Architects create a world where stories happen, writers ensure that these beautiful and ugly stories don’t go unheard, or rather, unread.
Architecture and Written Fiction have a lot to take from each other. Fiction, where an entirely imaginary scenario is created, how do you make it convincing to the readers? How do the readers imagine and digest the story describing events that have never actually occurred? The story might be impossible in reality.
This is where architecture comes into play. Let’s take Harry Potter for example since it is among the most read books.
‘Harry had never even imagined such a strange and splendid place. It was lit by thousands and thousands of candles that were floating in midair over four long tables, where the rest of the students were sitting. These tables were laid with glittering golden plates and goblets. At the top of the hall was another long table where the teachers were sitting. ‘
– JK Rowling, Harry Potter, and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Isn’t JK Rowling making picture of the Great Hall a piece of cake? Imagine the Harry Potter series without such a brilliantly detailed explanation of Hogwarts, King’s Cross station, Hogsmeade, or the Burrow. Imagine Game of Thrones without the map, wouldn’t the entire context be taken away? The depth of detailing of the castles that goes as deep as the heating systems used or the design of a throne makes the story familiar and believable.
The architectural description in written fiction gives us a clear idea of the period, the technology that must be available, the styles and personalities, the commute systems that might be required, the status quo, and the relative positioning of different areas and the characters within them. Architecture is the concrete base, the unchanging and believable reality of the fiction and it forms the foundation on which we can imagine the stories and understand the characters and their actions. This is the reason a fictional writer has to be thorough with the basic architectural concepts. The magnitude of the detailing makes the story real to the readers.
Architecture takes from written fiction equally. Usually, when architects look at a building, they can easily get in the shoes of the designers, understand why the elements are used in a certain way, criticize or appreciate the architect. But getting in the shoes of the users is difficult since our brains are trained for designing right from the architecture schools. Written fiction can come to the architect’s rescue here. Reading the description of characters using and experiencing the spaces helps us in thinking from the user’s point of view. Undoubtedly movies also help with this. But the detail with which the thoughts and feelings of the character are described in written format is often not possible to showcase in a visual format. Written fiction establishes the essential link between architecture and the user’s psychology which architects are often unaware or ignorant of.
Let’s take the example of Dan Brown’s Origin here. Dan Brown has the prowess of beautifully describing architectural wonders with its cultural context. Try visiting the famous Sagrada Familia by architect Antoni Gaudi before and after reading Dan Brown’s Origin; the difference will be surprising.
‘At night, this is a heavier world. The basilica’s sun-dappled forest of trees was gone, transformed into a midnight jungle of shadows and darkness—a gloomy stand of striated columns stretching skyward into an ominous void.’
– Dan Brown, Origin
Brown gives an intriguing description of Langdon experiencing Sagrada Familia and the contrast of its beauty during the day and eeriness during the night. While from Langdon’s point of view, the basilica is an awe-inspiring and curious creation, Avila’s perspective is the stark opposite.
‘Sagrada Família, he thought, repulsed by the whimsical silhouette.
A shrine to all that is wrong with our faith. Barcelona’s celebrated church, Ávila believed, was a monument to weakness and moral collapse—a surrender to liberal Catholicism, brazenly twisting and distorting thousands of years of faith into a warped hybrid of nature worship, pseudoscience, and Gnostic heresy.
There are giant lizards crawling up a church of Christ!’
-Dan Brown, Origin
With the point of view of this religious fanatic character, the subjective nature of architecture comes forth. This is another gift from authors to architects. Reading about the subjective opinions of different characters regarding the same space enables us to understand the complexity of architecture.
Authors have the power of changing the perspective of an architect and making the architect realize the psychological and behavioral impacts their designs can have. And architects have the power to provide the authors with an essential architectural base and enough details to base the story on. The main reason for this is that the author is in the character’s shoes who are experiencing the environment while the architect is in the designer’s shoes who are creating the environment. Interaction of both these disciplines is important to bridge the gap between the creator and the user.