In the frame of European Architectural History Network (EAHN)’s fifth thematic conference The Tools of the Architect

Paper presentation

Oral History and Architecture. How can Personal, Participative, and Individual Narratives become a Tool to Rethink Architecture?

Vittoria Capresi

Delft University of Technology and Het Nieuwe Instituut HNI (Delft and Rotterdam, The Netherlands)
22 – 24 November 2017

Abstract

Oral History and Architecture. How can Personal, Participative, and Individual Narratives become a Tool to Rethink Architecture?

How can people’s memories contribute to our understanding of the built environment? How can narratives about spaces shed new light on the mechanisms that govern architecture and buildings?

The interpretation of architecture is linked to the direct explanation of material space. The built landscape is usually analysed through the forms of and spatial relationships between individual buildings. The functions of the buildings and the spaces around them provide more information, which can be used to better understand the interactions between the constructions themselves.

What happens if – as an additional level of interpretation – we add the narratives and memories of the inhabitants? What new insights can the analysis of oral histories of a built space offer us? Can shifting our perspective from an academic narration of a site to a personal, and emotional one become a tool to expand our understanding of the built environment?

In recent time oral history has been more and more accredited as an important source of data to investigate architecture and town planning, providing a different perspective of analysis.

In the case of modern architecture, narratives directly linked with the buildings and surrounding spaces could add precious hints to integrate the description of the architecture beyond its physical appearance, the printed sources and – if existing – the technical and functional explanations by the architect and decision-makers in the design and construction process. If considering architecture built under a totalitarian regime, oral history methods could even play a more essential role, suggesting an interpretation which definitively overthrow the propaganda image of that time.

The paper aims at exploring the effects of analysing architecture through a holistic approach which includes also the narratives of the users, investigated by means of oral history methods.

As a case study the new towns built under Mussolini in Italy and in colonial Libya will be presented and discussed. The interpretation of these new fascist settlements is always linked to the propaganda of that time: the historical photos and descriptions in the press offer only a partial and misleading impression of how life was in the centres. Today the buildings and spaces which still exist allow a partial understanding of the original uses and functions.

How can narratives offer a tool to compose a different image of these spaces? How and how much can diaries, private pictures and letters add essential information for a more comprehensive interpretation of that architecture and urban spaces?