Fiction as a citymaking tool

07/06/19

I want to tell you a story and be warned, it has a twist: imagine a book that explores five principles that deal with the project management of sound town planning. Sounds like a real page-turner, yeah? Now imagine that the way this book deals with the project management of sound town planning is to present itself as an illustrated short story collection by the best of London's diverse writing and artistic talent. I know. Weird. But hear me out…Now imagine that any publisher worth their salt must be thinking: How the fu- can this exist? This supergroup assembled here - Elizabeth Day (bestseller) Guy Gunaratne (Booker longlisted), Will Wiles (Celebrity-endorsed as a British Kafka), Kayo Chingonyi (Dylan Thomas Award Winner), Marie Jacotey (Venice Biennale artist) – it’s impossible! Why would they write a planning guidance document? No, dear publisher, the story’s narrator says, It’s not impossible, it’s true, and it’s a real book. And these brilliant writers really did explore mundanities like how to sequence infrastructure development in north west London. But I tell you what is impossible, adds the narrator, perhaps a little too gleefully. Getting a hold of a copy! The end.

 

We’ll be talking about this remarkable book – Brent Cross South: the handbook - published by Argent last Autumn at Citymaking Sessions on June 27 in Peckham’s Multi Storey (heh) Car Park. (And as we’re part of Bold Tendencies programme, it’s all very appropriate, because the theme of London’s best free art show this year is…fiction). Will Wiles, author of Plume and Care of Wooden Floors, publisher Sharmaine and Argent partner Nick Searl are going to pick apart the idea that novelists, poets and comic book artists have anything to bring to the art of citymaking.

 

Why did Argent do the book? You’ll have to come to Citymakers to find out. But to give you a sense of the logic driving it’s concept, let’s take a look at a couple of the stories. Will’s story – Save Brent Cross South! about a protest in the future by local residents concerned for their neighbourhood facing demolition– is typically sharply wrought, given Wiles' background as an architectural critic. In a way it serves to dignify the Brent Cross South development team by suggesting they are building London’s future heritage. And maybe spurring them on to do so in the process. It reinforces the point that what Argent’s staff is doing goes way beyond their own roles in project management, design or delivery and that they are building places that people will live their lives in, grow attached to, hold memories of.

 

Likewise Elizabeth Day’s story, Little Ben explores what it means for a single mum and her young son to grow up together in Brent Cross South. We learn than Little Ben is named so because they can see Big Ben when they go to the rooftop of their housing block. What we learn from these simple facts is that it’s totally normal for a mum and son to be able to live there and make home a together. It also tells us that the rooftop of their apartment block is accessible  - a social space for residents - and provides views across London - so much so you can see Big Ben. This is a reminder that the team building Brent Cross south are building in London, a world city, famous for its iconic buildings and townscape, a place Brent Cross Residents can feel proud of.

 

Whether this will have any real impact on how the actual place evolves remains to be seen and could well be too tricky to reasonably measure anyway. Still the Argent team, who co-authored the book with Open City and Beispiel, definitely enjoyed the process – as I’m sure you’ll find out at Citymaking Sessions: Can fiction be used as a design tool?  kicks of the day’s programme in the car park at 9.30am. A little later, Will Wiles will also be reading from his new novel, Plume. And as David Baddiel says, 'Wiles is basically Kafka, if Kafka had spent more time in British hotels and pubs’.

 

And the truth is you really can’t buy the Brent Cross south story book. The initial print run of 500 really is all gone - and as a document designed for Argent’s Brent Cross South delivery team, it was never actually for sale. Which is a shame. Because it's soooo good!