We are hard-wired for mythic stories

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We are hard-wired for mythic stories. We have been since long before the legendary blind Homer enthralled his audiences with his recitation of the tales of Odysseus on the wine-dark sea. It is not just that our kids love to be read to, or that we watch sitcoms or go to movies or read novels, it is the way we think. Each sentence tells a story, in linear fashion, has a beginning and an end. Storylines are what grab us, over and over. They are journeys. Business, so enamored of grabbing us, knows this perfectly well: again and again, ads have storylines compressed into the allotted sixty seconds or even the one chosen print media image. Stories get to us somewhere deep in our psyches, and inspire us, move us, disgust us, galvanize us to action. They are so fundamental that the question is why we have not layered public space with narrative.

I would argue that urban public space cries out for storylines that evoke a Big Idea, an archetypal story. If only to combat the insidious role of commerce in hijacking our culture, putting logos on what we wear, what we see around us, branding us all, nowhere more than in China. Whose content is our world to be anyway, their brazen corporate messages no better than self-published, or true stories that no product purveyor owns but we all ought to share? The Invisible Hand is not a marketplace of heroic ideas.

Some might argue that we already have too many stories to process all day long, so why add any more. How spurious. It goes against our wiring. I believe that our need for good stories is vast. I also believe that place-centered stories help us to cherish the environment. Landscape architects need to see themselves as charged with an enlarged job description that henceforth includes honoring and protecting the local landscape in the age-old tradition of the story-tellers like Homer. They have it in their power to plant stories rich in archetypal meaning and thereby sanctify the local landscape.

Architecture and open space design that draws people in usually conforms to the human scale. Even in outdoor spaces that are vast, the dimensions of details like steps and doorways, balustrades and benches, the height of windowsills and ceilings, do not treat us as ants or giants. The classical canons in East and West are drawn from human proportions, and the fact of our bilateral symmetry. We instinctively relate to the abstracted version of ourselves in the proportion of rooms and corridors and porticoes and height of stories. Stories of the other kind are also about the human scale, the scale of connection and comprehension. That is wiring worth installing in urban open space.

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