Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Deciphering Tracks

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Jan 28, '11 2:30 PM EST

    Hello Archinect!

    In his (free and open to the public) lecture today at the GSD, structural engineer Guy Nordenson cited this passage from Carlo Ginzburg on "Clues." It speaks about the decoding that we do of our environment every day--but which, because we are so immersed in its methods, can be difficult for us to identify and articulate:

    "Man has been a hunter for thousands of years. In the course of countless pursuits he learned to reconstruct the shapes and movements of his invisible prey from tracks in the mud, broken branches, droppings of excrement, tufts of hair, entangled feathers, stagnating odors. He learned to sniff out, record, interpret, and classify such infinitesimal traces as trails of spittle.

    This knowledge is characterized by the ability to move from apparently insignificant experiential data to a complex reality that cannot be experienced directly. And the data is always arranged by the observer in such a way as to produce a narrative sequence, which could be expressed most simply as “someone passed this way.” Perhaps the very idea of narrative (as distinct from the incantation, exorcism, or invocation) was born in a hunting society, from the experience of deciphering tracks."

    Can we say that the construction and deployment of these narratives, in the shaping of people's lives, is the work of the architect?

    Thanks for reading, and happy weekend!

    P.S. I'm using Peter Brooks' modified version of the Tedeschi and Tedeschi translation, found here.

    P.S. You can watch Guy Nordenson's lecture here. I recommend it!


    • Ilya Kirichenko

      What do you understand by 'narratives' in terms of architecture?

      Jan 29, 11 4:37 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Hey Ilya,

      Good question, because I wasn't clear at all on that.

      I was thinking of "narratives" here not so much as "stories," in the sense of verbal accounts that have a plot, character, and so on, but as the wider meaning-making structures that organize our lives. Things like a collective, family, self, the memory of a place, habits, common modes of understanding. Somehow, the creation of these things requires the collaboration and acknowledgment of people within a social group, and I'm wondering if this work can be thought of as the construction of shared narratives.

      You know how a myth is retold in different ways (by different people at different times) that have variants while sharing a common structure and themes? Can we use this as a model for how we understand the negotiation of meaning, identity, and social organization through our built environment?


      Jan 30, 11 10:34 am  · 
      Ilya Kirichenko

      Moreover, the story of the same structure can be told and understood in a different ways depending on the values of narrator and listener. In the end it all comes to communication and communication problems.

      I was curious what you associate with 'narratives'. What I thought of was in a way different. I thought of an architect as of a pathfinder deciphering subtle traces of history and meanings in the physical, cultural, anthropological context he works in.
      And if he takes what he learns from that as a departure point for his work, his building becomes more of a folklore narrative than a fiction story.

      Jan 30, 11 1:06 pm  · 

      hmmm... if the architect's role is to become the narrator/detective, what is the creature that is leaving hehind mysterious piles of excretement... what is being hunted? and is this to say that each link of historical evidence is to be documented, pinned on a wall in a ziplock bag, and cast metaphorically into a section diagram? i'm wondering if nordenson is positioning architecture as an encyclopedia of history, or as the agent that solves the case.

      p.s. i once had an unfortunate encounter with a juror from the GSD that declared narratives to be "the weakest form of making architecture." I've since thought of the GSD a narrative-loathing place. Am i off?

      Jan 31, 11 3:45 am  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Thanks Ilya and pzuro, for the food for thought! pzuro, the GSD isn't the most narrative-loving place that you may find, but it is also a big place, and there's room for many things, people, and ideas.

      Mar 11, 11 4:28 pm  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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