In our daily lives, we’re surrounded by stories from every direction. Whether it be the beats of a song, the colour palette used by the artist, or the sleek movements of a dancer— storytelling encapsulates those emotions. Similarly, architecture also tells a story, whether it be through the form, the materials, or the reference to the culture. The building doesn’t do this by itself, of course; it’s the job of the architect to write and express this story, often known as the narrative.

What is Narrative Architecture?

A narrative is defined as a story relating to particular events in time. The narrative comes to life when it’s represented through expressive forms like paintings, music, or architecture. However, the ideas in the narrative might remain the same. For example, while Ramayana and Mahabharata occur at different times, plotted in different contexts uphold a similar notion: good always wins over evil. 

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Architectural Collage to understand the connection between Architecture and Narrative_©Tatiana Bilbao

Narrative and architecture are two fields which are interconnected to each other. Their relationship can be divided into three categories: architecture supporting the narrative, the narrative supporting the architecture, or architecture and narrative existing as a single entity. Most of these narratives fall under the first category, where architecture is used as a backdrop. The second category often highlights architecture’s cultural and social aspects— using descriptions of buildings or the architectural experience narrated by people. The final approach is Architecture as the narrative, where the architecture conveys itself, communicating like language and art. It is the oldest form of art that symbolises preferred relationships through the act of making.

Why should Architecture be a Narrative?

Developing an architectural narrative serves many functions in the design process. It ensures that the client and architect stay on the same page, acts as a motivator since stories remind us of our purpose, and works as a unifying factor to create aesthetic harmony throughout the building. When the building is in use, a solid architectural narrative adds interest for the users of the building, attracts outside visitors, and strengthens the identity of a particular community.

How can Architecture tell a Story?

Architecture and storytelling share four key elements: characters, image, backstory, and theme. In a building, the users or visitors compose the characters; the picture is the physical appearance and the impression a structure creates; the backstory is how a place is rooted in the historical context; the theme is the underlying belief that the architect wants to communicate.

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Architectural Collage to support the Storytelling_©Khensani De Klerk

While these are the components necessary for architecture to tell a story, there are situations in which architecture fails to describe one as well. One example is when economic constraints force buildings to be erected as quickly and cheaply as possible, making them look banal and unconnected to their surroundings. Another situation is when architects communicate a complex story through just one part of the building instead of conceiving the structure and its narrative as an interrelated and multi-faceted whole.

A Theory of the Mind

When discussing what actions constitute storytelling, it becomes apparent from the sheer volume of stories and ways to tell them that making stories is a fundamental process of the human mind. When the constant sequencing of events in human experience is considered, the entirety of what we understand as existence is one grand story recorded by the necessity to communicate efficiently and remotely. As humans, our unique ability to envisage the abstract leaves us with the problem of articulating concepts that cannot be immediately sensed. For this reason, we must find ways to explain our complex thoughts.

The human condition is to live inside a mind constantly exploring and pushing boundaries to figure out the big questions of its existence. Using stories as a “thought experiment” helps us in this quest. This should be the concern of architects, who are required to support and sustain this human condition by providing essential shelter. How a building relates to time allows it to reflect its occupants and uses and expresses the designer and environment.

Involving Sensory design to help Architectural Storytelling

Preconceived ideas and ways of seeing will often be a part of storytelling and architecture. If you see a glass door, there is a specific expectation of what lies within, but if you open it to see mud flooring, it is often a bit of a shock. Mental images can also come through other senses— through sounds, as in the case of cinema, where the proper placement of the speaker system can make or break the viewer’s experience. It can come through touch, like a breeze flowing in a space, or through smells like the use of camphor in temples.

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Sensory design as means of Architectural Storytelling_©Kengo Kuma

Architects have sometimes used these small interventions to create a story. For example, Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute’s small water channel symbolises the journey from the known to the unknown. This can become a way of building a story that could inspire a person working and researching in space. Symbolic stories and rituals have also always been a part of popular beliefs, like tying threads on a tree, placing locks on a bridge, or holding a column to fulfil a wish. The mysticism built around these stories gives an extra dimension to experiencing the space.

Examples of Architectural Narrative

Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Centre (1962), part of New York’s JFK Airport, is a swirling embodiment and celebration of leisure flight, which had become increasingly popular since the end of World War II. 

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TWA Airport_©David Mitchell

The Pompidou Centre, Paris (1971-77) by Rogers + Piano represents the decentralisation of the arts by turning the building “inside out”.

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Pompidou Centre_©Michael Denancé

In Berlin, Daniel Libeskind designed the 2001 Jewish Museum to represent ethnic fracture and reconciliation in Germany. Similarly, the Holocaust Monument (2005), designed by architect Peter Eisenman, inspires contemplation of the Jewish lives lost in the war with its scale and sombre materials. 

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Holocaust Monument_©Kelly Day

Show, Not Tell— A lesson for Architects

A particular issue in architecture is that of representation. How we represent our buildings, particularly to the public, can significantly affect how the narrative is experienced. Buildings are not simply understood through spatial experience. Large-scale constructions often use the media to inform the public about how the architect would prefer people to interact with the building. This restricts the public’s ability to understand and interact with architecture autonomously. 

Visualisation as an Architectural Storytelling Tool_©Karen Lewis

The problem comes down to how we represent ourselves and our stories when we talk about our buildings. When we present our designs as analysis rather than as stories, we do not leave much room for this layering of interpretation or the opportunity for the story to be retold. As architects, we forget that the public already has a refined relationship with architecture compared to other arts. Even without the benefit of architectural education, people encounter buildings every day and are perfectly capable of putting those buildings to whatever use is necessary. 

It could be difficult to understand that a new structure would hold such a deep meaning, layered with histories over time and that its influence and purpose evolve to match the changing needs of society. The architect’s responsibility is to provide this opportunity and not give over a static object tied to a particular time and purpose.

References:

  1. William A. Browne Jr. (2010). Storytelling in Architecture. [online] (Last updated 15 November 2010). Available at: https://www.planetizen.com/node/46878 [Accessed 6 July 2022].
  2. ArchiSoup | Architecture Guides and Resources. Architecture Narratives—The Storytelling of Design. [online]. Available at https://www.archisoup.com/studio-guide/architecture-narratives [Accessed 6 July 2022].
  3. Mindspace (2018). Architecture and Storytelling. [online] (Last updated 5 April 2018). Available at
    https://mindspacearchitects.wordpress.com/2018/04/05/architecture-and-storytelling/ [Accessed 7 July 2022].

Images/visual mediums

  1. Bilbao T. (2018). Architectural collage for conceptualization of Apan Housing: Ocoyoacac Minimum Housing. [Photograph]. 
  2. De Klerk, K. (2020). Extract: Visual Response to Participant Narratives. [Photograph]. 
  3. Kuma, K. (2014). Sensing Spaces Installation. [Photograph].
  4. Mitchell, D. (2019). TWA Hotel and Airport. [Photograph].
  5. Denancé, M. (2019). Pompidou Centre. [Photograph].
  6. Schneider, G. (2019). Jewish Museum. [Photograph].
  7. Day, K. (2013). Holocaust Monument. [Photograph].
  8. Lewis, K. (2020). Visualisation: Light Industrial Landscape Competition Entry. [Photograph].

Citations for dissertations

  1. Mehta, M. (2016). Narrative Structure of Architecture. Undergraduate Level. CEPT University.
  2. Kimber, L. (2010). Truth in Fiction: Storytelling and Architecture. Master’s Level. Victoria University of Wellington.
Author

Kaavya Azad is an architecture student passionate about creating sensory harmony and connecting with nature in her designs. Her keen interest in reading, writing and researching led her to venture into Architectural Journalism. You can find her reading books surrounded by her favourite snacks when she isn't working.

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