Once Upon a Place conference on architecture and fiction October 2010 in Lisbon

Great news for all concerned with the relationship between architecture and fiction! (For those who are able to get there, anyway.)

The Once Upon a Place conference will explore a range of themes under the banner of  ‘Haunted Houses and Imaginary Cities’.

Keynote speakers include Pedro Gadanho (see http://shrapnelcontemporary.wordpress.com) and Peter Fournier who worked with Peter Cook on the Kunsthaus in Graz.

Conference dates are 12-14 October, see the conference website http://www.onceuponaplace.fa.utl.pt:80/

‘This notice is provided for general information. This blog is not affiliated or connected with the conference.

The birth of fiction architecture is similar to the birth of the novel

The basic idea of this blog is that a fictional mode of expression  should exist within architecture which is equivalent to the novel in literature.  So, how did the novel begin?

 The earliest ones were imitations of real accounts of adventures (eg Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe) and were originally published without the author’s name on them, but purported to be written by the ‘hero’. While most people would have been well aware of their fictional status, it is not unlikely that some readers would have thought they were real accounts!

Very soon the novel blossomed into a much fuller expression with complex plots, intimate descriptions of the thoughts and feelings of the characters, and the phenomenon of the ordinary person as hero.

It is hard to imagine life without novels but, before the eighteenth century, they didn’t exist.

It is this perspective that has led me to the position of proposing that a similar situation exists in the world of architecture at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and that there is a huge amount of pent-up energy amongst architects to explore a fictive mode of expression.

Like a novel, a work of fiction architecture is only possible if the architect adopts pretence as the starting point for the narrative aspects of the design. And like a novel, the building is ‘read’ as a pretence by the knowing viewer, and enjoyed as such.

Popular Fiction Architecture


Jo and Shaun Bennett neo-gothic house Grand Designs Feb 2009
A good example of Popular Fiction Architecture  is Joanne and Shaun’s Gothic house shown on the UK television program Grand Designs in 2009. In the emerging sub-genre of  Gothic Fiction Architecture, it embodies the desire of the owners for a sense of romance and history in what is, actually, a new building. Unlike the serious proposal to return to a Gothic expression which manifested itself in the work of Pugin and others in the early nineteenth century, which I would describe as non-fiction, this Gothic expression is clearly chosen by the owners for their pleasure and enjoyment, and is openly acknowledged as fiction. There is no imperative  that everyone should build in Gothic, or that the Gothic somehow embodies truth. This house is a pretence: it pursues a Gothic style. There is creativity shown in its composition by Joanne and architectural designer Gerald Sedgewick, however it remains within strict conventions, in the same way that much popular fiction writing does. There is a lack of open-ended exploration of the kind that I am advocating; it does not rise to the level of ‘new fiction architecture’.
Jo and Shaun Bennett stairs
Jo and Shaun Bennett fireplace
Jo and Shaun Bennett windows
Consistently the interior shown here adheres to the conventions of Gothic; there is no hybridisation or layering of other ideas. But like much good popular fiction, it is full of pleasure due to both its explorations and its restrictions. (Photos: Grand Designs website).
More examples of Popular Fiction Architecture to come when I get around to it. Send photos to simonthornton@smartchat.net.au

The author

This blog was started in February 2009 by Simon Thornton, a Melbourne architect and partner in Simon and Freda Thornton Architects.

The purpose is to nurture a new type of built architecture known as Fiction Architecture, and any interested person is welcome to submit comments, queries and suggestions.



‘Fiction architecture’  in the sense that I am proposing  may be defined as the expression of ideas through the medium of building, using strategies such as imitation, pretence, trickery and playful deception.

This differs from the main body of architecture, ‘non-fiction architecture’, which may be defined as the expression of ideas through the medium of building, using a direct, clear, honest and didactic approach.

Fiction architecture is not to be confused with architecture fiction writing (also called architectural fiction writing), where a novel or other piece of fiction writing  is organised around a plot or theme relating to architecture, or is an exploration of architectural themes. See works by Barry Maitland and Bruce Sterling.

Also, it should not be confused with imaginary or unbuilt architecture, or architectural drawings of a speculative kind.

Further, it should not be confused with non-fiction architecture which has been inspired by comic book depictions of future worlds, such as the influence of Dan Dare comics on British High Tech architecture (if indeed such influence actually exists). Nor should it be confused with ‘futuristic’ architecture deriving from earlier predictive work, such as the drawings of Archigram.

And again, for those who read architectural theory, it is not to be confused with Peter Eisenman’s idea that Modernism itself was a fiction. In my view Modernist architecture was generally didactic (instructive),  and was therefore a non-fiction expression. Like Marxist theory, Modernist theory may look naive and wrong in parts, but that does not turn it retrospectively into fiction. Documentary films may contain errors in fact or wrong beliefs, but that does not alter them from non-fiction to fiction. 


Fiction architecture may be subdivided into ‘popular fiction architecture’ such as houses built in the shape of castles, and the more intellectual and explorative ‘new fiction architecture’ which tends to be an open-ended exploration of fictive themes by an architect with a developed skill in design. (Here I have borrowed the word ‘new’ from ‘new music’, a term used by contemporary composers working within the discourse of classical music to describe contemporary compositions.)

Further genres include ‘science fiction architecture’, ‘historical fiction architecture’ and ‘fantasy fiction architecture’.

We need FICTION ARCHITECTURE as well as architecture fiction

The term ‘architecture fiction’ is gaining prominance as writers such as Bruce Sterling explore the potential of fiction writing to unveil and shape our future environment. Written and drawn fictions by Archigram are celebrated as examples of how this has occured. All of which is great. But what I am writing about here is something quite different!


FICTION ARCHITECTURE  is built work which embodies fictive ideas. This is distinct from architecture fiction, which is work on paper or in cyberspace which proposes a possible real future architecture and urbanism. They are different both in medium (one is architecture, the other is writing/drawing) and in intention (FICTION ARCHITECTURE is understood to be ‘built fiction’ and is to be enjoyed as such, while architecture fiction has the intention of revealing, or pushing the boundaries of,  non-fiction architecture).

FICTION ARCHITECTURE is a hard concept to grasp because, unlike in writing, where we are used to the fiction/non-fiction dichotomy, in architecture we are only used to one paradigm, which is that architects try to build seriously in the best way they know how, in the pursuit of firmness, commodity and delight. The idea of designing a building which is deliberately made to represent something else such as an aqueduct, tent, griffin, castle, rocket, lighthouse or bottle  is not generally accepted as valid practice.

In proposing FICTION ARCHITECTURE, I accept the validity of  ‘popular fiction architecture’ and build on it, rather than dismissing it in the way that most architects tend to, as inferior to serious architecture.  I am proposing a fork in the historical road, where architecture branches off into two practices, fiction and non-fiction, in the same way that writing has done. Up until now non-fiction architecture has been seen as legitimate, but fiction architecture has been denied any validity beyond the quaint or vernacular. My practise endeavours to elevate and legitimate fiction architecture.


Gallery of Fictive Architecture

Here are some examples of work by architects which display a fictive premise or tendency.

Let’s start with a building of my own which uses literal representation in a way which makes the architecture unambiguously fictive.

The Gryphon

The Gryphon The Gryphon  (Photo: Andrew Griffiths/Lens Aloft )
from street

The Gryphon, as it appeared in Green Magazine.  (Photo: Tamsin O’Neill)


The Gryphon is an extension to an existing house in Elwood in Melbourne. The design is generated from a fiction narrative unconnected with the context or function of the building. The primary organising form is that of a mythical creature with the head and wings of an eagle and the hind quarters of a lion.  In turning this form into a building, the language style of the Lockheed F-117A stealth fighter was appropriated.

 Through this complex symbolic form it is possible to explore our understanding of the relationship between ‘earth’ and ‘sky’, and the moral imperative to guard what is precious.  The interplay between our understanding of ‘house’ and our separate knowledge of the structure and form of ‘animal’ sets up an intellectual and emotional dialogue during exploration of the exterior and internal spaces.

The building also addresses our instinctive fear of large creatures, and may expose our repressed anxieties about our propensity to eat smaller creatures! Feelings more associated with relationships, such as fear and anxiety, as well as a sense of nurturing and fondness, are enabled by the formal likeness.

In the end each visitor, whether a child or adult,  engages with the building from their own unique history of associations, and creates their own response.     

Link: http://thorntonarchitecture.com/the%20gryphon%20extension.htm

 The Melbourne Recital Centre

Melbourne Recital Centre (photo © Peter Glenane/Major Projects Victoria 2008) Melbourne Recital Centre (photo © Peter Glenane/Major Projects Victoria 2008) by Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM)

The Melbourne Recital Hall is a precious object isolated from the outside world. The literally-represented polystyrene foam and bubblewrap packing provokes the viewer to consider the wider implications of the relationship between a timeless, spirited performance, and the ‘throw away’ container. Permanence and transience, what remains, and what is left behind, become questions to ponder.

The implied motion of the partly-withdrawn white ‘packing’ is a playful deception – a fictive gesture within a non-fiction narrative.

The change of scale to ‘supersize’ is a also fictive aspect.  As we enter the building we experience a converse Alice in Wonderland sense of having shrunk. 

Definitely one of my favourites.     

The Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance Visitor Centre

Melbourne Shrine of Rememberence Visitor Centre by Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM)  Photo by Ruuku H (Flickr) Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance Visitor Centre by Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM) : view from top of Shrine to entry courtyard of Visitor Centre.
View of Shrine from within the hole View of Shrine from within the crater seen above


This project is also by Ashton Raggatt McDougall. The project incorporates a non-fiction narrative (including fictive re-enactments) derived from the purpose of the building. The top photo shows  a fictive re-enactment of a shell or bomb crater adjacent to the original Shrine of Remembrance. This is repeated on the west side of the Shrine (not shown) and the two are linked with an underground chamber. This fictive spatial order echoes the architecture of the trenches and tunnels of war, and in so doing allows the visitor to connect with the  reality of being there.

The Mornington Centre


The Mornington Centre by Lyons.

In his article ‘Surface fiction: Lyons Architecture practice profile’ (Monument #37 ) Brent Allpress writes  ‘Lyons draw on a scenographic architectural tradition that can be traced back to the Picturesque movement of the eighteenth century. The picturesque image tended to efface its own artifice through an idealisation of ‘nature’ as a framed view. While Lyons also design more for the view than the plan, the fictive construction of the image is given overt prominence.’


The Aqueduct and Tent House

In  designing this house for a client who has spent most of her life running a die-casting factory with her late husband, I wanted to engage with engineering culture. It is hard to imagine a better example of the mind-set of the engineer than the construction of Roman aqueducts. Their approach seems to have been to connect the water source and destination by a straight line, at a slight descending angle, and not worrying about valleys and hills; they just ploughed right through them! Since the house site is very long and thin, I realised that the form of an aqueduct would fit well on the block, and if skewed to true north, would run from corner to corner.  Hollowed out, it would serve as a passage, allowing rooms and external spaces of various sizes to be located alongside it. In the tradition of carpenter gothic, the ‘aqueduct’ is entirely constructed of wood, but the exposed radially-sawn  hardwood weatherboads will turn a stony grey, giving the impression of weight.


Thinking about this weightiness reminded me of the book The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, where two ideas of existence are contrasted: Is a person’s action of no consequence and disappears into oblivion? Or should we act as if every action repeats heavily for all eternity, as Neitzche argued? This juxtaposition of lightness and heaviness suggested an architectural representation. As the aqueduct seemed to stand for repetition and heaviness, by contrast the rooms of the house could be in the form of tents – the lightest form of architecture. To refine the formal language of the house, I visited websites of contemporary Medieval pageants, and adopted the language style of the striped tents, and for the aqueduct part of the house, the aesthetic of the wooden battlements. 

This house invites reflections on conception, birth, death, time, morality, belief and faith within a fiction narrative unconnected with the context or purpose of the building.            


This gallery will be extended and updated.

Please send suggestions, photos and links to simonthornton@smartchat.net.au

What is architecture fiction? And what is fiction architecture?

Architecture fiction is something you write or draw.

Fiction architecture is built work which contains fictional ideas.