Tim Waterman

Landscape, Urban, and Food Studies

A Word … ‘Storytelling’

by Tim-Waterman on December 21, 2016, no comments

20111126-170845“A Word …” is my quarterly column for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. Here in the Autumn 2016  issue I talk about the importance of telling a good story. The Autumn issue contains an extensive section featuring the winners of the Landscape Institute Awards. 

This year’s Serpentine pavilion, by Bjarke Ingels Group, was welcomed with descriptions in the architectural press of Ingels as ‘the king of one-liners’. A good one-liner (in comedy, that is) involves a pithy statement, usually that skews a simple situation or idea with a pun, a non sequitur, or perhaps that exotic-sounding bit of wordplay, the paraprosdokian: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” A good one-liner in architecture, presumably, would remix spatial tropes surprisingly, perhaps to comic effect.

There is good reason to believe that the architectural one-liner is most suitable to an ephemeral building such as the Serpentine pavilion. Once uttered, a one-liner doesn’t stand up very long. One-liners are hardly ever appropriate to landscape, with the exception of very ephemeral landscapes such as those of the major flower shows at Chelsea, Chaumont, or Métis. True landscapes – the ones that people live in – offer layered, nuanced, complex narratives with plots, subplots, and sub-subplots. Apologies for the pun on ‘plots’. That’s clearly enough with the one-liners.

A one-liner goes down well these days, though, especially in social media, where a single arresting image and 140 characters of text are absolutely key to communicating and promoting a project. But what works for buildings is simply too reductive for any landscape project worth its salt. We need to find a ‘narrative hook’ to jar the reader and engage them with a complex act of storytelling that will follow. ‘Septimus, what is carnal embrace?’ is the opening line of Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. We want to know more – and any Stoppard fan will know that what follows is layered, nuanced, complex, probably carnal, and will require their full attention.

If there is one characteristic that the award-winning projects represented in this issue of Landscape display, it is the quality of storytelling, and probably also the employment of a narrative hook. Judges need to understand the story of a project and why it is worthy as quickly and efficiently as possible. The practices that consistently win also happen to be consistently good storytellers who use words and images together most effectively. Now, some of them (though not as many as one might suspect) also have PR people to help with this, but this should not deter those without such resources from giving it their best try.

The awards are not just about communicating our best work as a profession to the world, but also serve as a moment when we can all communicate with each other. Furthermore, they offer an opportunity for us all to sit down and figure out what important messages from our work need to get out to the rest of the profession and the world at large. This is really crucial for everyone to ask at least annually – what is the year’s story? That time to take stock and communicate what we do is particularly important when justifying our work from day to day. Everyone, particularly those in the beleaguered public sector, which needs good storytelling more than any other field, must figure out how to find the time to enter the awards. The reward will be greatest in everyday work, and in everyone’s understanding that it is part of a necessary story.