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.

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.

Definitions

FICTION ARCHITECTURE

‘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. 

GENRES OF FICTION ARCHITECTURE

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!

It is called FICTION ARCHITECTURE.

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.