If a building can’t speak, can it really tell a story?
Buildings, paintings, cities, or any other well designed object for that matter – tell stories in all kinds of ways, from their form to their materials to their referencing of history. They don’t do this by themselves, of course; it’s the job of the designer to ‘write’ and express this story, otherwise known as the narrative.
This article explains in detail what an architectural narrative means, with plenty of concrete examples of why and how it might be generated. We offer some tips for improving your skills in producing architectural narratives, and look at strategies for presenting them.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin. Once upon a time…
What is a narrative?
In short, a narrative is just a story – a description of a sequence of events, involving characters and usually some underlying messages or themes. The word is commonly used to discuss novels and plays, but also features strongly in the field of design.
What is ‘architectural narrative’?
An architectural narrative is the story that a building tells about its users and/or its patrons. A great example is the Institut du Monde Arabe (1987) in Paris by Architecture-Studio and Jean Nouvel, which combines elements of Western and Islamic architecture in order to illustrate and nurture the relationship between France and the Arab world.
It is a building that can be ‘read’, almost like a book (and for this reason will be mentioned as an example throughout this article).
What about ‘design narrative’ and ‘spatial narrative’?
The terms architectural narrative, design narrative and spatial narrative are often used interchangeably, though there are subtle differences. Since most fields of design (industrial, graphic, fashion, and so on) use storytelling as part of their process, ‘design narrative’ has a broader application than ‘architectural narrative’.
On the other hand, ‘spatial narrative’ applies principally to architecture and landscape design, since space is less of a factor when designing a poster or a pair of jeans.
Why should architecture tell a story?
During the design process, generating an architectural narrative serves a multitude of functions.
It ensures that the client, architect and broader team are on, and stay on, the same page; it acts as a motivator, since stories remind us why we are doing something; and it works as a unifying factor to create aesthetic harmony throughout the building.
When the building is in use, a strong architectural narrative adds interest for users of the building and attracts outside visitors, as well as strengthening the identity of a particular community.
One story told by the Institut du Monde Arabe, for example, is that French Muslims belong in France; an enormous building in the capital city so influenced by Islamic traditions can hardly mean anything else.
How can architecture tell a story?
Research by Gensler found that architecture and literature share four key storytelling elements, namely characters, image, backstory and theme.
In a building, the characters are the people who are connected with the site, whether patrons, users or visitors; the image is the physical appearance of the building and the impression it creates; the backstory is the rootedness of a place in its historical context; and the theme is the underlying belief or principle that the architect wants to communicate.
The section below (‘How do architects actually create narrative?’) expands on this idea.
The same research also identified situations in which architecture fails to tell a story. One of these is when economic constraints force buildings to be erected as quickly and cheaply as possible, producing ‘McBuildings’ that appear banal and unconnected to their surroundings.
Another is when architects communicate just one thread of a story, or try to communicate a complex story through just one part of a building, instead of conceiving the building and its narrative as an interrelated and multi-faceted whole.
How do architects actually create narrative?
There are three main ways in which architects generate narrative.
The first is by using forms, materials, scale, light, heat, and sound in particular ways, especially in ways that enhance practicality by linking form to function. Consider the brise-soleil (a feature commonly found in tropical architecture, which keeps buildings cool by deflecting sunlight) at the Institut du Monde Arabe.
Though Paris is far from tropical, the architects included a photo-sensitive brise-soleil with motor-controlled apertures. The resultant filtered light not only evokes the mishrabiya in Islamic architecture, but also protects the delicate objects in the museum.
The second way architects create narrative is by attending to the location and physical properties of a building’s site, and working with rather than against them.
This tendency is exemplified by so-called critical regionist architects such as Tadao Ando, whose stepped Rokko housing development (1981-1998) is built into a mountain near Kobe, Japan.
Every house has an outside space inseparable from ‘nature’, and the architect used concrete so the natural form of the mountain and geometric form of the apartments could be pleasingly contrasted.
The third and final way narrative is generated is by reference to history, ensuring continuity of architectural form and meaning.
For example, Alvar Aalto’s Summer House (1953) in Muuratsalo, which served for many years as his experimental space, was inspired by a Roman atrium but opens onto a courtyard like traditional Finnish farmhouses.
Architectural narrative and the design brief
It is common complaint that design briefs, whether for buildings or other products, are full of overused and broadly meaningless words such as ‘user-friendly’. (Who wants a school or hospital that isn’t friendly to its users?) Creating an architectural narrative is one way to get around such generalizations.
By putting themselves in the shoes of a ‘character’ – which is to say a typical user or another person likely to be affected by the building – and imagining their ‘story’, architects should be able to design spaces that are appropriate for the largest number of people.
For example, when designing a family home, it makes sense to undertake a virtual walk-through as each member of that family, may not have the same needs and preferences.
When designing a building that occupies a public space (or indeed designing public space itself), it may be helpful to imagine the responses of those living and working nearby such as older people concerned about an increase in anti-social behavior or parents worried about the loss of green spaces for their children to use.
Discussing architectural narratives
Architectural narratives can feel somewhat intangible, and when presenting them it’s all too easy to confuse them or to ramble. The following three-stage process should help you stay on track:
1. Give a very brief introduction
Though your introduction should be brief, the process of coming up with it may not be! In just one or two sentences, you should try to explain exactly what you’re about to present, for example, ‘This is an antenatal clinic that makes expectant parents feel welcome and reassured’.
It’s not always easy to condense everything you’re thinking into so few words, but your audience really need to hear a succinct description upfront. Make sure the words you choose are meaningful and precise.
2. Outline your specific approach to the project
There are probably as many ways to create a welcoming and reassuring environment as there are expectant parents, so make plain to your client what your particular understanding of those terms is.
Will the clinic reassure with the clarity and consistency of its design, with its form and color, with the privacy and comfort of its spaces, or with something else?
3. Offer examples in 2D & 3D
Once you’ve clarified your approach, give the client some specific examples of how you will manifest it using sketches, plans, and models. Don’t wander off track; illustrate only the approach you described in step two.
Include enough examples to convince your audience that you’ve given the building thorough consideration, but not so many that they blend into one and create confusion.
Key tips and strategies
In sum, here are eight tips and strategies to bear in mind when creating an architectural narrative.
1. Location, location, location
The location of the building will be the starting point for many narratives. Returning to the Institut du Monde Arabe, the building’s river facade follows the curve of the road (dictated by the river itself), while the opposite facade – the one with the motor-controlled brise-soleil – overlooks a public square.
One ‘reading’ of this might be that the institute, and therefore by extension Arab culture, can fit harmoniously into the Parisian context without losing itself.
2. Keep people at the center of your story
Narratives are all about people; no great works of literature describe only scenery and objects. Though these things can be important to architects, most of the buildings we design will be for human use. It follows, then, that the way to make them better is to think like the humans who will move through and around them.
3. Create a ‘journey’ through the building
On the topic of movement, it might help to think of your architectural narrative in terms of a journey through the building, articulated by horizontal and vertical spaces of varying size, brightness and warmth. How do you want someone to feel as they approach the building, and as they experience each of its areas? How can you make this happen?
4. Do your research
Your research should go beyond finding out what the building’s users will need (though of course this is essential). Read up on the ethos and history of your patrons, as well as the historical context of the site where the building will be located. Can you incorporate your findings into the building?
An oft-derided example of this is the use of porthole windows and other nautical motifs at waterside apartment complexes, but thorough research will allow you to address this aspect of storytelling with much greater subtlety.
5. Take scale into account
Remember that your building will tell a different story depending on where someone is located in relation to it. Make sure you consider the narrative from a considerable distance, from the middle distance, close-up, and from the inside.
To think about this more clearly, consider brutalist estates of the 1960s that can today appear foreboding as one approaches on foot, but whose spacious flats with their extensive views were generally popular with initial tenants.
6. Every element matters
Architectural narrative is not about making grand gestures that tell a story all at once. It works best when every element of a building, from materials to sound qualities, work together to reveal what it’s all about. Take care not to produce the design equivalent of a soundbite.
7. External representation of an unseen reality
Architecture, at its best, can be an embodiment of something that is otherwise hard to articulate. Think of an awe-inspiring, heaven-scratching church or mosque, or the cosy cottage that feels like home even before you’ve moved in.
These kinds of feelings don’t happen by accident; an architect has considered how to induce them with physical form. Get used to making notes of your emotional responses to buildings, and interrogate the reasons for them.
8. Avoid wishful thinking and after-stories
In spite of its connection with storytelling, an architectural narrative should not represent what you’d like to build in an ideal world. It should articulate what you can realistically achieve. Similarly, don’t be tempted to design first and create a narrative later.
Tacked-on stories never ring true, and the building will feel much less satisfying for it. Let the narrative truly drive what you’re creating.
Examples of architectural narrative
As well as the Institut du Monde Arabe which has been mentioned more than once in this article, you might like to spend time reading about the following buildings which have a strong architectural narrative. There are, of course, thousands if not millions more.
- As the holiest pilgrimage site for Muslims, the Masjid-el-Haram (which has existed in its current form since 1571) could hardly tell a stronger story. It is the largest mosque in the world and contains the Kaaba, around which pilgrims must circle seven times.
- Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center (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.
- The Pompidou Centre in Paris (1971-77) by Rogers + Piano represents the decentralisation of the arts by turning the building ‘inside out’.
- In Berlin, Daniel Libeskind designed the 2001 Jewish Museum as a representation of ethnic fracture and reconciliation in Germany. Similarly, the city’s Holocaust Monument (2005), designed by architect Peter Eisenman, inspires reflection on the millions of Jewish lives lost in the war with its scale and sombre materials.
- OMA’s Casa de Música in Porto, Portugal, which opened in 2005, is a solitary building in the middle of a large public space in a working-class area, designed to symbolise visibility and access.
An architectural narrative is the story told by a building through its form and feel. It is not superfluous, to be added after the ‘real business’ of design, but should guide the design.
It keeps project teams on the same page and immeasurably improves users’ experience of the building; compare an identikit branch of Starbucks and Uruguay’s Café Brasilero, with its nooks and wooden walls, and this becomes immediately apparent!
The key to creating better architectural narratives is to center the people who will use, and/or who have commissioned, the building. This involves thinking like an author, and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes so they can . . . live happily ever after!