Blood and bandages: Non-fiction narratives in two Melbourne buildings

Although examples of fictional narratives in architecture remain rare, documentary narratives are thriving. Let’s look at two examples in the medical field.

The first example is the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation office by Crone Architects. According to an article in The Age by Stephen Crafti (1/2/2020), the white perforated steel used in the interior connotes cleanliness and represents the gauze bandages used in the treatment of injuries.

The second is the Peter McCallum Cancer Centre by MCR Architects. The building’s forms and finishes are the consequence of a non-fiction narrative springing from the purpose of the hospital. The architects have examined the aesthetics of the organs, veins, arteries, ligaments, fat and muscle tissue revealed once the patients skin is penetrated. This metaphor is fundamental to the organisation of the building, and shapes the interior and exterior.

Fictional narratives in art: ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ by Damien Hirst

I suppose I had better start this piece with a spoiler alert. If you have not seen the documentary entitled ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ then go to Netflix and watch it. For those who are familiar with the exhibition held in 2017 in Venice by Damien Hirst and the documentary about the discovery of the treasures, please read on.
The exhibition contains 170 works of art made by Damien Hirst and his assistants. Nearly 100 of them are fashioned to look like objects or statues, or parts of the remains of statues, from the distant past, encrusted with coral and shellfish as though they have been underwater for a long period. The rest are replicas or representations of the same pieces.
A more devious person than Damien Hirst might have made these sculptures for the purpose of passing them off as real antiquities and making a fortune by selling them, hoping no one discovered them to be fakes. However Hirst understands that there is a tenuous position available to an artist which is neither that of being the author of original ‘cutting edge’ work, nor the producer of fakes: it is to be the author of works of art informed by a fictional narrative.
Hirst’s previous works include butterflies, centrifugal paintings, a diamond encrusted skull, coloured dots and pills, and pickled sharks and cows.  All have narratives which are nonfictional and do not require an engagement with make-believe in order to enjoy and understand them. What you see is simply the communication of ideas via light, space, form and colour.
The Treasures however cannot be fully appreciated without engaging in make-believe, whether you begin by believing they are ‘real’ and then discover that they are fictional, or whether you first approach them knowing that they are works of Hirst and his assistants.

A still from the documentary ‘Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable’

Like novels and fiction films, the works invoke the ‘fiction paradox’: how can we be drawn into, and care about, a narrative that we know is not true? My introduction to the exhibition was to see photos of the Treasures on display in Venice, and video clips of their being ‘recovered’ from the sea off the east coast of Africa. From early on I guessed they were made by Damien Hirst and his assistants, but this did not reduce my enjoyment of them. I felt the same excitement as I do when approaching any work of fiction. The question isn’t ‘Is this true?’ But rather ‘How well has this been done? Can the author and their production team convince me it might be true, even for just a few moments? Can they distract me for a little while before I remember that this is all made up? How successfully can they tease me?’
It would be easy to dismiss this as less worthy than the challenges of nonfiction art, and to deprecate the work as being less ‘serious’. It was quite clear reading reviews of the Venice exhibition that some critics cannot overcome the prejudice, inherited from the Modern movement, that fictional narratives are a silly distraction from the noble goal of pursuing artistic ‘truth’. (1-3) As Henry Moore’s daughter Mary put it ‘Damien Hirst has set art back 100 years’, after her father had freed it from context and narrative.(4) But for those of us who have escaped the clutches of such orthodoxy, there is no sense that narrative in general, and fictional narrative in particular, belongs any more to the past than the present and future. A moment spent contemplating the continued success of the forms of the novel and television drama should put this into perspective.
As an architect championing the use of fiction narrative in the design of buildings, I am overwhelmed and delighted by what Damien Hirst has achieved in the field of sculpture by this body of work. The links below reveal the visual splendour of the exhibition and much interesting background.
1. ‘A disastrous Damien Hirst show in Venice’ by Andrew Russeth in Artnews posted 15/8/17 1:25pm
2. ‘Damien Hirst: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable review – beautiful and monstrous’ by Laura Cumming in The Guardian posted Sun 16th April 2017 3:00 EDT
3. ‘Damien Hirst, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, review: this spectacular failure could be the shipwreck of his career’ by Alastair Sooke posted 6th April 2017 1:00pm
4. ‘Damien Hirst set back art by 100 years, says Henry Moore’s daughter’ by Mark Brown in The Guardian 27th Feb 2015 12:25 EST

‘Fiction Architecture’ (Paper presented at the April 2015 national conference of the Popular Culture and American Culture Associations in New Orleans)


What is narrative in art, music, sculpture and architecture? It is the representation of an image, sound, shape or form which suggests a story. Narrative may be fictional or nonfictional. And it can be represented in all artistic styles from abstract through to highly realistic.

b0106800_2075826An example of narrative in music is ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Ralph Vaughn Williams. As the notes go higher and higher the imagination of the listener is able to picture a bird rising on thermal currents into the sky. I suspect that the music does not refer to any particular lark but rather to a fictional lark of the imagination. However if we listen to Steve Reich’s work ‘Different Trains’, he describes the narrative as documentary because it includes actual voice recordings of passengers.




jules george afganistanWar artists, in this case Jules George, are entrusted with the task of recording actual scenes of battle. The narrative here is documentary, and the introduction of a fictional narrative would not be acceptable.





portrait_heath_archibald_prize_2008_artist_vincent_fantauzzo_850-547x400The portrait of Heath Ledger (2008) by Vincent Fantauzzo is a portrait and is therefore a nonfiction work. Interestingly he incorporates a fictional strategy of using two other viewpoints of Ledger to represent ‘voices’ which he hears in his head. This may be called ‘creative nonfiction’, which I will go into later.





Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973Next we will look at ‘The Weeping Woman’ by Picasso. We may not know why she is weeping but we feel sympathetic and are pulled into her story. This painting is a response to an actual situation, and so may be classified as having a nonfiction narrative.





h_nelson_statue_200In sculpture there is a long tradition of representing nonfiction narrative, as in this lifelike representation of Admiral Lord Nelson.






w223648566Sculpture can also contain a fictional narrative, such as this rat by British street artist Banksy. Notice that while all the components of this sculpture are nonfiction (the rat, the cap, the paint brush and the pack) they are brought together within a fictional narrative framework.






1304516017-gail-des-jardin-1000x664And in architecture we can find a good example of narrative in Charles Moore’s ‘Piazza d’Italia’, built in New Orleans in the mid nineteen seventies, where Roman arches and a map of Italy combine to tell a story about the Italian influence in the area’s cultural development.

Narrative is not always a significant part of artistic expression, and even when it is present, it may be unacknowledged by the artist. In architecture most buildings show no clear expression of narrative. In the Piazza d’Italia however we see a rare example of architecture shaped by a narrative which is expressed in a highly literal way.

While narrative in literature may be nonfiction or fiction, narrative in architecture is almost always nonfiction. When starting to read a text in literature we are used to asking the question ‘Is this fiction, or is it factual?’ When entering a new building we just accept that this is the architect’s idea of how a building should be designed in order to be cost effective, ecologically sustainable, and watertight. Fiction does not enter into our thinking.


ch2-melbourne-oz-council-house-2-ch2-melbourne-1The Melbourne building called Council House 2 is a good example of this.

There is quite an overt narrative which is drawn from the function of the building. You can see how the various sustainable features have been expressed and made elegant, such as the vertical ventilation stacks. This building has a nonfiction narrative relating to sustainability which connects with a meta-narrative about global warming.

While some narratives spring from function, others spring from the purpose of the building. Again choosing the Piazza d’Italia, this narrative was generated by the desire to create an identifiable place around which a number of speculative office buildings would be developed.



250px-Lucy2011The Italian theme was chosen primarily from the point of view of creating an identity for a commercial proposition in much the same way that Lucy the Elephant was built to attract people to a real estate development at Margate in New Jersey in 1881.

However the elephant building is different in one respect: the elephant form is only a way of attracting attention. There isn’t anything about an elephant that says ‘real estate’






CALAStailopup_falkMore common are buildings which have a visible form closely related to their purpose, such as the Tail o’ the Pup kiosk, or the coffee pot shape of Bob’s Java Jive.

This type of building was most common in California in the 1920’s and 1930’s when there were literally hundreds built to attract attention from passing traffic.





Tacoma_-_Bob's_Java_Jive_03They have been lovingly documented in Jim Heimann’s book ‘California Crazy and Beyond’.








257564-big-pineappleAustralia has a number of such buildings, most famously the Big Pineapple.










2010041310280162In recent times there have been a number of quite extravagant commercial buildings advertising their wares, as in the case of the headquarters of the Longaberger Basket company.







1024px-Las_Vegas_NY_NY_HotelSome, like Lucy the Elephant, have no apparent connection between form and purpose. An example is the New York New York hotel and casino in Las Vegas, which replicates iconic New York buildings simply to create a spectacle.

So far we have dealt with narratives generated by function and purpose, and now I would like to introduce a third category: context.





5451367373_4689119889_bA building near mountains may be shaped to echo the mountains (architect Robyn Boyd in this case); a building near red brick buildings may be constructed also of red bricks; an infill house in a street of three storey terrace houses may respond to context by also being three stories high.






IMG_5581A Hollywood starlet who built her house on the beach in the shape of a ship and lighthouse has certainly adopted a narrative approach to context.






imagesCAGGBDLRAnd this building designed in Hollywood to look like a house where a witch in the story of Hansel and Gretel might live is a good example of a narrative response to cultural context because of the nature of the film industry in the vicinity.





356482-0312e876-01a9-11e4-8a13-c9890f82f8cdThe Gagadju Crocodile Holiday Inn in Australia, which appears from the air to be a giant crocodile, is responding to the Aboriginal cultural and ecological context.

A building with a narrative which responds to context is nonfiction because it ‘comments’ on the actual circumstances which surround it, illuminating the context in some way.

It seems surprising that fictive ideas generated by the function, purpose or context of buildings can exist in buildings which have nonfiction ‘narrative frameworks’. However if we compare architecture with literature we can draw an analogy here with the work of Lee Gutkind and his concept of creative nonfiction writing. Even though a topic is nonfiction it can still be explored using all kinds of fictive proposals and re-enactments. For example the nonfiction genre of biography can contain a fair degree of fictive speculation and dot-joining. Another analogy is that of the advertising industry, which often uses fictional scenarios within the nonfiction framework of the advertisement. When we look at a hot dog shaped building selling hot dogs we are looking at the same thing: a fictional narrative (Let’s pretend this building is a hot dog!) subordinated to a nonfiction narrative framework (‘We sell hot dogs’).

Everywhere we look we find that fictive narratives are subordinated to the main paradigm in architecture, which is nonfiction. And despite the fact that we architects enjoy these kinds of structures, which we label ‘programmatic buildings’, we tend to look down on them because they are a popular culture phenomenon, and retreat to the safe ground of ‘high architecture’. How can we escape this entrapment in the nonfiction paradigm? And how can we elevate the status of literally represented narrative ideas in architecture so that programmatic buildings of all kinds are given the respect they deserve?

First it is necessary to accept the analysis set out in the arguments I have made: that virtually all current architecture is nonfiction even when it contains fictive narratives. Second, lessons must be drawn from the history of literature, specifically from the birth of the novel, which I am about to discuss. Third, there needs to be a paradigm shift to allow a new architectural category which, like the novel, is based on pretence, and in which fiction narratives have free rein according to the architects’ imaginings.

RobinsonCrusoePrior to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, English language fiction prose comprised forms such as folk tales, the texts of plays, short stories, and translations of picaresque works such as the Decameron and Don Quixote. Initially the novel was a kind of hoax. Defoe’s novels were not published under his name, but purported to be ‘true accounts’ of his heroes. Naturally the readers understood that this was tongue-in-cheek: they knew they were dealing with pretence, not a documentary account. From this analogy, it is possible to propose the birth of a category in architecture which can be called ‘fiction architecture’ where make believe narratives can have free rein, freed from merely being responses to function, purpose or context. Like books, buildings can then be classified as fiction architecture or nonfiction architecture.

Architecture is 300 years behind literature: it has a lot of catching up to do, in my opinion.

What, then, does fiction architecture look like? And I am not talking about futuristic drawings or descriptions of buildings, which is architectural fiction. In ‘fiction architecture’ the ideas are expessed through the fabric of the building for the contemplation of occupants and visitors.



The Greek Village House

The first example I will show from my own work goes back to 1985 and is called the Greek Village House. The owners had bought a block of land near Macedon, a small town about an hour’s drive north-west of Melbourne in Victoria. There were a number of stipulations from the owners including lots of winter sun and mud brick walls throughout. I was troubled at the time by the notion that international holiday travel was only one step away from colonialism because tourist invaders would cheerfully plunder photographs without compensation and carry them off to their home lands.

greek%20original%20photo%20300As it happened the owners of the block of land had a wonderful collection of photographs of streets and houses on Greek islands which they had taken on a recent holiday. In what may be interpreted as a further act of plundering I was seized with the urge to recreate one of the photos as closely as possible, as the interior hall and stairway of the house.







greek-village-house-plan-g-and-fWorking in plan, I recreated the street in the photo and adapted the houses to each become a room in the new house. The plan grew like the plan of a village might grow over time as each house is built. I set this plan under a large tent-like roof which radiated from the centre of the plan, enabling the parapet roofs in the original photo to be expressed. What results is a piece of fiction architecture on the theme of tourism. Like a novel it deals with ideas and issues but does not necessarily put forward any particular line of argument. The owners, their guest and visitors were left to contemplate their own opinions within a narrative of make believe. The shower recess even has a map of the Greek islands made of tiles.
































The Lighthouse

The second example is The Lighthouse. Not far from the Greek Village house rises Mt.Macedon and I was struck by the way it appeared like an island set in a sea of land. The site was badly located for winter sun and I wanted to use a giant periscope to pull sunshine down onto the land. A vague memory of reading an article by a feminist artist about nineteenth century objects in the landscape and how they were often innately phallic and implicitly patriarchal must have assisted at this point in helping me form the idea that the house could be a lighthouse in reverse, where light entered at the top and was reflected down into the rooms below. Reponse to context was important in all this but my idea transcended this consideration and took flight the moment that make believe entered the picture.

docu0040Not content to represent a generic lighthouse I began a process of looking at books on lighthouses and chose one to copy. It was a very small lighthouse and I had to make it quite a bit bigger in order to fit rooms into it.





lighthouse%20plan%2075I drew a sketch plan to show the owners Bruce and Alison, and they accepted the concept.

I was fortunate that Dr.Mirjana Lozanovska, who has completed a Ph.D study of the relationship between architecture and feminism, was working in our office at the time. She suggested that the Age of Enlightenment was a dark age for feminism. Rousseau’s views about the education of Emile differed greatly from his ideas about the upbringing of Sophie.

The design explores phallocentricity from the time of Plato through to the current period of feminist critique. The notion of the centrality of patriarchy under the scrutiny of feminism is represented by the lighthouse form under the gaze of the cottage windows, where the cottage represents the site of female economic power, prior to the rise of industrialised manufacture. The place between the cottages and the lighthouse tower is a village green with a pump, a now defunct female public realm where women communicated and exercised collective power in the village.






1837844ao large from westInternal view east 150Mirror%20stair%20looking%20down%20150Stair%20looking%20down%20150Lighthouse%20from%20N%20150























The lighthouse tower, where normally the light of male knowledge is ejaculated into the world, in this case functions in the opposite way to receive the sun’s rays and reflect them downwards into a ‘Plato’s Cave’ Living room where the fireplace and television are located. This could signify the possibility of an egalitarian concept of enlightenment, rather than one which is the preserve of ‘enlightened’ males who have climbed the stairway to the panorama above. The Lighthouse, appearing in the landscape as if it were an emblem of patriarchy, is actually a critique rather than an affirmation.

From all this it is clear that once a fictional starting point is adopted in architecture a great deal can unfold.

The Lighthouse at Mt.Macedon can be seen as a successor to the tugboat and lighthouse home in Los Angeles shown earlier, but with a narrative freed from merely reflecting context.


The Gryphon house extension

The third example is The Gryphon. This house extension looms over an existing red brick Edwardian house in the Melbourne seaside suburb of Elwood.

Sketch of Gryphon black and whiteThe owners Claire and Mark wanted something fanciful to make a lovely place for foster children and their only indication of the aesthetics was to say that they liked Antonio Gaudi’s work. My father became terminally ill in England and I travelled there to be with him and attend his funeral. I had a chance to visit the Casa Mila, the Casa Battlo and the Parc Guell, and found them to be deeply serious and beautiful. Some time after returning to Australia I awoke in the middle of the night and drew an image of a birds head towering over the house.

I also drew a plan and elevation, then went back to sleep. Claire and Mark responded with excitement and this fictional narrative took flight, transforming itself into a mythical beast.



IMG_7223IMG_6935 - Copy (800x533)IMG_6933IMG_7003





1_1185342805There are many precedents for buildings shaped like animals such as the Big Duck poultry shop in California.






DSC_0479640px-Giant_KoalaIn Australia there is the Big Merino and the Giant Koala. While these precedents have narratives constrained by their commercial nonfiction purpose, the Gryphon narrative has free rein.






The Milk Carton house extension

The fourth example of fiction architecture is a house extension in the Melbourne inner city suburb of Brunswick. The extension is on the side of an existing Edwardian weatherboard house. The owners Jen and Neil wanted a two storey building with bathroom and toilet downstairs and a studio upstairs. I was given no directions on aesthetics but I could not help noticing that these people had ‘attitude’. I wondered if this was the place to do something I had always wanted to do: build a house in the shape of a food package. The footprint sort of fitted, and the height was okay for a Tetra Pak as long as it was chopped a third the way up the carton. I made a model using a real milk carton, cutting out windows and folding up sunshades.

























Everything was immediately right, even the graphics on the carton, which mentioned such contentious words as ‘pure’, ‘unhomogenised’ and ‘low fat’. And because milk is white, there was no shortage of symbolism to be grappled with. I particularly liked the way this object came directly from our own kitchen table and seemed to say a lot about the puritanical times we live in.

DSC01141The Milk Carton can be compared to several commercial milk kiosks in the shape of milk bottles. This example is the Benwah Milk Bottle building in Spokane, Washington. By contrast with the Milk Carton, this milk bottle is tied closely to the nonfiction narrative of an advertising strategy.










The Rocket House

The fifth and final example is the Rocket House. Designed for Bruce and Alison as a retirement home after they moved from the Lighthouse to a more gently sloping block further west at Woodend, it was an opportunity to follow another fictional narrative which I have been interested in for a long time. A spaceship or some other kind of large rocket appears to have crashed into the hillside and then has been occupied and converted to a dwelling.

IMG_0121 (640x427)IMG_0187 (640x427)IMG_0222 (640x427)IMG_0467 (640x427)IMG_0272 (640x427)
Visitors to the house have to ponder how it could have happened and what it signifies. I am happy for multiple interpretations to emerge. Perhaps the owners are aliens, or perhaps the survivors of a failed expedition to Mars. Personally I get satisfaction from the idea that the crashed rocket might represent the ‘coming down to earth’ of mid twentieth century ambitions to conquer the universe, and the realization that there are limits to growth and the use of resources.



The five projects shown demonstrate that architecture incorporating fiction narratives can be achieved, beyond the constraints of function, purpose and context. Within a fictional narrative framework, ideas may be developed and expressed freely, as occurs in the form of the novel in literature.



Picture of lark ascending

Jules George Afganistan war picture

Heath Ledger

Picasso ‘The Weeping Woman’

Admiral Lord Nelson

Banksy Bronze Rat

Piazza d’Italia (a)

Council house 2

Piazza d’italia (b)×664.jpg

Lucy the elephant

Tail o’ the pup

Bob’s Java Jive

The Big Pineapple

The Big Basket (Longaberger Company Headquarters)

New York New York Hotel and Casinos, Las Vegas

Tower Hill Reserve Visitor Centre, Tower Hill, Victoria by Robin Boyd

Irvin Willat Studio (Hansel and Gretel witch’s house) by motion picture designer Harry Oliver, 1921

Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn, Jabiru

Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Pittsburg, founded by Lee Gutkind in 1993

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, London, 1720

Photos of the Greek Village house by Simon Thornton

Photos of the Lighthouse by Simon Thornton

Trancas Beach Tugboat and Lighthouse dwelling, Los Angeles

Illustrated in Jim Heimann, California Crazy and Beyond: roadside vernacular architecture, 2nd ed. San Francisco, 2001, 41

Photos of the Gryphon house extension by Simon Thornton and John Gollings

The Big Duck, Long Island

The Giant Koala, Dadswell Bridge, Victoria, Australia

The Big Merino, Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia

Photos of the Milk Carton house extension by Simon Thornton, Mark Munro and Neil Davis

Milk Bottle Kiosk, Spokane, Washington

Photos of the Rocket House by Simon Thornton


This paper was presented to the National Convention of the Popular Culture and American Culture Associations at New Orleans on April 3 2015. This is a slightly revised version dated 14th April 2015.

Copyright Simon Thornton 2015.

Contact the author at

Simon Thornton is a director of Simon and Freda Thornton P/L Architects in Alphington, Melbourne, Victoria 3078, Australia.




Article published in Architectural Review Asia Pacific: ‘The Case for Fiction Architecture’

Simon Sellars, the previous editor or AR, recently invited me to write an article for the magazine, which gave me an opportunity to summarise some of what I have written on this blog since 2009.

Subsequently Sara Lewis has published it on the website Australian Design Review.

Before trawling through this blog, reading this article will give a good summary.

Here is the link:

I welcome comments!

Diagram of fiction architecture paradigm

In this diagram the current architectural paradigm is represented on the left, and may be described as creative non-fiction, which is documentary in nature and didactic in tone. Where overt narratives are introduced they usually express ideas which are subservient to context, function or purpose, and are justified in this way.  On the right hand side the possibilities of architecture are extended by the acceptance of the premise of fiction, which underpins the novel in literature. Briefly, this is the notion that the intellectual content of a work may be based on make-believe and pretence.

For further elaboration, read through the posts on this blog from July 2009.

Creative non-fiction architecture!

I have discovered an interesting website which has helped with the difficult task of differentiating between fiction architecture and non-fiction architecture. It is hosted by Lee Gutkind who helped establish the category in writing known as ‘creative nonfiction’. Rather than paraphrase what he says, I have included the address (see link below). Although it is hard exactly to define creative non-fiction writing, the main tenet is that it is loyal to fact. However that does not prevent the writer from adopting a creative approach to the way in which the facts are presented, and putting themself into the story as narrator or participant.

Using this literary analogy, I think that ‘creative non-fiction architecture’ is a good description of architecture which is enlivened by narrative responses to purpose, function or context and which involves a design process influenced by ideas and aesthetics drawn from eclectic sources (usually unacknowledged), but which stops short of an independent fictional narrative incorporating an appropriated formal/spatial concept which is acknowledged and represented literally. (See also ‘Fiction and non-fiction narratives in architecture’.)

Why bother differentiating between these two types of architecture? My sense is that architecture is locked into a straight-jacket by the non-fiction paradigm (even when seen as creative non-fiction) because there is an underlying assumption that narrative ideas must spring from purpose, function or context. The fiction architecture paradigm liberates narrative from these constraints.

Lee Gutkind’s article is at

Milk Carton house extension, Brunswick, Melbourne

The pendulum swing between libertarianism and puritanism recurs throughout history. During my lifetime I have seen the swinging sixties, the laid-back seventies and the indulgent eighties give way to a period of relative severity with regard to the ethics of environmental responsibility and social justice, along with a move towards restraint in eating and drinking, and the stigmatization of smoking.

In sexuality the emphasis is now on responsibility rather than excess, and woe betide the adult who casts an interested eye towards someone wearing a school uniform. In art, this caution has extended to controversy over the photographic work of Bill Henson.

Architecture in particular is subject to a severe rationale. Footprints, carbon and building plan alike, should be small for the sake of the planet. Eco-puritanism is now a style of design, involving rectilinear plans, constrained spaces, recycled timber and ‘natural’ colours chosen to harmonise with new-growth green. While I agree wholeheartedly with improving the sustainability of architecture, I think it is important to stop short of creating a style for ‘green’ architecture because it closes off analysis and new solutions.

One way to avoid a repetitious approach is to search for a fictive departure point. Rather than embarking on yet another piece of documentary architecture dealing with the topic of sustainability, a fictional narrative grants a critical perspective. In the case of this project the site presented the opportunity for me to deal with a long-term preoccupation with shaping buildings in the form of used food packages. The new energy that brought this proposal to life at this time was a link with art history.

The tradition of still-life painting embraces the notion that art should reflect the actual surroundings and normal artifacts found in everyday life. For the Dutch painters of the sixteenth century this meant cutlery, fruit, vegetables, fabric and dead birds. For Andy Warhol it meant the cans of Campbell’s Soup that provided easy-to-prepare ‘nutritious’ food, readily available from a supermarket nearby.

Shifting forward fifty years, to another continent, the staple product that stands out on our suburban kitchen table is Pure Unhomogenised Organic Low-Fat milk. Furthermore, the notion of ‘still life found object’ is applied to architecture in this case rather than to art practice, in a move where the architect and viewer adopt the premise, widely expected in painting, that the narrative within the work is fictional.

The Milk Carton can be described as fiction architecture because visitors take part in the pretence that they are entering a giant Tetra-Pak. This allows them an overview of the wider philosophical landscape within which our current set of assumptions about architecture lies.

The spaces are small and mainly white, enlightened with milk drop-shaped light fittings. The stair is hardly wide enough to allow access. Light abounds and the footprint is small.

The graphics on the carton refer to ‘good’ qualities such as ‘pure’, ‘organic’, ‘low-fat’ and ‘unhomogenised’.

Milk is the primary source of nourishment for the newborn and hence has connotations of goodness, naturalness and nutrition. The theme of ‘milk’ also allows us to contemplate whiteness, and therefore consistency and untaintedness, and other associations that this colour has. Whiteness implies its opposite, blackness, which of course has its own set of connotations. The two together allow the possibility of oppositional thinking and, when taken to an extreme, puritanism.

When puritanical attitudes are challenged, history shows that fanaticism may arise, particularly when fuelled by a desire for the acquisition of property, money or political advancement. It is well-known that witches were drowned or burned, but it is not often mentioned that their estates – in many cases of considerable value – were also confiscated.

The word ‘unhomogenised’ is replete with nuances.  The implications of the phrase go beyond the dairy farm to our culture in general. We used to believe in assimilation of migrants and the elimination of aboriginality, moving in the direction of homogeneity. This is now considered a very bad attitude, and so the word ‘unhomogenised’ engenders a generalized feeling of well-being, as well as the more specific attribute of reducing the degree to which fats in the milk contribute to fatty tissue in the body.

This brings us to the phrase ‘low fat’. Perhaps the most disturbing prejudice of our food-obsessed culture is the notion that fat is bad, and therefore fat people are bad. Fat people are immoral! They have clogged arteries and heart disease. The thinner you are, the fitter you are, and the fitter you are, the better you are. Thin people are morally pure.

‘Pure’ is the name of the product itself. Rather than calling it ‘milk’, which is associated with its high-floating cousin ‘cream’, and therefore early death and extreme obesity, the product has assumed a more abstract quality. You can’t argue with ‘pure’. It is free of pollutants such as pesticides. In terms of morality, it is free from sin. In farming terms, it is ‘organic’. Out of manure emerges pure white ambrosia.

These thoughts are just a sample of the themes that may be contemplated by a person who takes part in the pretence that they are dealing with a gargantuan beverage container.

I hope that enjoyment will flow abundantly.

Footnote: In the accompanying photographs the large upper floor windows face the northern winter sun and the rear yard. The vertical screens are to protect the privacy of the neighbouring back yards. The extension is to the east side of the house and the south façade, shown in the first photograph, faces the street.

Credits: The Milk Carton house extension would not have been possible without the owners Jen Carmichael and Neil Davis, Craig Jones the builder, all the subbies and the sign writing team. Special credit to Neil for his meticulous work modifying and adapting the graphic design. Spilt milk landscaping designed and executed by Jen and Neil. Photos by Neil. Thanks also to Clara Friedhoff, my trusty assistant.

There is a YouTube video of the extension combined with commentary from 3RRR community radio ‘The Architects’ program at

Two Digital Tigers is a good example of non-fiction sculpture

In trying to establish a paradigm for architecture which acknowledges the validity of fiction narratives, I have recognised that we are used to the idea that narratives in art and sculpture are usually fictional, and I think that there may even be a general assumption that they are always fictional. However portraits and realistic landscape painting, and sculptures of politicians and historic leaders, are examples of non-fiction narratives in art. But it is not only in conservative approaches that we find narratives justified by purpose.

A good contemporary example of a non-fiction, or documentary, narrative in contemporary sculpture is Two Digital Tigers, by LAVA (Laboratory for Visionary Architecture) and Jennifer Kwok. This beautiful work, utilising lantern-making techniques and lit with LED’s was created to mark the start of the lunar Year of the Tiger, and to draw attention to the fact that tigers are an endangered species. The World Wildlife fund has taken this work to Asia and the United States to raise awareness of the issue.

Architects are used to non-fiction narratives: perhaps that is why this venture into sculpture by LAVA took a documentary approach.

More info at

The Lighthouse: Fiction architecture for sale

One of the things that happens to architects as they grow older is that the buildings they design are sold to new owners. Bruce and Alison Dudon have lived in this house since it was designed for them and built in 1991, and it is now time to move on. I include it here because it is a good example of what I mean by Fiction Architecture. Even the premise of a lighthouse which is on a hill far away from any water is demonstrably fictional and immediately liberates the mind of a visitor from mundane concerns.

The Lighthouse

When I first visited the steeply-sloping site there was a cleared area of flat ground remaining from a previous house which had burned down in the 1983 bushfires. It was cold and there was frost on the ground even though it was lunchtime. The trees were filled with sunshine and I thought the house should ‘reach up’ and, perhaps using mirrors like a periscope, reflect light down into the rooms. I can’t remember exactly when this idea of a tower morphed into a lighthouse, but once the image became stuck in my mind I knew that it would not be easy to dismiss it! I had a sinking feeling that other members of my profession would not be impressed, but after a while I started to enjoy this thought. I was also unsure how Bruce and Alison would respond.

Ideas which arrive like this come from the intuitive regions of the brain, and it is only afterwards that it becomes apparent how they address all kinds of realities. Alison had said that she was torn between living at their new block, or living by the ocean. Mount Macedon rises up out of a plain in a similar way to an island rising from the sea, and the house is seen from a distance like a lighthouse is seen from the water. Visibility is an attribute of a site like this one. As we are nowhere near the sea, the presence of a lighthouse  is about other things than keeping boats safe. Lighthouses are a masculine form, with light shining out from the top, through lenses. Bruce was at that time the proprietor of a shop selling spectacles. Unlike a real lighthouse, this house has a room at the top for the purpose of looking out at the view rather than housing a light to be seen from a distance. Lenses such as spectacles and binoculars may be used to look at the view more effectively.

Light is a metaphor for knowledge, and this fact is particularly potent in a beacon warning ships of danger. In this lighthouse-in-reverse the rays of the sun enter the top of the tower, which serves as a Study, and reflect down the stairway. Each side of the stair is lined with mirrors. Plato links knowledge with light in his Analogy of the Cave, in which he compared normal existence to living in a cave with a fire illuminating shadow puppets which cast shadows on the wall. To become enlightened, a person must leave this unreal world and go up into the sunlight of truth and see the world as it actually is. For Plato, enlightenment was a male concern. In this house the Sitting room, located below the Study, and having a fireplace, may be understood as the cave. The journey up the stairs to the panoramic view above may be experienced as an architectural setting of the philosophical goal of enlightenment.

As I researched lighthouses, I noticed that the tower is usually accompanied by cottages. The design of the house includes three ‘cottages’ adjacent to the tower. In pre-industrial times the cottage was a place of manufacture. Women made objects which they owned and sold on their own terms, so a cottage can be seen as a symbol of female power. Alison is a primary school teacher and therefore constructs and disseminates knowledge. The relationship between male and female power is a major theme in our times, and the design embodies this in a symbolic form. As artist Narelle Jubelin has pointed out, nineteenth century lighthouses are emblems of patriarchy in the landscape. This house reflects something different: the challenge of feminist thought to the previously unquestioned dominance of male power.

Inside the house the space between the cottages and the tower, which serves as a passage, is configured like a walkway between buildings. The passage widens out to a space like a village green; this is the Dining room. This space represents the possibility of a female public realm such as used to exist around the village pump, where opinions were expressed and decisions made. An antique pump located in a niche in the west wall of this space acknowledges this understanding .

 The visual imagery for this house was derived from a photograph of ‘Old Smokey’, a lighthouse built at Trial Bay in the late nineteenth century to a standard design. As it was a very small lighthouse and accompanying one-room building, it was necessary to enlarge the proportions quite a bit. This surprised me, as I expected to be scaling down from lighthouse to house.

The house is designed to provide the owners with many ways to experience the spectacular views. As well as the panoramic view at the top, there are large windows divided into dozens of small panes, and small windows oriented in particular directions. These windows ‘convert’ the cottages into parts of a  notional lunatic asylum, and refer to the role of these institutions in suppressing challenges from women to the existing paradigms of authority by classifying them as insane and under the power of the dark force of the moon.

There is a frameless sheet of glass between the tower and the Main bedroom which appears to be a nothing more than a gap between buildings, so that the view itself is emphasised, rather than the frame through which it is seen. Other kinds of views are available (along with slight vertigo) from the walkway around the top of the tower, and from the wharf-like deck leading to the front door.

The design of the house very carefully follows typical details of rendered stone or brick architecture from the mid-nineteenth century, although the construction method is pine stud framing incorporating insulation and clad with cement sheet and a textured finish. The pylons supporting the south side of the house imitate cast iron pipe construction, but are actually thin steel posts within compressed cement sheet pipe sections, studded with dome head bolts to imitate rivets.

As in all fiction, deception is rife. The chimney of the fireplace is carefully disguised as the vent at the top of the lighthouse. The stair to the basement room is concealed within the coat cupboard at the entry into the sitting room.

Each visitor to The Lighthouse brings with them many lighthouse memories and associations, and the house acts as a catalyst to trigger these. In my experience ideas which are intuitive are likely to have this kind of potency. As Annie Stevens said in her wonderful article in The Age titled Guided by the Light (18/9/2010) ‘The lighthouse, as Virginia Woolf reasoned, is an almost perfect receptacle for projected symbolism. With the isolation, the wild ocean that surrounds it, the old tales of shipwrecks, its guiding role and the faint, salty whiff of madness, it’s ripe for plumbing for hidden meanings.’

Acknowledgement: While designing this house I was assisted in our studio by Dr.Mirjana Lozanovska who contributed many insights into the relationship between the evolution of feminist theory and the metaphor linking light with knowledge.

Fiction and non-fiction narratives in architecture

There are many examples of buildings which pretend to be other things: large toilet bowls, elephants, pineapples, and so on. These forms are often described as being part of a ‘narrative’. The purpose of these literal representations is to advertise or draw attention to a commercial enterprise, or to refer to and signify a building’s function, or to acknowledge a valued aspect of the building’s context. While they seem fictional when compared to normal architecture I think that their narratives are non-fiction because of this functional or contextual aspect. To explain further, they are like ads on TV: even though they are highly creative there is no freedom to explore the narrative for its own sake.

Here is a nineteenth century example:

Lucy the Elephant, Margate, NJ 
Lucy the Elephant is a six-story elephant-shaped architectural folly constructed of wood and tin sheeting in 1882 by James V. Lafferty in Margate City, New Jersey,  two miles (3.2 km) south of Atlantic City in an effort to sell real estate and attract tourism. The idea of an animal-shaped building was innovative, and in 1882 the U.S. Patent Office granted Lafferty a patent giving him the exclusive right to make, use or sell animal-shaped buildings for seventeen years. Lucy is the oldest example of zoomorphic architecture. Lafferty, in fact, constructed several elephant-shaped buildings.             – Wikipedia
During the Post-modern period, the work of Robert Venturi, Charles Moore and Charles Jencks, among others, broadened the terms of reference for architecture to allow the inclusion of such non-fiction narrative themes (preferably as surface decoration rather than three-dimensional representation).

There are some sophisticated and serious contemporary examples of non-fiction narratives, such as Daniel Libeskind’s use of the pentangle  in the design of the Jewish museum in Berlin, and the shards of an ‘exploded globe’ at his Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester.

In Fiction Architecture, as I am proposing it, the architect adopts the same strategies, such as literal representation, and shifts in scale, but the narrative themes are independent of the purpose,  function or physical context of the building and can therefore be described as fictional rather than non-fictional. As in novel writing, it is the development of the author’s ideas which becomes primary.

How do we summon up the courage to cross this line from non-fiction to fiction expression? What is the nature of this line?

It is not a question of crossing from truth to untruth, as fiction expresses truth as well as (and, some would argue, better than) non-fiction. It is crossing from the premise of honesty to the premise of pretence. To do this we need to let go of the idea that we must always be ‘architecturally honest’. And we must also let go of the idea that, since mock-Georgian architecture is merely shallow pretence, therefore all pretence must be shallow. I hold the view that it is better if we are not always honest in architecture, and that not all pretence in architecture is shallow. Therefore it is possible to cross the line and pursue Fiction Architecture.

For some reason we are not as careful to make this fiction/non-fiction distinction in art and sculpture as we are in literature. I think this is because the non-fiction works of art and sculpture are now vastly outnumbered by the fiction works, so that, when we experience any work in one of these media, we assume we are dealing with a fictional narrative. Only occasionally do we come across a  portrait or landscape or wildlife image which is intended to be a literal record of what the artist saw. Only rarely in sculpture do we see a life-like representation of a particular person, intended as a record of  physical and psychological attributes. By contrast, in literature (and in the documentary format in film and television) we often come across scientific studies, cookery books, travel guides, text books, manuals, and so on, hence the constant concern that exists for distinction between fiction and non-fiction works within these media.

Interestingly, some architects envy painting and sculpture for its formal freedom, but have never analysed that these forms are generated by fictional narratives. Without the confidence to pursue fictional narratives, the architect remains restricted to what can be explained in terms of purpose, function and physical context.

In music, there is little concern as to whether the narrative (either as song, song with accompaniment, or melodic narrative) is fictional or not. J.S.Bach’s ‘St.Matthew Passion’ is an example of a non-fiction narrative because believers consider Christ’s life to be fact not fiction. Steve Reich, in ‘Different Trains’, evokes the tragedy of Nazi concentration camps, and therefore  the work contains a non-fiction narrative. Brett Dean’s opera ‘Bliss’ is based on Peter Carey’s novel of the same name, and therefore the work contains a fictional narrative. These distinctions between non-fiction and fiction narratives in music are seldom made, as they matter little to the modern audience, but they are of interest and importance in trying to define how we have become stuck in the non-fiction narrative mode in architecture established during the period of post-modern theoretical development. 

Now hold on to your hat while we consider a further complexity. Within non-fiction narratives such as documentary films, re-enactments may be inserted. While these require a fictive approach to space, decor, clothing and detail of speech and gesture, these re-enactments are intended to be understood by the audience as protraying true situations and stories. The same procedure takes place in some examples of non-fiction narrative in architecture, such the ‘reconstructed’ bomb craters in ARM’s Melbourne Shrine Visitor Centre.

Similarly, in architecture which has a non-fiction narrative due to the building’s use as an advertisement (such as the New York NewYork hotel and casino in Las Vegas), we find re-enactments (reconstructions) of buildings and monuments which are clearly fabrications but are expected by the observer to be reasonably accurate replicas of the real thing.

In summary, then, narratives in architecture can be divided into two categories: non-fiction and fiction. Nearly all existing architecture contains non-fiction narratives, and if a narrative is consciously expressed in a building, it is explained in terms of the purpose, function or physical context of the building. A work of Fiction Architecture  is predicated on a narrative invented by the architect primarily for the contemplation and pleasure of the user.