Architecture and the Art of Storytelling

All architecture is a story: every space a paragraph, each detail a sentence. Design is a form of communication – perhaps the most effective, succinct system of conveying abstract ideas into tangible solutions.

Over the past year, I’ve come to value the importance of the story when engaging in the design process. Developing an idea and following its progression from abstraction to detail can be a daunting undertaking. As architects we are taught various methodologies for overcoming this, various design strategies. One of the most effective, I’ve discovered, is the art of story.

I’ve always loved writing, and coming up with stories usually through the process of writing them down, rather than explicitly planning everything from scratch before engaging in the creative act. This almost serendipitous act can yield interesting results, and often is a satisfying endeavour. So as I began to engage in the various design tasks of the honours programme, I decided to abstract this storytelling process into an architectural design process.

By distilling the key findings on-site, and first creating a sort of “knowledge hub” comprising site data, social findings, environmental issues (just to name a few), you begin to create a narrative landscape within which your story can begin to form. I find it important from this very early stage to begin thinking about how the presentation will flow; this may seem counter-intuitive, but it helps to set end-goals and delimits certain aspects in order to progress the workflow. This won’t hinder the explorative nature of conceptual design thinking, but rather enhance it by establishing certain parameters within which to work. And this is not obviously set in stone; this narrative becomes flexible and evolves alongside the design.

By actually thinking of the design as a story, you begin to perceive the project as a more tangible, dramatic and emotive thing; even though the project may only exist in a virtual sphere or on paper, your story is adding an abstract, emotive layer that breathes a certain life into the thing.

What this ultimately does is ensure you’re developing a coherent narrative to tell your prospective client about the work you’ve designed. Humans love stories; its something that is ancient and inherent in our evolution. By using the craft of storytelling to guide the design process you’re intricately linking two very potent forms of communication, which can really help sell someone the idea, which is, after all, a key part of our profession.

Why we do what we do

This notion of questioning why we – as people who create things, imagine things, build things and dream things – do what we do, has been playing around in my mind for a while now. Why is it that we push ourselves in this way, warp our minds into the worlds we dream up, stay up late into the early hours of the cold morning still toiling away at our keyboards, drawing boards, tablets and canvases?

Indeed, there is a fire that burns within the creator, the maker of art and literature and poetry and those things that make life worth living for. A burning desire to shape reality to the whims of our imaginations, to concretise the wisps of thought. We’re compelled to see our ideas through to their ends; we’re driven by passion, I guess you could say.

This quote from one of my favourite movies, Dead Poets Society, is perhaps the best way to capture the essence of why some of us prefer to stay up in the solitude of the night, not dreaming but gently luring those dreams into the cool air of this world.

… the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

– John Keating (Robin Williams), Dead Poets Society (1989)