Story shapes humanity. It should also shape architecture. To characterize Overland’s practice by the standard definition of architecture—the art or science of designing and creating buildings—is to miss a critical aspect of our work. Our projects are the result of many hours of research and analysis that happen long before pen touches trace paper. Using a process of inspired inquiry, we uncover the story behind each client and project and tell it through the medium of architecture. This has never been clearer to me than while on a trip to Israel this summer.
In July, with my wife, Carol, I spent two weeks hiking through Israel. From the Sinai to the borders of Lebanon and Syria, from the Mediterranean to Palestine, this was a pilgrimage—a lifelong desire to go to the land of my spiritual forbearers and to understand the specific place where so many of the stories that have shaped my life originated.
Carol and me above the city of Jerusalem.
PHYSICALITY SHAPES STORY
Here I was struck by how important the physicality of place is in shaping story. So many of the accounts I have read in sacred text—which seem abstract from my Western point of view—came to life when I visited the places where they took place. The power of place to shape a people is one of the great stories of Israel. To explore the archaeology as well as the natural geography of a land so rich with memories served as a reminder of Overland’s design process. Much like archaeology, with each project, we uncover and then extract the embedded potential of each project, celebrating the culture, the history, and the mission of each of our clients.
I have no particular interest in the historic significance of archaeological sites, but these places become fascinating when viewed as memory. They do not just exist in the past. Rather, these memories shape contemporary culture in Israel. Archaeologists peel back the layers of a tel (an artificial hill created by many generations of people living, conquering, and rebuilding on the same spot) to reveal artifacts that are literally built on top of previous cultures. They discover a timeline dating back thousands of years, revealing a narrative built layer upon previous layer.
Archaeologists at work.
THE LEGACY OF THE SPOKEN STORY
Our time in Israel also impressed upon me the importance of telling our own stories. Having a strong oral tradition shapes the future. Sociologists are discovering that oral tradition may be more objective and accurate (and it is certainly no less important) than written tradition. Stories told by a people are filtered by the community to ensure accuracy and truthfulness, while a written story is by necessity written by one person (or a small number of people) and is therefore filtered through a narrower perspective. The written narrative certainly has a place—in fact, the two support each other—but oral storytelling is essential to cultural legacy.
Looking out over Tel Gezer and the surrounding countryside.
At Tel Gezer, a pre-Solomonic temple was discovered in the vicinity of some impressive stone pillars. The temple was easily recognizable due to the oral history passed through generations, but the significance of the stone pillars remains a mystery. Clearly a tremendous amount of planning and effort went into erecting the pillars, yet the story was never told. So instead of representing the legacy of a people at that particular place and time, the pillars have become beautiful objects with no meaning. In the realm of architecture, buildings too can stand void of meaning if they do not tell the story of the client or of those who are connected to that place.
The stone pillars without a legacy.
Overland has a strong history of oral tradition, of handing down what we believe and value from one “generation” to the next, and we have witnessed real power in this. Likewise we unlock and tell the stories of our clients through the physical places we design for them. Architects and buildings as storytellers: another reminder that our work is never just a building.