Narrative environments is defined as places which have been deliberately designed to tell a story.

Austin (2016), describes them as “intentionally structured content-rich spaces that communicate particular stories to specific audiences and induce an emotional impact and/or an inquiring or critical frame of mind in the audience/ interpreter. Hence narrative environments may be described as heterotopias or ‘other’ spaces that exist outside the everyday.”



In the seminal book “The Production of Space” (1991), Lefebvre argued that there is no strict division between physical spaces and mental spaces, and that instead that all spaces are produced, lived and understood through relationships of power. The space conceived by planners and developers which decide where the streets and houses are placed; the perceived space that its inhabitants interpret; and lastly the alternate space produced as a reaction, such as modifying our homes.

The holy grail for anyone working in property is to create a thriving, popular neighbourhood. This can only be created if the right balance between these three powers is struck, can this be created. We know that new buildings and refurbishment of surrounding pavements and street furniture does not in itself bring a neighbourhood to life. Instead this happens when there is a shift from place-based to user-led approaches. A sense of place is only created when consideration is placed upon how neighbourhood are used, reported and lived in - ultimately leading to environmental sustainability and economic success.

The shift from place-led to a user-led environments, can be achieved by creating narrative environment. Developers talk about placemaking and the story and sense of place, yet there isn’t a process in place which allows for the research, development and implementations of a story for space.

Publishing some historical facts on their websites and publicity material does not make a story. Instead, as Austin explains in “Culture-led city regeneration: Design methodologies” (2012), “stories are authored sets of events with characters and underlying conflicts that play our over time that excite both the body and the mind, that shift thinking, create memories and define identities”. Narrative environments have the ability to communicate with humans both explicitly and implicitly. Explicit communication in spaces can be observed in spaces such as churches, temples, mosques, heritage sites, or exhibition environments. Implicit communication instead is evident in spaces such a playground, gardens, markets, and other places where people convene. Implicit communication is expressed through culturally and socially produced codes of form, colour, sounds, light and of course the behaviour of others in those spaces. Bringing together both forms of communication, we now can create environments that are designed to communicate particular content by providing us with the different stimuli in which we intrinsically understand space

RICHMIX — image c/o ©

RICHMIX — image c/o ©


“Humans do not respond to the physical qualities of things but to what they mean to them”. Meaning can be segmented into “what does this mean?” or “this is meaningful”.

  • The first is related to utility, schemas and identification. For example, a table in the middle with chairs around it, is identified as a boardroom. It means that people will do specific activities and behaviours we have categorised as a boardroom meeting, this is a schema. We also understand the utility of the boardroom schema, which is to conduct meetings with other people. Therefore we can say that the boardroom with the correct elements has meaning.

  • The other part has a higher emotive level, where a person has bonded with a space, as described above. Having a sense of place, the workplaces is meaningful, it gives people purpose, provides safety, and a strong cultural narrative. An example of this would be Rich Mix in East London, which is now part of the cultural narrative of the area, whilst providing an adequate and safe place to work and gather.

© Green Room

© Green Room


How well all the physical elements of an area follow a specific narrative. This is closely tied to schemas. For example, if a boardroom had bean bags instead of chairs it could cause incoherence as those chairs would not provide the correct ergonomic conditions. On a macro level, it would be a coffee shop in a dominant place of a clothes shop. It doesn’t make sense to the schema, therefore it causes confusion and lack of engagement.




This term has been adapted by Centric, therefore it has no precedence. In order to have a coherent narrative the entire sensorial experience must be orchestrated towards that narrative. In the example above, the coffee shop location and its physical dominance is what caused the incoherence, ie the shop lacked orchestration.

This is especially relevant when programming amenities and third spaces; if a yoga studio is designed where meeting rooms would be more useful, engagement would be affected. It might also receive a push back from the user due to a lack of utility.

A good example of orchestration is the Mclaren Factory floor. It is mainly for utilitarian and production purposes, however everything has been orchestrated towards a specific purpose and narrative.

Choice Through Enrichment

Enrichment has its roots in clinical neuroscience. This area of neuroscience defines an enriched environment as one that provides rodents with enhanced sensory, cognitive, and motor stimulation in comparison to standard housing conditions. Scientists are using these micro environments to study the long term influence an environment has on brain regulation and behaviour. Studies have already highlighted a strong relationship between the physical elements of an environment and brain activity. Enriched environments “induce a number of neuro-anatomical, neurochemical, and behavioural alterations”. Extending this to the built environment and enriched environment should afford varied social collisions, activities, and tasks to a good quality.


Enrichment is an important factor to consider in the context of choice, especially as it not possible to socially engineer people towards a specific goal. Furthermore, everyday our top down factors affects us in various ways, which in turn affects both how we perceive and what we need from a space. Therefore, enrichment allows people to find their own adaptation and places of comfort within the space.

In the coworking space pictured here, we can see the area gives choice of refreshment, solo work, privacy, and collaborative work. This is allows people to find their “own” sense of place based on the choice that is offered.


Case study

A macro study that exhibits most of the elements from above is the King Cross Central development.

// It has a very clear narrative. It is a place of high interaction, community, and consumption for those who live and work within a 1 mile radius of the development.

// It offers an array of choice and therefore high enrichment from consumption, relaxation, exercise, work, and “hanging out”. There are even choices between high people engagement and places that are quieter for more intimate conversation or even solo activities.

// The development has mitigated against very important factors such as pollution (reduction of car traffic), water toxins (cleaned up the neighbouring waterways), noise (reducing car traffic, areas that are far from city activity by the canal) navigation (it has clear visual sight lines, different pathways are demarcated/illuminated).

// The orchestration all makes clear visual sense, making it easy to not only engage but to remember where things are.

// The narrative develops as a person engages with the area, becoming more concentrated towards the centre and slowly becoming “quieter” as you move away.

// You could say that it would score quite highly in the sense of place scale, which demonstrates that good build practices that are human centred pay off.


1. This will be the start to a checklist to assess the sense of place of a building and development. This is useful to not just rate, but also to understand the most important mitigations for the building.

2. It is also a platform to then tie to other sustainable elements like energy saving and economics.

Especially given the evidence that the physical elements of buildings can have an adverse effect on the physical health of workers.

Josh Artus