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The narrative making of the city. Use and misuse of fiction, narrative and non-fiction narrative in the production of urban space

English title The narrative making of the city. Use and misuse of fiction, narrative and non-fiction narrative in the production of urban space
Applicant Matthey Laurent
Number 189881
Funding scheme COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology)
Research institution Département de géographie et environnement Université de Genève
Institution of higher education University of Geneva - GE
Main discipline Social geography and ecology
Start/End 01.06.2020 - 31.05.2023
Approved amount 239'278.00
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All Disciplines (2)

Social geography and ecology
Architecture and Social urban science

Keywords (5)

urban studies; place-making; narrative; urban planning; Geneva

Lay Summary (French)

Il y a près de trente ans, Bernardo Secchi évoquait, au moyen de ce qu’il appelait alors le « récit d’urbanisme », le souci des urbanistes pour la production de mythes, faisant d’une activité souvent considérée comme principalement technique, un travail centré sur la fabrique d’images et d’imaginaires. Cette composante du travail urbanistique, amplifiée par les impératifs de communication propres aux grands projets urbains contemporains, prend acte de la nécessité de structurer un récit pour légitimer, transmettre, penser un espace.
Lay summary

Si la métaphore de la narration a été abondamment mobilisée pour penser la fabrication de l’urbain, il n’existe aucune recherche qui tente de comprendre, à partir d’une définition étroite du récit, comment un récit d’urbanisme se déploie effectivement à travers différents documents de planification et de projet et aspire à agencer d’autres récits pour faire avancer son intrigue ou maintenir l’intérêt du « destinataire ».

Postulant que les modèles théoriques issus du champ de la théorie littéraire offrent une base pertinente à l’analyse d’autres productions culturelles, mobilisant le discours, récit et autres « inscriptions littéraires », l’objectif central de cette recherche est d’appréhender les dynamiques et les interrelations continues entre trois modalités de récit du territoire genevois :

  1. La production d’un récit du territoire tel que le conçoivent les professionnels de l’urbanisme employés ou mandatés par les administrations publiques.
  2. Les transformations de ce récit par des artistes mandatés par les pouvoirs publics pour animer l’espace public.
  3. La production de contre-narrations portées par les collectifs habitants.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 17.12.2019

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Following the linguistic turn brought about by philosophy and then the human sciences as a whole from the late 1970s onwards, the social sciences underwent a discursive turn in the 1980s. This refers to the multiplication of analyses approaching reality as a discourse to be interpreted, in particular by means of linguistics and semiology. From then on, the focus has been on treating social facts as a ‘text’, a ‘writing’, or a ‘narrative’. These linguistic and discursive turns occurred early in the field of planning knowledge and practices. In 1984, Bernardo Secchi was already working on grasping the challenges of what he called the ‘urban planning narrative’. The expression refers to the symbolic dimension of urban planning, which is above all a production of images and imaginations capable of supporting a grand collective narrative. This conception of urban planning practice has given rise to a powerful strand of research in the Anglo-Saxon world.However, there is no research that attempts to understand, based on a narrow definition of narrative, how narrative urban planning unfolds at different levels of urban production around a plot setting developed by an author, activating other narratives and creating characters. While the intertextuality effects of urban planning narratives have been documented, the production of territory has never been approached by means of a narratological grid in the same way as a frame narrative in which subordinate narratives are mobilized to advance a plot or introduce narrative parentheses likely to keep the ‘reader’ interested. In short, urban planning narratives are approached as if their plot is unique rather than complex and polyphonic.Our aim is to approach the urban planning narrative in its most literal manifestations. Following the structuralist project of a general semiotics as a social science of meaning, and as the continuation of Genette’s work aspiring to an ‘extended narratology’ (Gefen, 2013) whose perimeter goes beyond the limits of literary text, we assume that the achievements of literary theory offer a solid foundation for the analysis of other cultural productions, mobilizing narrative, history and ‘literary inscriptions’. In this context, our general assumption is that the making of the city can be approached as a narrative in which other narratives are inscribed, sometimes partly autonomously.The narrative should be here understood as a series of operations on a material, mainly text, that aim to obtain an effect outside the text. This hors-text [out of text] is both its reader (or recipient) and the territory.Through the focus on narratives, we are interested in how the uses of space are conceived well in advance of early achievements; in what others would call a manufacture of consent. However, the focus on narratives also allows us to grasp the interplay between the frame narrative and the embedded narratives; the tension that occurs between author and characters who in turn become authors; and the way in which the space of representations disrupts the representations of space, opening up other possible practices.This general conceptual diagram explains our methodological framework. It aims to capture the dynamic and continuous interrelationships between three narrative modalities (what we call the narrative making of the city) that are reflected in the materiality of the territory studied.-The first narrative modality analyzed is the production of a narrative of the Geneva territory as conceived by urban planning professionals employed in or mandated by public administrations. The aim here is to analyse different media developed by the public authorities to communicate on urban transformation projects. All of these write about the city of the future from a perspective of political power.-The second narrative modality focuses on the transformations of this narrative by artists (videographers) commissioned by public authorities to perform public space. The research here takes as a case study the ‘MIRE’ event organized by the Fonds cantonal d’art contemporain and the Office d’urbanisme [urban planning Agency] of the Republic and Canton of Geneva.-The third and final narrative modality focuses on the production of urban counter-narratives by individual and collective actors. The research is part of the research-participation and experimental geography paradigm. By organizing meetings, over a long period with collaborators from the cantonal administration, a group of urban architects developing innovative approaches to planning, residents and finally contemporary writers, the research aims to bring out counter-narratives and test the potential of complex plots in planning.This research will involve three Swiss universities (the University of Geneva, HES-SO Geneva and the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne [Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne]), the Office d’urbanisme , the Fonds cantonal d’art contemporain [Cantonal Fund for Contemporary Art] of la Republic and canton of Genève, the Fondation Braillard Architectes, the urban atelier Olga and the AJAR writers' collective.Our research participates to the COST Action Writing Urban Places-New Narratives of the European City by documenting the narrative making of the city in various configurations.