Architecture is the technical cousin of the visual arts and like them, its success is based on the principle of “Compelling Imagery”. While it may be worth a thousand words, but it is essentially still a picture. It requires explanation, a narrative.
Storytelling or narration in architecture has traditionally held a high position. The classical architecture of every region has played the role of the teacher and historian for the people, carrying knowledge across multiple generations. Right from the oldest cave paintings in Lascaux and Indonesia, to the hieroglyphs on the walls of the Egyptian Pyramids to the ornate walls of the cathedrals and palaces all over Europe, architectural walls have contained numerous stories. Closer home, the caves in Ajanta, the temples of Khajuraho, the Taj Mahal, the bricks of the India Gate and the deeps wells in Rani ki Vav have all witnessed and borne the tales of the past and into the future. Then what changed so much that today the same walls are regarded with disinterest?
As the modernist ideals came into play, all ornamentation began to be seen as unnecessary superfluous detail. Slowly, along with the fancy entablatures and cornice details, the stories were also lost. Any attempt to change this, till date has been mostly regarded with skepticism and ridicule and only a few architects in India and abroad have managed to break free of the clutches of the intense criticism of architecture with a strong conceptual narrative. Notable among them are Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Charles Correa, and BV Doshi who have been vocal about weaving stories with their designs.
Daniel Libeskind wrote, “Buildings—contrary to popular thought—are not inanimate objects. They live and breathe, and like humans have an outside and an inside, a body, and a soul.” I use this quote to point out two things-
- It shows the contradictory nature of Post-Modernist architects towards the prevalent belief famously summarized by Corbusier, “A house is a machine for living in” and;
- It seeks to remind the architects of how their user audience was slowly losing the connection with their work.
While revolving door theories bewilder the public, the quest for Meaningfulness confuses the profession. Architects don’t understand why the general populace dislikes or ignores the bulk of their work. From a behavioural perspective, though, the explanation is simple. Architecture’s malaise has little to do with style. The problem isn’t physical. It’s psychological.
If a building was indeed that similar to humans, then isn’t it important to establish a connecting narrative between the two? Every designer worth their salt knows that the most fool-proof way for a design to be successfully approved and executed is to appeal to the emotional side of the client. Then why is efficient and eloquent looked down upon with ridicule by architects today? When every venture today is primarily viewed as one with strong monetary character, isn’t it time architects took the responsibility of also taking care of the humane aspect of architecture? After all, the user will never be able to look at how much money a building makes, but they will always be interested to know the story behind a unique design.
A very interesting take on this was revealed by Libeskind during the proposal of the Ground Zero Competition in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Unlike his competitors, Libeskind visited the site of the tragedy soon after the announcement of the competition and was overwhelmed by the hole left behind by the twin towers. He traveled all the way down the foundation well and saw the gigantic slurry wall that was responsible for the safety of New York’s underground transport system and the foundations of the tallest buildings in Manhattan. It was this enormous cavity which he used as a metaphor for the gaping wound the attacks had left in the heart of Manhattan and that of every citizen of America. With his masterplan of Ground Zero, it is this story that he wanted every visitor to experience, and boy did he succeed!
It’s hard to explain, yet the lower we descended into the deep hole, the more intensely we could feel the violence and hatred that had brought down the buildings; we felt physically weak with the enormity of the loss. But we could feel other powerful forces present: freedom, hope, faith; the human energy that continues to grip the site. Whatever was built here would have to speak to the tragedy of the terrorist act, not bury it.
When we look at Ground Zero today, with the 4 World Trade Centre Towers, the memorial site and the museum, we are not only filled with the enormous sense of tragedy and sorrow but also the sheer strength of the human spirit to dust themselves up and stand again in the wake of a tragedy. This was the precise intention of that design and is a shining example of a story well-told by architecture.
The world is changing at a very fast pace and the threat to the destruction of our heritage and life as we know it seems imminent. Our architecture will continue to morph into a faceless, unrecognizable and indistinct mass of glass and concrete with no sense of belonging if we still choose to design and build without a conscience. Only if architects are mindful of the spirit of their creations will they be able to change the way the people feel and experience a space. My fellow architects, I appeal to you to revive your inner storyteller. After all, everything you build becomes a part of your own life story- wouldn’t you want your legacy to be remarkable and timeless?