Storytelling for Placemakers


Alan Blumlein wins a Grammy – the power of stories to define a place. 

In 1931, while watching one of those new ‘talkies’ at the cinema, Alan Blumlein grew frustrated. The art of matching sound to moving pictures was still in its infancy and cinemas played the soundtrack through a single speaker.  Blumlein was annoyed that a character could stand on one side of the room while his voice seemed to come from the other.

We’ve all had a bad night at the movies.  But Alan Blumlein happened to be one of the country’s most creative and prolific inventors, with a hatful of patents already to his name.  This was also the year that Blumlein took a job at EMI’s Old Vinyl Factory in Hayes, where he led a team of scientists and sound engineers that worked in the feverishly inventive R&D hothouse known as the Central Research Laboratory (CRL).

So he set about solving the problem he’d identified that night at the cinema.  Within a year he had submitted his patent application for “Improvements in and relating to Sound-transmission, Sound-recording and Sound-reproducing Systems – a system that would come to be known as ‘stereophonic sound’.  Blumlein had invented stereo.

Together with his Central Research Lab colleagues, he would go on to refine and improve his invention, while making major advances in television and telecommunications technologies as well.  When the Second World War broke out, he turned his attention to the war effort and invented the H2S airborne radar system, a huge technological feat that not only helped to shorten the war, but was still in active use on RAF aircraft well into the 1990s.

His life was tragically cut short in a plane crash in 1942 while testing the system, but such was his importance to the project that his death was kept quiet to avoid giving encouragement to the enemy.  Denied the glowing obituary he deserved, his achievements might have been all but forgotten had his memory not been kept alive by a small fraternity of admiring engineers, EMI archivists and nerdish biographers, not to mention his proud relatives and descendants.

On Sunday night, Alan Blumlein won a Grammy.

He joins Thomas Edison, Leo Fender, Les Paul and Emile Berliner on a short list of recipients of the Technical Grammy Award – an acknowledgement of ‘special merit’ for individuals who have made contributions of outstanding significance to the recording field.  It is a long overdue recognition for an inspirational inventor that revolutionised the way we listen to music and experience films and television.

That’s a great story.

But I told you that story to tell you a different story: about stories.

In the same way that ‘storytelling’ was appropriated by the marketing and branding industries, it has recently become a part of the placemaking jargon used by property developers and architects.

Even so, despite all the hype and a lot of lip-service to the idea of storytelling, there are very few architects (and even fewer developers) that genuinely understand what it means to tell a good story and how that relates to the creation of place.  Instead, what you tend to find is a couple of pages at the start of every masterplan, full of black-and-white photographs and some interesting historical nuggets.  All of which leads to a completed development with a nominal and superficial nod to the past – some historically evocative place names, a nostalgic piece of public art, and maybe some half-hearted attempt at a ‘museum’ that won’t last more than a couple of years.

It’s not good placemaking, because it’s not good storytelling. It’s all plot and no character.  To be anything more than a marketing gimmick, a story must make a meaningful attempt to capture the site’s genius loci – its spirit of place.  Your research must go deeper than the site’s Wikipedia page.  And once you’ve assembled all those interesting facts and stories about the people and events that shaped the place, you need to mine them for some compelling thread that has a more contemporary expression.

What does any of this have to do with Alan Blumlein?

Only that one developer that seems to ‘get’ the power of storytelling more than most is U+I – and it happens that The Old Vinyl Factory ended up in U+I’s capable hands.

So this morning, while the Grammy aftershow parties are still going strong in Los Angeles, a whole new generation of creative young inventors is going to work in a newly re-opened Central Research Laboratory in Hayes.

Working with Brunel University and the Higher Education Funding Council, U+I re-launched a 21st century version of the CRL in order to get people making things again. Today’s CRL tenants have access to state-of-the-art prototyping labs, 24/7 workspace, and direct contact with mentors and investors, helping them to take their ideas from prototype through to production.

Last night’s Grammy provided long overdue recognition for one of England’s most creative minds.  But his inspiration and legacy also lives on in the very space where it once flourished, carried forward by a group of young, enterprising entrepreneurs with that same irrepressible spirit of invention.

This story isn’t over.


Image © Studio Egret West