Architectural storytelling

Some people say money makes the world go around; others say love, but research has found that the fabric of all human societies is held together by the ancient and inherent practice of storytelling. Stories connect people to the universal human experience as well as imparting important messages around values, customs and survival. We tell stories in all kinds of ways through our voices, language and art. And it’s no different in architecture.

Architectural narrative is a concept that has been in use for millennia. It shares the same storytelling elements as literature, music, theatre and art – character, images, backstory and theme. Finding the story in a building might not come easily but there are some fine examples spanning all eras that take the concept to its ultimate conclusion.

Take, for example, the Pantheon, one of the most famous buildings in the world (we discussed it in a previous blog, read it here). The Pantheon’s original purpose has been lost to time but what remains contains a story designed to awe. The theme is heavenly connection, the characters are the gods, the backstory is the pursuit of glory and the images are writ as much in stone as they are in vacant spaces. The result for the ‘reader’ is a moment of sheer exaltation. Under the curving dome and open oculus, one is reminded of the infinitesimal universe in comparison to our small lives. The story is about humility and worship and the divine cosmos.

A similar story but with a different set of gods shows up in the Mies van der Rohe designed Seagram Building on New York’s Park Avenue. Completed in 1958, its narrative is one of new-world domination and corporate power. It was built to unashamedly demonstrate the wealth of its owners and at $328 million in today’s money, it definitely succeeded. But what else does the Seagram Building tell us about the human condition? Post-war America was never as influential as it was in those years and the architecture of the time reflects a storytelling based on uncompromising values. Mies van der Rohe tapped into a truly American mindset where money is king and brazenness is rewarded.

Storytelling is never more obvious than in museums and public memorials, especially those dedicated to telling the story of the Jewish Holocaust. Daniel Libeskind’s extension to the Jewish Museum in Berlin tells the story of the city’s Jewish community through an intense emotional and physical reaction to the architecture. Its zigzag shapes are designed to introduce the visitor to the haphazard fortunes of the community and the subsequent disillusionment and displacement. The symbolism reminds some of a broken Star of David and others see the sharp forms, angular lines and unusual openings as a metaphor for the erasure and void of Berlin’s Jewish community.

Entrance to the The Libeskind Building is via the older building, through a disconcerting underground passageway because according to the architect, Jewish history is hidden. To move from one side of the museum to the other, visitors must traverse a bridge looking down to one of Libeskind’s voids. Unheated and illuminated only by natural light these spaces refer to ‘that which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: humanity reduced to ashes.’

Here in Ibiza, the vernacular architecture also tells stories even if its original designers never intended it. Our architectural heritage provides us with countless examples and anecdotes connected to daily life. We have the story of bread, seen through the voluptuous bread ovens built into the outside walls of farmhouses as well as the threshing circles found on many parcels of land. There is the story of water collection via the island’s ancient wells and innovative irrigation methods. There is the story of worship through sacred niches and cosmic symbology, and of mischievous elves living under bridges. The traditional architecture of Ibiza tells the story of humanity from the times of the Phoenicians right up until the modern era. Today we are still interpreting these narratives and incorporating them into our designs.

In the domestic sphere, an architectural narrative is about the people who will live in the structure. The same questions are asked by the architect as the writer of their characters. Who are they? Where are they from? Where are they going? How do they live? We use many methods to determine the answers but most importantly, the architect must put themselves into the client’s shoes, sometimes literally. Designing a shower and having a shower are two very separate experiences. Virtual reality has helped to close the gap between the narrative and actuality (read more about it here). It allows both client and designer to walk through the space together, seeing and reacting to the design and finding the narrative within.

Beyond technology is the simple and basic notion of connection. A conversation had over several encounters allows the designer to immerse themselves into the client’s world and to build from it an architectural story. Our designs are a culmination of an ancient story based on the foundations of Ibiza farmhouses and augmented by the many cultures and people who have made Ibiza what it is today. While the past informs, the present is where our stories are set – with the families and individuals who are creating their own narratives within our designs.