architecture as storytelling

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I have always been fond of telling stories. In fact one of the best parts of having a conversation is listening to and telling stories. Storytelling makes conversations richer because of the emotion and anticipation involved.

We are all naturally interested in knowing what happens at the end of the story, especially if it is happy.

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What if we looked at architecture itself as a story? Not too many people besides architects engage metaphoric thinking when it comes to describing architecture. That’s too bad. But if we all love to tell stories and we all enjoy listening to stories, wouldn’t it be great to inhabit a story? (pun intended…sort of)

Let’s say that we enter a site or we walk onto a piece of property; we will call it Chapter 1. We get a little bit of background for the story’s history as the context begins to unfold. We might not know where we are going, not having been here before today. Perhaps it’s very familiar and we come here often. Nevertheless, all we get is a little bit of direction. We turn to the next page – dare I say the next Chapter?

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We walk towards the entrance. Step-by-step our story unfolds as we can no longer see the building from a distance, but we’re close enough so it begins to envelop our vision. We’re beginning to interact with it. More information is known as we can see more details about the materials, feel the textures and hear the sounds of those inside. In places we can look through it and see glimmers of foreshadowing of what is to come. Light is reflected off in places as we move towards the front door. Our curiosity is piqued or at least our interest continues.

The next chapter begins by grabbing the handle of the door and walking inside where we cross a threshold. This is not just the exterior to the interior. It is from one kind of space – open and infinite, through a lowered ceiling, a change in floor level perhaps, to another kind of space. We may ascend upwards or maybe we ascend down to the left or to the right. I think we will move forward-looking for cues to where we want or intend to go next.

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Chapter 3 has us at an arrival point, no it’s a crossroads. The threshold still hasn’t completed itself because now we must make a decision whether to go to the next level or simply turn to the left or right. If we are attentive we can read the wall surface texture. It might give us a clue. Now we notice that the wall and floor surfaces vary to differentiate the circulation of the building from the adjacent spaces. The structure is evident as it marches in cadence directing us through portions of time measured increments leading to the next space. The noise is louder.

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Suddenly the ceiling appears to open up; this single height space becomes higher. The noise of the crowd encircles us and we spin around to take it all in. The characters of this story develop by seeing more of the spaces and the materials. If we prefer a short story we would get on the elevator where it immediately directs us to a destination. Better yet, the architect has employed a rich vocabulary in the expression of the stairs and the articulation of the handrails that it would be a shame to avoid it with a shortcut. There is contrast in the rough concrete of the stairs and the glass and metal of the railing. It is evident that the gaps and alignments are intentional. Someone spent some time thinking through this composition.

The next chapter takes our gaze from directly in front of us off into the distance ahead. We pause and look around. We ascend upwards and can feel our legs getting tired from the walk up the stairs. We run our hand up the smooth handrail and notice a change in temperature in places. Someone else just walked up before us.

By turning our heads upward, we can begin to see off in the distance a little bit more. At this point we catch an interruption, a parenthetical insertion given to us in the form of a small little balcony that looks over the multistory space. We can see where we began.

A flickering of light against the diverse colors and the hush noise from behind bring us back to our task.

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The corridor is delineated with different materials on each side of the space. One side is more solid with an occasional punctuation in surface and the other side is marked by patterns of differing size sections of glass with different degrees of transparency. We can see into most of the rooms along the way – the ones with the lights on.

There’s glass at the end of the corridor allowing a view outside. The sun is still shining. One more short span to go and then into the final space. This is why we came. Familiar faces and an encouraging environment have been waiting.

The balance of light seems just right without any uncomfortable glare. The room is appropriately sized for the activity – that’s a peculiar thought to enter our mind. It’s comfortable. Before we meet up with our friends, co-workers, family, we take a moment to walk over to the outside wall and look through the windows. There below is the entry path from the sidewalk to the entrance that we came through just moments ago. Memories return as we are reminded of the short little journey that’s marked with a variety of interesting paths and spaces. Is this the first time or is it just Thursday?

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It sounds like we’ve never been to this place before – perhaps we have been here every day for the last decade. Who’s to say? Are there hundreds of voices or just a few others?

Much like that favorite story we heard as a child, read to us by a loving parent over and over again, we never get tired of it. There was always something new as we imagined the story unfolding every single night.

Architecture that’s done well can be just like that great story from our childhood. We never tire of it.

This is what we all aspire to do – at least once in our life. This is why we became architects.

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photos are from stock photo galleries on FreeImages.com – click on photo to see author (used under the Standard Restrictions)

Thanks for reading, thanks Bob for letting us contribute. Please visit these blogs below.#ArchiTalks (they’ll be updated as they are shared with us)

Find me on Twitter @leecalisti

 Bob Borson – Life of an Architect (twitter @bobborson)
Architectural Storytelling – It’s My Thing

 Marica McKeel – Studio MM (twitter @ArchitectMM)
Take the Time to Tell Your Story.

 Enoch Sears – Business of Architecture (twitter @enochsears)
The Secret Ingredient To Convincing Anyone To Do (Almost) Anything

 Mark R. LePage – Entrepreneur Architect (twitter @EntreArchitect)
AE048: Success Through Storytelling with Bob Fisher of DesignIntelligence

 Jeff Echols – Architect of the Internet (twitter @Jeff_Echols)
Architects can Improve their Marketing by Incorporating Storytelling

 Nicholas Renard – Cote Renard Architecture (Twitter @coterenard)
The Story of a Listener

 Evan Troxel – The Archispeak Podcast (twitter @etroxel)
It’s Their Story

Jeremiah Russell – (twitter @rogue_architect)
Architectural Storytelling

Matthew Stanfield – (twitter @field9ARCH)
Stories in Architecture

Cormac Phalen – (twitter @archy_type)
The Generational Story – Architecture as Storytelling

Lora Teagarden – (twitter @L2DesignLLC)
Architectural Storytelling: The Legacy of Design

Collier Ward – Thousand Story Studio – (twitter @collier1960)
Architecture and Storytelling are Forever Linked

Andrew Hawkins – (twitter@hawkinsarch)
Architectural Story Books

Jes Stafford – Modus Operandi Design- (twitter @modarchitect)
Architectural Storytelling – Discovery of a Passion

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architecture as storytelling

7 thoughts on “architecture as storytelling

  1. Michael says:

    This is a beautiful narration of movement and sequence through space and even time. I think as designers we strive to write stories for those who inhabit spaces.

  2. Nice work, Lee. As always.

    Your narrative touches on something I often think of; the difference between experiencing a building in space verses the strictly linear means by which we experience a story.

    I like how you take us to a window to see the path we were just on. It’s the spatial equivalent to a flashback in literature.

    As I’m learning the basics of novel writing, I’m also exploring ways to make my long-form fiction feel more spatial, more architectural. Manipulating the timeline (“non-linear storytelling” they call it) and returning to certain themes regularly may work. We’ll see.

    Anyway, thanks for this exploration of a building as a story narrative!

    Collier

  3. Love it Lee,

    You know I love the fact that these stories we wrote could have gone all sorts of directions and we are did go in different directions…it makes this exercise in storytelling richer.

  4. Greetings.
    Excellent article. It makes absolutely sense, and I can see so many opportunities to work collaboratively with a range of allied professionals, ie. architects. In my practice (StoryAID), as a Storyteller and Narrative Coach, this is a natural extension of a ancient and powerful voice. Whether architects will be as forward thinking and innovative as your article suggests, is a something I definitely want to see and if possible, become a collaborative partner.
    Thank you once again, for a wonderful thought.
    Stay blessed.
    Eli

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