Architecture as storyteller
The team of explorers pushed through the thick jungle, moving slowly towards the strange tower in the distance. Tired and sweaty from slashing the thick bush, they finally emerged at the edge of a wide paved plaza, two hundred feet from an impressive stone structure, at the center of which was the tall tower which had drawn them to this place. They had never seen a structure quite like this one before, and they could hardly contain their excitement. What kind of people built this building? What were they like?
Their strategy for finding their answer was a common one: they would find out what they wanted to know about those people by studying their buildings. They would read the three stories being told by these impressive structures.
First there would be the story of purpose. The building’s configuration and spatial deportment would tell about the intended use, which in turn would tell the visitors about the social behavior of the building’s creators. They could already tell that the tower was meant to be a landmark, to be seen from far away, giving the building great significance.
Secondly, they would read the story of their technology. Building materials and the skill with which they are used would tell of the technological sophistication of the building’s creators, and of the building’s importance to them.
Finally, beyond use and technology, the buildings would reveal the more intimate details of the identity of the people who built them by revealing their customs, traditions, history and culture in the details and embellishment of the structure. As the explorers stood on this wide, empty plaza, they could already imagine it filled with people, and them getting to know them.
This post was meant to talk about the importance of the “story” in design. Despite having practiced for many years, I am still learning how to tell those stories myself, so at this point I can only stand and point like anyone else. In fact, I believe that learning to tell those three stories is the life’s work for an architect. As the society changes, the story of purpose changes. What buildings need to do to respond to the changes in lifestyles/ Technological advancement creates new opportunities to tell more dramatic stories. And as societies grow their history and customs change, and their story is written with different imagery.
Let me try an example you would be familiar with. Parliament Square. Its utility was as the center of a colonial central government. That story is told by a formal arrangement with the most important symbol of Imperial Britain available at the time. The story of technology is told in masonry walls and a pitched, wood shingled roof, its interior protected by solid shutters. The story of identity is told through the embellishment of the building with Georgian details and the statue of a British queen in the middle of the square. Even today, that story is more powerful than our declaration of Independence, as there is no post-independence story told with such eloquence. As architects, it appears Bahamian architects have not yet learned to tell our own stories in our architecture.
On the other hand, I do know something about writing stories, and the organic requirements of a story. For a story to work, it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning must catch your attention and establish all of the important characters and events that will influence the story, even if also setting up the circumstances within which a surprise character or event would enter later. The end must provide a reasonable conclusion which leaves the reader both glad they read the story and feeling enriched by the experience. The middle ties the beginning to the end by creating a series of sequential experiences that logically, although in some cases surprisingly, moves from the beginning to the end.
In architecture, the beginning is the story of purpose. The purpose includes the response to context, like climate, site and building laws as well as the intended functions. The end is the story of identity, the final experience of historical, cultural and climatic personality of the creators of the architecture. The middle is the story of technology, tying the purpose to the identity by the crafting of built experiences that both derive from that identity and constantly enriches and changes it.
Architecture, like all art, is communication. More than anything else, it communicates the story of its creators. More often than not, that story is so badly told it is unreadable. Good architecture, on the other hand, is like a good book. It can be read over and over again, and every time it is just as satisfying.
• Patrick Rahming & Associates is a full service design firm providing architectural, planning and design services throughout The Bahamas and the northern Caribbean. Visit its website at www.pradesigns.com and like its Facebook page. The firm’s mission is to help its clients turn their design problems into completed projects through a process of guided decision-making, responsible environmental advice and expert project administration.