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.

Originality v Hollywood: Dawn of Mediocrity?

A curious phenomenon is occurring in the centre of society’s entertainment universe. Perhaps it’s a sense of potential failure casting a net of fear around what was once a creative powerhouse. Perhaps it’s a descent into mediocrity as our collective society has embraced a sense of complaisance, where banality passes for acceptable quality. Whatever it is, there can be no denying it: Hollywood appears to be running out of fresh ideas.

Instead, we’re being treated to the wonders of rehashed entertainment. I’m reminded of a sentence Nick Offerman’s character, Deputy Chief Hardy, says in 21 Jump Street (ironically, a reboot of a popular television series)

“We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”

I feel like this is exactly what an executive-led creative industry is doing. I can almost picture the suits in their corner offices somewhere in Los Angeles, cigar in hand, smug grin on their faces, signing-off another reboot, knowing that our pop-obsessive society will eat this all up and fatten the studio’s bottom line. How stupid do they really think we are?

There will come a point, hopefully soon, when cinema audiences will tire with this. When we will finally open our eyes to the fact that it’s the same movie, with the actors-du-jour fitted snugly in to a predictable plot.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m just as excited about the new Star Wars as the next fan. Likewise, I can’t wait to see what Marvel has in store with Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m an (obsessive?) follower of their Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series, and an ardent watcher of both Arrow and The Flash, two of DC’s darling television spin-offs. These are all properties based off existing source material, whether it’s comic books or one of the most famous cinematic franchises of all time.

However, I feel that there are talented writers out there with exciting, fresh stories yearning to be unleashed from their paper bounds and brought forth onto the reflective-silver screens of our cineplexes. These stories are being marginalized when studio execs opt to “play it safe” with rehashes of recently-completed rehashes (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man), with bloated adaptations of beloved source material (The Hobbit) or the hope of capitalizing on unexpected, explosive success. In the case of this last example, I’m of course referring to the recent news that Lionsgate, boon of the young adult dystopian fiction adaptation fad, is considering continuing the Hunger Games stories beyond the book. As a fan of the series and its cast and wonderful director, I sincerely hope this will not materialize. Whilst it would be great to see more of the world that Katniss inhabits, and the fact that the last book left much to be desired in terms of an ending, the stories should just be left alone. Hollywood needs to learn about a story’s limits. They need to learn how to let go.

At the end of the day, we as cinemagoers make the final decision. We have a choice about what we want to watch. That’s the great thing about cinema: we live in an era when there are so many possibilities; were spoiled for choice, essentially. We can choose whether we feel like watching an inventive story like Birdman, or rekindle some nostalgic feels with a viewing of a Godzilla (or Ghostbusters or Robocop or Terminator) reboot. The thing I truly wish for, through, is for original stories to receive the same level of care and treatment that these existing, beloved properties are currently getting.

The Drifter

This is a new short story I’ve been working on. It diverges from my usual fiction writing style and you can perhaps categorise it as a noir-sci-fi-fantasy-thing. The idea of this singular figure drifting across a wasteland has been playing in my mind for some time, and I thought it would be interesting to frame it in some sort of narrative. You can read more of my thoughts on writing this, and why I consider it a threshold between my first manuscript and the new novel I’m about to embark on, at this link here. Enjoy.

The Drifter

The Drifter had walked these roads before. He had been subjected to this hell of placelessness, namelessness, facelessness… he moved like a dark shadow across the grey landscape, gliding like a phantom through these parts.

The towns he passed looked the same: single roads, dusty streets, broken windows in falling-down buildings. An empty existence. All because of the One.

The One who had started it all.

The One who he tried to stop.

The One for whom defeat was never a word.

The One.

A shiver crept through the Drifter’s thin frame, rattling his very being. He stopped.

The town lay before him, just like the countless others he’d experienced.

But there was something different about this one… something he couldn’t quite place just yet.

A single street, flanked by crumbling structures.

Dust billowing in the afternoon gust, the buildings bathed in dusk’s golden light.

*

First there were the glitches. The tiny fragmentations of reality, hinted by conspicuous bursts of a shimmering haze. Almost like a heat haze. But the Drifter knew otherwise. He knew this wasn’t some thermodynamic phenomenon.

Over the year, the fragmentations grew in frequency, and reality started to crumble piece by piece around him.

Until…

Until there was nothing. Emptiness. Darkness.

That was the world he lived in now. That was the world that the Spectre had crafted, and that was the world he was seeing.

The Drifter knew this was unnatural. That no human was meant to see these things. But once that first glimpse of nothingness caught his vision, he couldn’t see anything the same again.

He was forever haunted, a phantom coasting these desolate lands.

*

The bar was just like any other he had been in, in countless towns in countless barren lands. Dust was suspended in the air, dust caked the empty tables. Desolation. Utter nothingness: the Spectre’s spell cast over these lands.

He walked slowly into the dimly lit room. Silence pressed against this hollow chamber. He sat himself at the long wooden bar that stretched across one end of the place. Before him were dirty tumblers and drink taps that hadn’t been used for years.

The place seemed to be devoid of life – not unlike the hundreds of towns he had visited before this one. Yet the Drifter knew this was it; this would be the end of his journey.

He sat hunched over the bar, his face cast in half-shadow.

And waited.

Sure enough, there came the distant sound of footsteps on beaten-up wooden flooring. Life, finally.

The Drifter felt the presence before he saw the being. As expected.

The Drifter smelled the odour before he saw the creature. As expected.

The Drifter looked up, and stared into the grey eyes. Grey: as expected.

This was Him. The One. The Spectre.

Finally.

As expected.

*

He learned of the Spectre shortly after the glitches. It was apparent that the two were inextricably linked; the Spectre was the one who caused the glitches. The Spectre created them.

One night, whilst still a part of the fragile world that was slowly crumbling around him, the Drifter struggled to rest, his mind constantly on the glitches that were consuming him.

The glitches… The strange force that was tearing apart his reality. That was when the Spectre appeared: a gust of wind, a sort of vacuum as air displaced in an irregular pattern, and the mysterious aura of some ancient entity descending upon the space.

Terror gripped him as witnessed the frightening sight: a being not from this world, a being he knew instantly to be connected to the phenomena he had just experienced.

It was a dark entity, a form that constantly shifted its shape, never the same thing with each passing second. Its voice spoke not from a mouth , but through the very air… It spoke from within the Drifter’s very mind.

“You have been chosen…” it said. “You have been chosen…”

Eyes… Red, bright, piercing, suddenly materialised from the shapeless mass hovering before him. They tore into his mind, as if searing the message into his brain.

And at once, just as suddenly as it had begun, the Spectre disappeared.

From that point onward, the Drifter was born: not physically, but in a mental state: he would forever be condemned to a life of rootlessness, never able to stay in one place. All because the Spectre had chosen him to bear witness to the true reality.

He would forever walk these plains, barren and desolate, searching for some wisp of that past, veiled vision that could validate his existence and lift him from this haunting spell. 

That blurred existence that had once been his was brighter than this discordant reality.

*

“What will it be?” the voice belonging to the grey eyes asked.

It was a provocation, not a question. The words were not asking, they were tempting… taunting the Drifter’s predicament.

The Drifter sighed.

“An end would be nice,” he replied quietly.

The room suddenly chilled. Whatever light permeated the space extinguished itself at once. Cold pierced the Drifter’s back like shards of ice puncturing his skin. He screamed out. The barman had disappeared… and then the voice spoke from within his skull.

“An end? That’s what your want, then?”

A swirl of black smoke twisted its way around the room, like a tornado preparing its onslaught. It circled the Drifter, who was now standing in the centre of the dusty barroom. He stood as still as possible, a statue immune to the fear the Spectre was trying to conjure.

He had failed to fight this entity once. He would never allow himself to do so again.

Reaching into the depths of his jackets, he withdrew a slender object: it glowed silver in the darkness. The swirling mist slowed, then withdrew into itself, the Spectre taking on a shimmering, shifting form, both a defined shape and yet still incomprehensible.

The two red, piercing eyes suddenly looked… afraid.

The Drifter allowed himself a slight smile.

In a single move that he had seen played out in his mind countless times through countless landscapes of endless walking, the Drifter thrust the blade into the mist that was the Spectre. The blade went straight through, but the shriek from the thing it pierced was deafening.

The Spectre’s form became solid, then vapour, then solid again… each time the leathery skin cracking, a horrible red liquid oozing from the cracks and then suddenly disappearing as it changed its state of matter. Finally, it turned to smoke, and gently drifted off in the breeze that crept into the barroom. The darkness went with the Spectre, and the Drifter found himself standing with his arm still thrusting the blade into empty air.

It was done. He was free.

So why did it feel like he was still in chains?

*

The road stretched on to infinity. Flat land flanked it. The Drifter stood in the middle, looking out at the endless expanse of asphalt.

The Spectre was dead. He survived. But this was his only existence – the only thing he knew now. The thing that had silently tortured him for so long, now haunted him. 

The promise of light rested just beyond the horizon…

So the Drifter began his journey once more.

©2014 Rahul Dowlath