September 11, 2013

Telling stories? From urban planning narrative to fictional urbanism: city-making in the age of the Society of the Spectacle


Almost thirty years ago, as the social sciences underwent a “discursive turn”, Bernardo Secchi, in what he called the “urban planning narrative”, drew the attention of planners to the production of myths, turning an activity often seen as primarily technical into one centered around the production of images and ideas. This conception of planning practice gave rise to a powerful current of research in English-speaking countries. Efforts were made to both combine the urban planning narrative with storytelling (Throgmorton, 2007, 2003; Sandercock, 2003; Eckstein, Throgmorton, 2003) and to establish storytelling as a prescriptive or descriptive model for planning practice (van Hulst, 2012).

The transition from urban planning narrative to storytelling and the spread of storytelling as the cardinal principle of planning practice, is manifested within what is temptingly labelled “fictional urban planning” (Matthey, 2011); that is, urban planning that tends to substitute narrative production for real production of cities and territory. This is planning that is, ultimately, not too far away from the society of the spectacle as theorised by Guy Debord.  ’Fictional urban planning’ radicalises the spectacular apparatuses referred to by Debord (1988) as the “integrated spectacle”, in the sense that “all that which was once directly experienced has now become mere representation”, while at the same time “the spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity which cannot be discussed and which is out of reach. [All it says] is ‘What appears is good, and what is good appears’.”

Storytelling, of course, refers to a selective retelling of political communication. It is based on the premise that a good story is more valuable than mere facts. The desire to create fiction that can produce an always-already-present reality (the future urban beach, the next stadium, the Major Project, the inescapable regeneration of docklands…), whose emergence is to be facilitated, can be something other than an aspect of democratic communication—it can be a means of ensuring the collective governmentality of citizens.

Thus, just as storytelling can lead astray democratic communication by the concern for a good story, storytelling applied to the field of urban planning may lead to the increasing production of spectacular projects at the expense of such projects being genuinely integrated into political debate.

It is precisely this transformation of urban planning that this seminar will seek to understand. We will attempt doing this by following three threads:

The first thread will address the issues at stake with this concept of planning based on fiction, both through the critique of urban projects which have storytelling at their core, and through an analysis of the modes of control of public perception and reception of future projects. We will ask ourselves whether the irruption of communicators (actors whose role is to make the issues, difficulties, and schedules more easily comprehensible to the public) within the urban machinery  should in fact be seen as a contemporary form of what used to be called propaganda not that long ago. Propaganda is defined as an attempt to lead the public to hold certain political and social ideas in order to support a particular policy.

The second thread will address the links between storytelling and fictional planning and the preceding processes of urban marketing that tell economic stories about cities—in both words and images—in order to communicate a point of view that betrays the territorial breadth and complexity but also increases the legibility of the spaces being promoted. A genetic point of view will be particularly important in this respect.

This territorial marketing, often with an external target, aims to increase the desirability of spaces and to encourage businesses to establish themselves there. What should be made of this urban planning practice based on storytelling? In what ways can the fictionalisation of urban production have a magnetising virtue? In what ways can storytelling within urban planning facilitate the understanding and democratic debate of urban projects?

Finally the third thread, taking a view that is perhaps closer to the sociology of professions, deals with the impact of the new modes of management and public administration. We will seek to understand how the new urban governance has made the fleeting nature and the fictionalisation of interventions into guiding forces behind the revitalisation of cities and how it renders them more visible —while constantly creating, de-creating and re-creating themselves— insinuating a logic of events where previously the logic of continuity and long-term debate were dominant. We will seek to determine if the culture of evaluation may lead to a strange corruption of urban planning practice, with its tools (roundtables, participatory meetings, project exhibitions) being transformed into ends in themselves. All in all, we will be attempting to identify systems and logics of actors that convey this paradigm of urban action.

Using these three focal points, we will attempt to reframe the contemporary transformations of urban planning within a critical perspective, in particular the point where a practice which consists of producing a grand progressive narrative (the urban planning narrative) turns into a machine producing stories (storytelling and fictional urban planning), subject to the double constraint of the idea of “less is more” and the new methods of public management and administration. All in all, the aim is to develop a critical analysis of the new methods of producing cities.


8 h 00 – 8 h 30 :  Reception

8 h 30 – 9 h 00 : Opening of the colloquium –  salle A

9 h 00 – 10 h 30 : Session 1.1  – salle A : Figures de l’urbain

Moderator : Elena Cogato Lanza, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne.

  • Laurent Devisme, École nationale d’architecture de Nantes. École nationale d’architecture de Nantes. Les fictions permettent-elles d’agir? À propos du rôle des figures urbanistiques.
  • Luna d’Emilio, Université de Strasbourg & Université de Florence.Entre le dire et le faire: le penser. La figure comme dimension de l’urbanisme.
  • Jean-Pierre Chupin, Université de Montréal. Éléments d’une mythologie de l’inversion.

9 h 00 – 10 h 30 : Session 1. 2 – salle B : Les projets urbains: une fiction?

Moderator : Luca Pattaroni, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne.

  • Adrien Gey, Université de Grenoble. Le concours international: Paris, entre exigence scientifique et tentation fictionnelle.
  • Roger Perrinjaquet, consultant en scénographie. La mise en récit de Paris-Plage, nouvelle épaisseur urbaine ou simple production de sens?
  • Lise Fournier, Université de Paris Est. Quand les projets universitaires madrilènes vendent du rêve: mise en scène ou réalité métropolitaines?

10 h 30 – 10 h 50 : PAUSE

10 h 50 – 12 h 20 : Session 2.1 – salle A : Urban narratives

Moderator : Romain Felli, Université de Lausanne.

  • Øystein Leonardsen & Eva Christensen, City of Copenhagen. Integrated Urban Renewal: A Neighbourhood re-told.
  • Chatel Carr, Université de Wollongong. Occupy-and-Adapt: Using Stories to Re-frame the Meta-Narrative of Industrial Decline.
  • Carmela Cucuzzella, Université de Concordia. When the Narrative of Environmental Certifications replaces the Debate on Quality.

10 h 50 – 12 h 20 : Session 2.2 – salle B : La fabrique des images

Moderator : Christophe Mager, Université de Lausanne.

  • Raphaële Bertho, Université de Bordeaux 3. Dresde: de l’image de la ville à la ville-image.
  • Rémi Baudouï, Université de Genève. From “hedonist urbanism” to “urban dream”: le rêve libanais du “nouveau Soho de Beyrouth”.
  • Federico Ferrari, Politecnico de Milan et École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Paris-Malaquais. Après la fin des “grands récits”: l’image architecturale, outil politique de séduction.

12 h 20 – 14 h 00 :  PAUSE

14 h 15 – 16 h 45  : Session 3.1 – salle A : Dire la ville, faire le territoire

Moderator : David Gaillard, Fondation Braillard Architectes.

  • Solène Gaudin, Université de Rennes 2. “Et depuis la démolition…” Dire l’action pour penser la ville. Chronique d’une renaissance urbaine annoncée.
  • Jennifer Buyck & Ilona Woronow, Institut d’urbanisme de Grenoble & Université de Grenoble 3. Quand Varsovie rêve de hauteur. Entre récit fictionnel et mythe urbain.
  • Delphine Jolivet, Université de Tours. Le projet d’urbanisme et la question de l’appréhension et de la retranscription de ses temporalités. Appui sur des exemples de projets de reconversion urbaine.
  • Belinda Redondo, Institut d’urbanisme de Paris. Le projet partenarial art public/tramway : pour quel(s) récit(s) de ville?
  • Luc Gwiadzinski, Université de Grenoble. Des tramways nommés désirs: entre design et urbanisme fictionnel des réseaux de transport.

14 h 15 – 16 h 45  : Session 3.2 – salle B : Paysage en émergence

Moderator : Filippo Zanghi, Université de Lausanne.

  • Anne Bossé, École nationale d’architecture de Nantes. Faire voir/faire croire la ville: l’exemple des visites citadines.
  • Anna Madoeuf, Université de Tours. Il était une fois une cité millénaire révélée par un jardin (ou l’histoire de la vieille ville du Caire et du parc al-Azhar).
  • Lucas Oesch, Université de Neuchâtel. Un urbanisme sans “histoires”: l’amélioration des conditions de vie dans l’habitat des réfugiés palestiniens à Amman.
  • Elisa Bernard, Université de Lyon 3. Description des outils de narration urbanistique: pour une poétique des usages urbains.

16 h 45 – 17 h 15 : Wrap-up of the colloquium – salle A

  • Françoise Fromonot, École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Paris-Belleville.


11th September 2013 in Geneva.


Société de lecture, Grand’Rue 11, CH – 1204 Geneva.

Scientific committee

  • Paolo Amaldi, École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Versailles.
  • Rémi Baudouï, Institut des sciences de l’environnement de l’Université de Genève.
  • Elena Cogato Lanza, Laboratoire de construction et conservation de l’École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne
  • Romain Felli, Institut d’études politiques et internationales de l’Université de Lausanne.
  • Françoise Fromonot, École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Paris-Belleville.
  • Bertrand Lévy, Département de géographie et environnement de l’Université de Genève.
  • Christophe Mager, Institut de géographie et durabilité de l’Université de Lausanne.
  • Laurent Matthey, Fondation Braillard Architectes.
  • Thierry Paquot, Institut d’urbanisme de Paris de l’Université Paris-Est Créteil.
  • Luca Pattaroni, Laboratoire de sociologie urbaine de l’École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne.
  • Ola Söderström Institut de géographie de l’Université de Neuchâtel
  • Filippo Zanghi, Section de français moderne de l’Université de Lausanne.

Scientific organisation

Founded in 1987, the Fondation Braillard Architectes (FBA) is active in the fields of research in urban studies and city sciences, valorisation and conservation of the architectural heritage of the 20th century, and aid toward innovative achievements in architecture and urbanism.

Organising committee

  • David Gaillard, Fondation Braillard Architectes.
  • Hélène Gallezot, Fondation Braillard Architectes.
  • Christophe Mager, Institut de géographie et durabilité de l’Université de Lausanne.
  • Laurent Matthey, Fondation Braillard Architectes.
  • Tearanel Te, Fondation Braillard Architectes.


Fondation Braillard Architectes, 16 rue Saint-Léger, CH – 1205 Genève,,


Fondation Braillard Architectes
16, rue Saint-Léger
CH — 1205 Genève

Tel: +41 22 311 17 17

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