Christopher Daniel

March 26, 2021

Storytelling in Places

The winter of 1709 was unusually cold. As the seasons changed, trees across Europe strengthened their bark further to ward off the elements. As those trees were felled in later years, the growth rings from that cold year were revealed to be particularly dark.

The study of tree rings is dendrochronology, understanding trees (dendron) in order to understand time (kronos). Each year, as seasons pass, a new ring forms. The layers of rings within a tree tell the story of its life in a particular location. When considered together, dendrochronology tells the story of a place and its climate. In a forest, that story might be thousands of years old. In an urban park, the story is often rather shorter.

2020 has been an unusual year in London parks. Without urban festivals, much grass has survived the year, but some trees will have had a rougher time than usual. Signs on gates reminding people that parks are not lavatories suggest that some tree rings might have a different character this year.

Every visit to a place has its own story. Every visit leaves its mark, however small, on both the visitor and on the place. Our memory of a day out in the city contains more than just the destination. The journey to get there, the discussions on the way home. The full sensory experience binds in our memory, to come flooding back at the hint of a familiar smell or the moment we set foot back in that theatre, or gallery or park.

A visitor to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2019 would find much that was familiar from 1999, but much that had changed and will likely change again. A visitor from 1919 or 1899 would find some of the modern day additions and interpretations unfamiliar, but it is the very continuity of the place itself that makes those new perspectives more evident and encourages new conversations. New stories are overlaid on old ones, and any turbulence between the two adds strength to the new memory.

In 2020, a visit to a major museum, if possible, will have been a rather different experience. For many people, much of this year has been spent online. We sit at the same home desks, staring at the same app windows, our social and work places alike mediated through the same screens and cameras. The moment one call ends, another starts. No need to physically move anywhere else, but also no time to mentally move to the next place.

Our online interactions are deliberately designed to make us more “efficient”. In the attention economy of what Shoshana Zuboff terms “the Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, the more we see, the more we buy, the faster it happens, the more we’re hooked. The time taken to walk between meetings; to wait for a train to a match; to cross the courtyard of a museum; to walk home from the theatre: these seemingly unnecessary moments are shaved away from our more “efficient” digital experience. The experience becomes thinner, the interaction costs are lighter.

Memories formed in physical space carry more weight. To be in a physical place is to be surrounded by the full sensory experience. During the 2020 global pandemic the Burning Man event in Nevada, USA was one of many large gatherings that looked to recreate themselves online. But the experience of opening a computer window in a home office is much lighter than that of driving deep into the Black Rock Desert after many months of practical preparation. The digital simulation is (for now at least) no match for the real place.

The stories formed in 2020 have largely been rather different to those we might have hoped or expected. The effects of those stories on both us and our places remain to be seen. Perhaps we will have learned to truly value what we have in the places that we visit; in what we see; in which we meet, with new ideas, thinking and opportunities emerging for the future in this refreshed relationship.

And that winter of 1709?   It was towards the end of a time known as the “Maunder Minimum” (1645-1715), the deepest part of what we now call the “Little Ice Age”, a brief period - geologically speaking - of colder years than we have experienced since. The “Golden Period” of violin maker Antoni Stradivari is considered to have been from 1700 to 1725. According to a paper published in the scientific journal “Dendrochronologia”, this is no coincidence.

Christopher Daniel

Christopher Daniel

Architect and educator with a background in designing places for performance. He is director of Polysemic, a cultural design practice, and teaches design at the University of Westminster and the University for the Creative Arts.
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