Magical realism is a narrative strategy, which started developing in Latin America. As the name says, it combines magic and reality. It is the act of inserting magical fiction into the real world that makes it seem believable. It depicts the real world as having an undercut of magic and fantasy. Magical realism sometimes tends to highlight a larger problem. Through this medium, the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred. 

While realism was a response to romanticism, magical realism was a reaction to realism. Franz Roh, a German art critic in 1925 coined the term ‘magical realism. He meant it to create an art category that moved away from the strict guidelines of realism. By the 1940s in Latin America and the Caribbean, the term was used to name an artistic movement

Magical realism in paintings ©
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A painting by Paul Bond ©

Magical realism was developed and widely used in the field of literature but various other creative fields had the potential to explore magical realism. Architecture and magical realism were first paired in Italy.  

‘Magic Architecture does the most with the least and ‘holds a balance between the two extremes of man:

  1. a) Desire for the machine.  b) the denial of science’

Kiesler, Magic Architecture

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Variations On a Dark City by Espen Dietrichson ©

Some characteristics of the genre of magical realism are:

  • Realistic setting

All magical realism novels take place in a setting that’s familiar to the reader. The realistic setting can be provided by architectural spaces and these spaces are what people experience on a common basis. For example, Harry Potter can not be considered a magical realism work, as the author created a completely different world that was nowhere connected to the real world. 

  • Magical elements

Talking objects, ghosts, telepathy, are the kind of fantastical elements in magical realism novels that can not be ever seen in the real world. However, they are not treated like fantastical elements in the novel but are embedded as something normal in the real world. Magic is something beautiful or delightful in a way that seems removed from everyday life and something that has a special and exciting quality. By creating subtle deviations in the realistic, commonly experienced settings provided by architectural spaces, magical experiences can be created. 

  • Limited information

The magical elements are left unexplained so that they can be seen as a part of everyday life and an everyday occurrence. In architecture normally, the architect does not explain the spaces they have created and it’s up to the user’s perception. 

  • Critique

Authors often use magical realism to showcase their critiques of society. 

  • Unique plot structure

No typical narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end. The reader is constantly met by surprises. Architecture has the potential to do this too with its arrangement of spaces and usage of Materials. Since people visit most typologies of architectural spaces, they expect a certain pattern in the arrangement of spaces, so they mostly know what kind of space they’re being led to. If architects can play with this arrangement of spaces, the users will be met by constant surprises and a refreshing experience of an existing typology. 

It is important to understand that the creation of magical elements does not only include imaginary beings and worlds. It is more about a mysterious relationship between the man and his circumstances. Seizing the mystery that hides behind things would be the aim of a magical realist. Imagine a building floating in mid-air, a building that has fallen partially aside, but the users start walking on the walls rather than the floor, parts of a building that moves when touched.  Creating these occurrences might be the focus while incorporating magical realism into architecture. 

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Magical Realism: Coney Island Housing for Early Diagnosis Alzheimer’s Patients ©

The ‘Magic’ need not always be so extravagant. It can be created as a subtle element. Magical realism can be employed in architecture by playing with technology, light and shadows, volumes and forms, ground plane, scale, openness, furniture, etc.

Carlo Scarpa’s works indicate using technology while trying to extract a hidden potential of the materials.  An example of his work would be the Brion Cemetery project, located in San Vito d’Altivole. The concrete floor of the corridor is made from individually cast Concrete pavers contained within steel frames. Some of the pavers are purposely not fixed to the subfloor to create a play of subtle sounds. Each sound seems louder and deeper as one keeps walking into the narrowing corridor. 

Two more details of Scarpa’s work indicate a subtle hint of magic in the building. The first one draws the user’s attention towards a realm below the floor. A hollow presence underneath, which is filled with water and connects to a yet invisible pond on the other side, is felt due to the loose pavers, resonating louder as one moves along the corridor.  The second detail draws one’s attention towards the realm above the floor. A play of timber strips embedded on the Concrete ceiling creates a particular rhythm. 

While the side that is hidden within the concrete is sharply constructed, the exposed one is undulated and imperfect. The indirect light reflections highlight its texture. The brown polished paint finish of the timber enhances the various uneven and parallel lines created by the machine.

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The ceiling drawing attention to the realm above and the usage of light appropriately ©
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Concrete pavers not fixed to the subfloor to play with the sound ©

This was an example of Scarpa’s play with the unexpectedness of materials. Another example that uses materials to incorporate a sense of magic into space is the Folk Art Museum in New York. The museum is a combination of the common and the magical. The timber floors were built using fir logs that had been submerged in the Ruby lake for more than a century, before being unexpectedly discovered by a scuba diver. 

The mysterious origin of the wood goes hand in hand with the culturally symbolic artefacts of American folk art. The façade of the building consists of metal panels made with a unique material called the tombasil which were alloys of copper, zinc, manganese and nickel. The alloy was poured on concrete and steel moulds. The ‘common’ and the ‘magical’ are expressed in the museum through the elevation of typical materials into an exquisite state of transformation that is not only shaped by technologies, but by the histories hidden within them.

American folk art museum ©

Some books based on magical realism and Architecture that can be read for inspiration :

This novel is about a man searching for his missing wife and cat that leads him to a world underneath the streets of Tokyo.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967). 

The story is about a patriarch who dreams about a city of mirrors and goes on to create it using his perceptions. The city is called Macondo

The book is based on Marco Polo, a traveller’s narration of cities to Kublai Khan. Each city is described as if it was a woman and it explores imagination and the imaginable.


Architecture, Projects, Thoughts. (n.d.). Magical Realism. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Jun. 2021].

Dayer, C. (n.d.). A Magic-Real Gap in Architecture “ A Partial Synthesis “ : Debates on Architectural Realism. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Jun. 2021].


Inspired by architecture and filled with a passion for writing, MeghaSubodh is an Architecture student pursuing her studies in RV college of Architecture, Bangalore. Influence of people, culture and climate on Architecture is an area that evinces much interest in her. She is desirous of giving voice to Architecture through her writings and is consistently striving to improvise herself in this field.

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