of storytelling: with its own language and expressions, rhythms and prose intend to express something, open our eyes to new perspectives, and teach us about who we are, and where we come from. The role of architecture is not to impose but to suggest.
To suggest a new reality, an ideal, a passion; aspiring to, at any level, arise something in each one of us, may that be happiness, fear, loss, even hope. That’s the romantically daunting thing about architecture: it has the power to change our perception, not only of the physical world but also that of our identity, our culture and our past.
The Language of Architecture
Architecture, just like literature, aspires for expression. In Paul Emmons’ and Luc Phinney’s words: “Storytelling is the native language of our imagination and a well-told story can deftly integrate technical, cultural and aesthetic thinking”. According to Charles Jenks (1977), the architectonic word is more ‘elastic and polymorphous than the written word, with its basis in the relationship between the physical context and the spectator. But unlike written language, architectural language is said to be universal: no matter the country and culture, we all communicate through the same symbols.
Just like a good writer, a good architect should have a clear idea of what it is that he wants to communicate and learn how to use the language of architecture to its end.
Storytelling and Perspective | Architectural Language
Every novel has a beginning, middle and an end, as well as a genre and style. Also does architectonic storytelling:
This part, most of the stories have in common: It’s your first approach and impression. You get to meet from a certain distance but with a fair amount of detail the characters that will take part in the play as you start getting in touch with the author’s style, how he manages language, grammar, slang and background. Structure, material, texture, color; mainly the visual impulses take the wheel as you slowly venture into the depth of the building’s story, giving yourself in completely, trapped by the plot.
Middles | Architectural Language
As the plot thickens, you begin to read into its metaphors, to surf through its material language, the use of scale, temperature; the story begins to take the dimension of a whole: we find ourselves immersed in a world that has been designed just for our understanding.
A good book has the ability to detach us from our physical bodies and take us on a trip to foreign cities and imaginary universes.
In architecture, every square meter has been designed with an end, and every fragment has been settled for you to experience and perceive in a particular way. Suddenly, without even noticing, the author is talking to you, instructing you on your very steps, and your perception of reality starts to change. The world acquires a new perspective, not because of a magical act, but because architecture has touched something inside you, it has communicated with you and is now an extension of your own humanity.
Every word has led you to this point, where against all odds, the hidden meaning behind architecture’s metaphors unfolds before your eyes, clear as blue skies. You have been influenced by its language, getting its message across so precisely, and yet ever so elegantly it gets hard to pinpoint exactly when your perspective began to mutate. The stories, their language and style may differ, being a symbol in itself.
To understand this concept more precisely, we will venture into the ‘Parque de la Memoria’, a clear example of how architectural language can shape the stories of our cities, our heritage and our identity.
The ‘Parque de la Memoria’, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
By the coast of the Rio de la Plata remains one of the most important monuments to humanity the City of Buenos Aires holds. Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina underwent one of the most traumatic periods in its history known as ‘Proceso de Reorganización Nacional’ (‘National reorganization process’).
During this time, systematic state terrorism in the hands of the armed forces raged in the streets. People with ‘subversive behaviours’ or ‘suspicious attitudes’ were taken away from their homes, kidnapped in the middle of the street and imprisoned in clandestine detention centers, where they were tortured, some of them killed, and others simply made to disappear.
During the early ‘90s, the government issued a law that forbade the penal judgment of the military leaders responsible for the massacre where an estimated 30.000 people lost their lives in the hands of the State. Enraged by this, the human rights organisms decided to create the first ‘memory site’ in Argentina, using architecture as the language to tell the story of their loss.
Part 1: The Official Story | Architectural Language
‘Confabulatory methodologies allow the architect to engage productively with uncertain sites, sources and situations, and so, it may be hoped, to build our structures and cities with greater responsiveness and resilience.’
– P, Emmons; L. Phinney.
The park intends to tell the story of a broken country, a story of trauma and coming of age with a new perspective on identity and a renewed sense of humanity. The site chosen will be our trigger. During the military process a procedure called ‘death flights’ were carried out, where planes transporting victims under the foolish promise of freedom parted from the metropolitan airport and thrown into the Rio de la Plata.
Located over its coast, and 300 meters away from said airport, the election of the site looks to commemorate the facts that took place there, as well as change the social perspective from a place of trauma to a place for healing. Where once was nothing but the memory of those who are no more, there is now a new landscape that is, in the architect’s words: ‘In contact with the most permanent things of existence: the land, water, the horizon and the city; the things that cannot be removed and that are the material of the architecture of the monument and the park’.
Art, politics and memory work in synergy within these 14 hectares of land in the creation of a cathartic space, with the endeavor to change our perspective not only of the heavy heritage of the physical environment but of our story, our humanity and our role in democracy. The landscape, the Monument to the ‘Desaparecidos’ and an art gallery shape this site of memory, as the park unfolds as an art gallery itself, showcasing 17 memorial sculptures to those who disappeared and lost their lives in the hands of the State.
There is nothing extraordinary to it at first sight: large extensions of green grass rise from behind a white, metal fence. Vegetation is low, the grass is ground level cut. As you wander around its perimeter, you get a glimpse of several sculptures, scattered around the vast landscape. You get to the access, a reception room made out of stained, light blue glass and glass doors. It feels light, inviting, as a kind employer greets you from behind a wooden counter, smiles at you brightly, and yet rather grimly.
Part 2: The Language of the Unspeakable
You are inside, and the story is completely different. The wind blows stronger, cold and reassuring, your feet move on their own to the sound of the river. The acoustic changes: besides the roaring engines of the departing planes, the deafening urban noises are left behind as you begin to slowly submerge into just the right depth of quiet. To your left rises an unyielding wall, its color as black as coal, towering above a terracotta coloured concrete esplanade that rises over the ground level ever so slightly, just enough to feel as if you were beginning a kind of journey. To the far right, emerging from a bed of small, pale rocks, trees sway their branches to the rhythm of the breeze, its leaves rattling, casting hypnotising patterns over the reddish ground and a few benches. You can not see the river from this point, just the vast green expanding on both sides, behind the massive block. As you get closer, you see a subtle waterfall slips over the bright, onyx surface, flowing into a black tiled bottomed pond, reflecting the sky.
This is the first of four walls. In each one of them have been engraved the names and ages of every victim of State terrorism. It is a testimony, the encounter between architectural and written word; together to tell the story of these people. These walls are the tallest object in the park, framing the landscape. Its imponent presence contrasts with the sincere nurtured spaces and the feeling is that of desolation, pain and sadness of unimaginable beauty. Before every wall stands concrete benches, inviting reflection and mourning. The perception of the space changes once again: this is no longer a park, but the built expression of loss and memory. The concept, in the architect Alberto Vara’s words, was the creation of ‘paths that lead to windows that look to different parts of the city. Every time you get to the end of each of these walls you get a different vision of the city.[…]There, a fundamental idea is concreted, that is the connection between the city and the monument’.
The Constructed Metaphor | Architectural Language
The walls lead the way, carving into the hills as open wounds in processional, ramped, fragmented paths that accompany you through the forest of names that grow day by day on their surface and our consciousness. The monument is part of the landscape, it frames it, playing with scale and visuals so that the river and the park are luxuries given by the monument itself. Every curve, every bench, every lonesome extension of grass is there to communicate, to express, in its own language, the meaning of the park. Experiencing the winding paths, seventeen sculptures make their way standing in the austere landscape.
Part 3: A Healing Wound
Before your eyes displayed a marvellous scenario: the horizon meets the river far beyond the last hill of the park. The soothing breeze lifts your spirit, and you become aware of the heaviness on your shoulders. In the distance, a dock lays suspended where the land meets the sea, a metaphor for our present and our past, the physical and spiritual world pending on a thread beyond the hills, that according to the architects, symbolized the construction of a new and unified society that looked forward to the future. And just like that, the park becomes the constructed story of a country, and through the power of architectural language brings about reflection and a change of perspective on the space that surrounds us, and on our heritage and identity as a society.
In the words of the architects | Architectural Language
‘This place of memory does not pretend to close open wounds nor replace the truth and justice, but to constitute a place of memory, tribute, testimony and reflection. […] Its objective is that actual generations and the ones to come visit it and take conscious of the horrors committed by the state, and the neet to velar for that fact to never be repeated again’
In the end, storytelling in architecture has proven to be a powerful tool for us to understand our cities and their history. Whether it is through the creation of a space with a specific end, or the revival of one thought forever lost, the stories of architecture are endless, and through its language appeal to us all in search of that spark that only she knows how to ignite.
- C. Jenks, (1977) – Language of Post Modern Architecture
- Parque de la Memoria (2018, May 22) – ‘Relatos de un Proyecto para no Olvidar – Alberto Varas’
- P. Emmons, C. Dayer, M. F. Feuerstein (2018) – Confabulations: Storytelling in Architecture
- Parque de la Memoria – Monumento a las Victimas del Terrorismo de Estado (2021, March 10) – ‘Parque de la Memoria – Sobre el Parque’, URL: https://parquedelamemoria.org.ar/parque/