How do architects build what they build? How do they construct a narrative that speaks in terms of meaningful spaces? Are architects also ‘storytellers’? Before I made my pursuit in the field of spatial design, I looked at storytelling as an art form that lay within the frame of film-making, illustrations, and writing. My second year of design school changed that perspective, compelling me to look at architecture as a way to tell stories.
Storytelling is a compelling component of Architecture
As a designer, I have been trained to formulate and follow a design brief. This will give way to a design concept followed by design ideation and finally leading to the final result. This entire process is one that architects call upon to tell a story that they hope will make sense in the end.
Now architecture as an idea is said to be communicated through, primarily the built space, and secondary, the materials that occupy the space. Yet, when viewed through the lens of storytelling, architecture becomes a narrative that involves all the five senses.
One of my academic projects led me to design a Bhutanese cultural center. During my research for the same, I was introduced to Tadao Ando, a Japanese architect quite known for his architectural style which is often termed as ‘emotional architecture’. Mr. Ando’s works have very meaningful stories attached to them. He plays with light, shadows, and materials in a way that enables the built space to connect with the inhabitant through a narrative that feels overwhelming and moving.
The use of a story, through different mediums, brings to the end-user a reason that connects them to their spaces. A reason that weighs more than them just inhabiting it. A reason why storytelling is an intrinsic component of architecture.
Layers of narratives to a story
Storytelling is meant to stall the passerby, to remain, rather than moving on. Effective or good stories create thought-provoking moments that you and I carry with us. Such are also moments created through architectural storytelling. Every story about a built space stems from its context in history and its identity in the surrounding local space. The building program or function adds another layer. To this one could add a layer of the clients’ passions, the site context, and so on.
Architectural narratives also begin to then cross into client behavior and lifestyle. Mapping spaces of activity and rest and the daily routine of a client helps to add a very personal story to the project. These layers, depending on how well researched and communicated, dictate whether the architectural story is a metaphor, a poem, or a best-selling novel! Every layer is a fresh page that comes together to narrate a story. Stitched through architectural elements of communication, the end-user is introduced to a narrative they are familiar with; a space or story they can call ‘home’.
Architectural elements of communicating stories
As an interior designer by profession, storytelling has become an important perspective in the way I design for clients. Every method of communicating an idea becomes as if a new episode to a series. Architects, and designers at large all over the world, communicate through a variety of mediums.
We make design layouts or plans, cut sections for details, sketch elevations for exterior styling, design furniture for a spatial character, and render models and certain views to capture both the moment and materials that make the space. All of these mediums come together to form a narrative that defines the essence of the built space.
The plans that I draft tell stories about the relationship that spaces have. Depending on the relationship I have with the clients, I will map their activities, further defining the proximity of spaces and the activities that will happen in them. Elevations will narrate to the passerby a story about the built space and a story about the inhabitants of the space. Sections add a detailed depth to the story as if adding character details and plot twists in a novel.
The story is further refined and made interesting through a rendered myriad of colors and materials that add character and meaning to every space. Thus one house built on a street will tell a story. Another house built next to it will tell a different story. Another house, another narrative. All this will give way to a community of houses, and a community of stories. When looked through the eyes of architectural storytelling, one will have a pool of narratives to witness, each with its message in time.
Ifi Liangi, an architect or rather an ‘architectural storyteller’, says that architecture, like all stories, should have a public language and a message. All the mediums of communications that architects use help in telling an intrinsic story that is personal to the inhabitant, and an extrinsic story that ought to make the passerby stop and think.
Architectural storytelling and the community
In the winter of 2018, during a trip to Bhutan, the idea of architecture telling a story suddenly became a visual perspective for me. I visited a small town in Paro, and walking the streets I realized every built space echoed the thoughts of its inhabitants. Every color, every window detail, every facade told me a story. I may not have understood the message behind each one of them, yet somewhere in the cold winter air lingered the thought that all this architecture was telling me a tale of preservation.
Architecture, through the capacity of its storytelling, was informing me about a community coming together in a foreign land. It was informing me of their customs, their materials, and their spaces. In a distantly similar fashion, the streets of Old Delhi speak in an architectural language reminiscent of rulers long gone. The streets are lined with stories about the Mughal rule, the British Raj, and the freedom struggle. Yet more closer to home are the stories of the communities now thriving.
Through its architecture, the community expresses its narratives that can be felt through all five senses. Narratives of changing times and narratives of Old Delhi slowly being pushed out, as if perhaps a novel of tragic love.
Architects and their stories
When architects build, what they build, they narrate a story. In the making of plans, sections, and colorful rendered images emerge narratives lead to a story. What form that story takes depends on the typology of architecture and the personal narrative of the client but there is nonetheless a story to be told and a story to be heard.
Architects are storytellers and whether we like it or not, our stories leave a message for the public. Perhaps we should take into account the story we want to tell and the narratives we leave behind.