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The Stories We Tell that Could Build a City

(The Oregonian, Portland, OR) , April 6, 2008

Summary:

Is it possible that the city we imagine -- the city that isn't, that was, that could be -- is more real than the one that actually exists? Do we fashion cities through the stories that we tell, as real as anything that's already around us?

At Portland State University, a class of architecture students has been testing this proposition. For the past two months they have been imagining a place -- a new kind of civic institution -- built literally from stories. No dirt has been turned, and yet they can see the place as clearly as if it actually stands. Now, they're trying to help other people see it, too.

They're calling it a Narratorium. Simply put, it would be a place for stories and storytelling, a tangible home for what has always been ethereal: the overheard conversations on the back of the bus, the man sitting alone at the table next to us, the stories we tell ourselves about our city, that our city tells us. Every time that happens something is built (the invisible filaments that bind a community -- understanding, empathy, outrage, bewilderment, connection, compassion, wonder). What if we could finally see it?

The class, called "Plotting the City," was developed by Professor Clive Knights, a deeply thoughtful, hyper-articulate man, whom one of his students describes admiringly as "an entity that is out of this world." (Knights' reading list for this course included essays by French surrealists as well as philosophers Martin Heidegger and Paul Ricoeur.)

Knights speaks passionately about the importance of thinking about architecture in terms of narrative. (Another course reading: "On Stories," by philosopher Richard Kearney.) "Story is one of the most powerful means of bringing people together," Knights says. "The architectural fabric of our lives is caught up in these stories and the context in which our life unfolds. As soon as you begin to ask questions of identity -- who am I -- you also have to ask where am I? You are interweaving yourself with your setting."

Subjects Covered: education, healing


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