The Narrative Brief
A building can often be a difficult thing to tailor. Designing a house involves a great deal of talking, drawing, talking and re-drawing. In our practice, we share stories to help evoke how a building might feel, or how it might operate.
In the early days of Owen and Vokes we took a brief from our clients in the form of a schedule of rooms. A client might come to us and say: “we need two new bedrooms and a deck” and we’d start drawing and talking. Eventually we would ask the right questions and the design would fall into place.
A few years into the practice we were approached by a family with a timber house in the inner city suburb of Balmoral. One of the clients was a prominent author and the other a very articulate lawyer. At the time we were interested in narrative as a design tool (in fact, I was then writing a clumsy undergraduate thesis on narrative and design) but we rarely recorded anything. Stu suggested that our clients might like to collect a handful of stories as a brief for the project. What we received was delightful to read.
The collected narratives drew us closer to the values and aspirations of the family. We were able to measure what mattered to them and what did not. Through the writing, we could also begin to imagine how the spaces might feel to occupy, for instance, JB’s studio:
The first place I felt truly at home was at a big table in the corner of the main reading room of the Mitchell Library in Sydney. It was huge. It was quiet. It was sort of cut off from the rest of the floor, while still giving me a view of the reading room. It let me spread my crap everywhere. I used to write for a few hours, pop out onto the sandstone forecourt for a coffee, then come back and write some more.
The rituals and events spelt out in the narratives began to furnish the empty spaces with palpable forms, scents, sounds and textures:
We recently invited a couple of friends and all their kids for dinner in Canberra. One family stayed the night. JB and I cooked Thai food and we made them sit under a big table under a tree in the backyard to eat it. It started raining during the dinner but we made them stay outside because the tree canopy kept us dry. We have this Chinese bell suspended in the tree and the rain made it tinkle while we had really hot spicy food with lots of wine and Thai beer. Maybe it was the alcohol, but it was a really great dinner.
This narrative brief reminded us of what we were already discovering: the labels we apply to most rooms are exceedingly inadequate. The title ‘Library’ tells us nothing of the kids rolling out their drawing paper on the floor and scribbling an afternoon away. ‘Kitchen’ could mean anything from sanitary food preparation area to vibrant social hub. ‘Living Room’, ‘Sitting Room’, ‘Media Room’ and ‘Rumpus Room’ might all actually mean the same room and require the expense of only one well designed space rather than four separate and underutilised spaces.
Though we’d always tried to extract this kind of detail in conversations with our clients, it often arrived deeper into the design process. The narrative brief of the Balmoral House not only allowed us to arrive at the right conversation quicker, it also acted as a kind of ‘pre-occupancy’ study. We were able to rigorously test our design work against the narrative brief and imagine the stories playing out across the drawings.
The narrative brief has become a staple of our working methodology. It’s fascinating to see how values and aspirations shift from client to client, but also, instructive to notice how they stay the same. For instance, almost all of our clients observe that the way that daily rituals play out around the kitchen is central to the workings of the family, and by extension, to the home. The life of the house tends to follow the kitchen. Access to the garden and emphasising the presence of nature is also critical. It reminds us that it’s not possible to consider the design of a house without giving equal consideration to the landscape around it.
The undergraduate thesis I eventually patched together as a student was entitled ‘The Architect as Editor’. We still practice in this way. Our buildings are one part of an unfolding series of narratives enacted by our clients. Our job is to be able to read the design and edit it to accommodate to stories we are being told. Returning to find a house cherished like the pages of a well-worn novel is one of the many great joys of making buildings for a living.