Cultural Design: Is This My Story to Tell?

This 1916 image of Frances Densmore and Blackfoot leader Mountain Chief listening to a cylinder recording has become a symbol of the early songcatcher era.

As a landscape architect, I subscribe to the idea that within our designs we are trying to convey stories. At the beginning of any effort, one of the most important questions is, “Whose story am I trying to tell?”. More important than that question is, “Is this story mine to tell?”.

For many of our designs, we are creating new stories based within the typical site programming of clients needs and wants, function, aesthetics, and the design elements that contribute to comfort and enjoyment. We are telling a story that we are creating on our own, or creating new with our clients.

The origin and ownership of stories comes to the forefront when we look to culture and tradition for elements to incorporate into our designs.

As designers, we get inspiration from all of the sources around us, and get truly excited with taking what we see and incorporating it into what we do. We might treat the whole world as a design sourcebook. The difficulty is determining whether there is any meaning behind what we see and draw from, and whether our use or adaptation of it is appropriate. Appropriate. Is it our story to tell?

From Wikipedia: “Cultural appropriation is the adoption of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture. Often unavoidable when multiple cultures come together, cultural appropriation can include using other cultures’ traditions, food, fashion, symbols, technology, language, and cultural songs without permission. According to critics of the practice, cultural (mis)appropriation differs from acculturation, assimilation, or cultural exchange in that the “appropriation” or “misappropriation” refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture.”

If a story isn’t ours to tell, our telling of it will most likely have mistakes and not be true to form. If a story isn’t ours, then we either need to get permission to tell it (and the training to do so) or we work with the owner of the story to tell it with them… or ideally, assist them in telling their story within our medium (landscape and site). Within our expertise as design professionals… our success is facilitating stories to be heard in new ways.

Is this my story to tell?

**Below are some examples of some of the work we have done with our clients. I think our success in this is at the end of the day, our clients see themselves and their stories. We’re successful when we overhear our clients telling people what it is and what it means, if not stating proudly that it was their idea.**

Dena’ina Health and Wellness Center – A privacy screen based on a quillwork pattern

Dena’ina Health and Wellness Center – A cultural calendar and representation of tribal values translated from sketches into granite

Yakutat Community Playground – Clan artwork used to create a play fence representing the six local clans. They also show moiety, and history of arrival in the Yakutat area on their backs.

Yakutat Community Playground – Culture and tradition aren’t just historical, the play equipment shows current community activities such as hunting (and reading on a panel not shown)

Yakutat Community Playground – A swing with images of the ships that visit and call Yakutat home.

Sitka SeaWalk – Brick pavers and formline patterns developed with local partners to reflect the local community and Tlingit culture.

Note: The image I use at the beginning of this blog post with Frances Densmore and Mountain Chief also made me question whether “this photo is mine to use”. Other than proper usage, I thought that it might reflect colonialism or be in negative contrast to what I’m trying to say in this post. She was functionally an ethnomusicologist, and in the face of the damage of colonialism, these kinds of efforts did assist in preserving much information that might have otherwise been lost. As a designer, I’m hoping that I’m not in the same situation of trying to be helpful in the face of cultural destruction. I hope that I can assist the stabilization and growth that seems to be occurring, until there are Alaska Native landscape architects. I very much like the analogy of the “rising tide” that the Kenaitze Indian Tribe uses. Until then, I’m generally slightly uncomfortable in my role as the middle-aged white guy who is trying to listen and be of service. I think that discomfort is necessary. It means I’m paying attention.

Feeling Relevant is Important

Sokol exercises in year 1924

A part of the human condition is a desire to feel needed. The reality is that in most of our interactions, we won’t be needed… but we can be relevant. And our relevancy doesn’t need to me immediate, there is a similar benefit to thinking we can be relevant in the future.

When I interact with people, I ask enough questions to start to get a feeling for how I might be relevant to someone, and how they might be relevant to me. At a party, this could be as simple as trying to find the subject area that they love to talk about. They feel relevant through an area of their knowledge. If I’m flexible or clever enough (or they are), we find the way that our interests intersect and then we can both be relevant. I may not be a model train enthusiast, but I am interested in the modeling of landscapes. We become relevant to each other and provide mutual value.

Professionally, the people that actively try to understand my relevancy (value) create a bridge to me. I can see when people expend the effort to understand how I might help them in the present or the future, and it’s a natural inclination for us to then try to do the same for them. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. This person is filed in my brain as someone I’d like to work with.

In comparison, it is very obvious when people take no interest in you. I might find them to be interesting, and the conversation might be great, but it’s typically one-sided. I take knowledge value away from it, but I rarely take away anything more. This person doesn’t get filed in my brain as someone I’d like to work with.

It doesn’t take much effort to invest someone with a feeling of being relevant, now or in the future. At the worst you might just walk away with an excellent conversation. I like good conversations.