NARRASCAPE: Urban Environment as Narrative System in the UK and China

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Architecture


This project will focus on the central theme of Urban Narrative Environment, seeking to introduce recent research findings on narrative environment into the field of urban studies and to establish an international research network on this subject.

Today we live in a world of cities: almost 50% of world population inhabits cities (89.7% in UK). 'It is vital that we understand the impact of this urban growth on people and the environment, as the links between architecture and society become both more complex and more fragile.' An understanding of urban conditions, including the conflicts, values and memory as well as human experience of them, necessitates multidisciplinary approaches and offers a challenge to the arts and humanities.

Narrative is integral to human experience: on the one hand, we live in a world abounding with stories of various forms; on the other hand, narrative is one of the fundamental ways we organize and understand the world. Narrative is one of the prior schemes that are 'actively used to organize and interpret a person's encounter with the environment, both internal and external.' Narrative offers a distinctive approach to understand how our knowledge and experience of the environment is constructed and in return, how to organize the environment that conforms to human experience and memory and facilitates human interactions with the environment.

This project will examine urban environments through investigations into the interaction between temporally structured narratives and their spatial configurations, in other words, to investigate how 'space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.' This project aims at revealing the hidden 'narrative landscape' in urban environments as a collage of narrative strata corresponding to the natural ways of experiencing an environment, namely gaze, route and survey modes. This 'narrascape' provides a particular layer to analyze and assess the values, organizations and representations of urban space. The concept and methodology of 'narrascape' will be developed through four multidisciplinary workshops with separate but correlated case studies. Digital media, especially moving images and virtual reality, with their extraordinary power in representing (and creating) human experience, will be employed and explored as the primary tools in presenting and developing urban 'narrascape'.

The Digital Studio is part of the Martin Centre for Architectural and Urban Studies, Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge. It is directed by Dr. François Penz and has for years successfully led EPSRC, AHRC and EU funded researches into narrative organization of space, non-linear narrative forms and the expressive use of digital media to facilitate design and communications on architectural and urban issues. This project seeks to extend Digital Studio's investigation into urban studies and to examine previous research outputs in the urban contexts of UK and China.

There is growing interest for UK and China to carry out research collaborations on the global issues of urban environments and urban conditions. The Martin Centre has strong track record of collaborative projects with Chinese universities on architectural and urban studies. This project will initiate a new network to bring together researchers and professionals from both countries to discuss and explore the narrative values, organizations and representations of urban environment. This project will consist of workshops, conference, translation and publication works, and dissemination activities. The foci are the workshops on the case studies of three historic cities: Cambridge in the UK, Nanjing and Changsha in China. Each case study addresses a sub-theme of 'narrascape'. Through these workshops, this project seeks to advance our understanding of urban narrative environment and to establish a network that will foster future research and practice opportunities.


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Title 28 short films from practice based research workshops 
Description narrative space workshop 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2012 
Impact the workshop resumed in short film outputs 
Description This project opened up an exciting new area of research. It set out to introduce recent research findings on narrative environment into the field of urban studies and to establish an international research network on this subject. These questions have been investigated and experimented in the main research activities of this project and have produced inspiring research outputs.

During the first year, two research workshops were held. The first workshop was held on September 22-26, 2008 at the Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge. It combined two seminars and two filming exercises - one on 'narrative mapping', the other on 'filmic mapping'. The workshop was attended by 15 researchers, mostly from the disciplines of architecture, urban design, and film studies, and 10 postgraduate students. This workshop experimented with the use of the moving image as an analytical tool, a method later adapted by our partner institute Nanjing University into their follow-on project funded by China's National Project 985. This workshop also enhanced the mutual understanding of urban conditions in the UK and China through discussions and screenings and laid the ground for an interdisciplinary network of scholars.

The second workshop was held on April 6-11, 2009 at the School of Architecture, Nanjing University. It included two seminars and two filming exercises that investigated the role of speed in the contrasting experiences of traditional space and modern city. The workshop was attended by 22 researchers, filmmakers and artists, and 20 postgraduate students. This workshop compared the grounded bodily observation in a traditional garden with the mechanical and hovering observation in a modern city centre. It strikingly revealed the potential of cinematic observation as a method for studying urbanism.

During the final year, one international conference was held on December 8-10, 2009 at the University of Cambridge. This conference was attended by 65 researchers, architects, filmmakers and artists (from 27 cities in 11 nations). It provided a forum for the discussion and exchange of ideas on the subject of urban narrative environment between the urban analyzers (researchers), designers (architects and urban designers) and observers (filmmakers and artists). And a selection of papers was published by Intellect Books in 2011. This conference considerably consolidated this emerging area of research by investigating its five sub-themes. It also significantly extended the international network on this subject.
Exploitation Route The book publication would have certainly benefitted a large public - both academics and non-academics- and is now available on kindle. It was also the precursor to my next AHRC grant, the Cinematic Geographies of Battersea.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections