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.