Let’s Put Narrative Back into Architecture

Architecture is dying, but not from neglect or economics. Ten percent of architects, and 14% of new graduates, were unemployed during the 2007-2009 Great Recession. At the end of 2016 unemployment was 2.5%. Construction spending has increased and building industry health indicators are steady. It wasn’t easy, but architects survived the worst economic downturn since 1929. In 2017, life is good again.

And yet, architecture is withering, socially. A series of essays in the British journal The Architectural Review sums it up: “…whereas until less than a century ago we seem to have no problem in creating buildings people liked … any candid assessment must accept that much, if not most, of what is being built today is pretty dismal”. Today’s architecture—what the AR calls “This thing of terror—is “devoid of social purpose.”

The critique is roughly the same as those leveled against glass box office buildings and sterile housing projects in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Modernism was a European reaction to the terror of World War I, transposed to America at the beginning of the next world war, and then abandoned when reductionist ideals of the machine age went unrealized. Public approval of the Modern Movement, never strong, waned in the 1980s.


Since then architecture has run a gauntlet of “isms,” from reinterpretations of local culture and context, to postmodern icons of historical allusion, to non-historic deconstructed buildings, to parametric blobs of computer-generated objects d’ art. Architecture has spent the last 75 years searching to regain the public’s interest, to reconnect buildings to culture, to rediscover its social purpose. It is still looking.


Michael Graves' San Juan Capistrano Library typifies the limits of architecture's search for meaningfulness. A Postmodern centerpiece, the building is also an example of regionalism, reinterpreting the neighboring Mission church's forms, colors and materials. The building likewise demonstrates phenomenology with outdoor reading spaces that evoke interior rooms. As much as I love this building, though, I'm pretty sure it's not going to change anyone's life. Photo courtesy of Alex Adam.
Michael Graves’ San Juan Capistrano Library typifies the limits of architecture’s search for meaningfulness. A Postmodern centerpiece, the building is also an example of regionalism, reinterpreting the neighboring Mission church’s forms, colors and materials. The building likewise demonstrates phenomenology with outdoor reading spaces that evoke interior rooms. As much as I love this building, though, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to change anyone’s life. Photo courtesy of Alex Adam.


While revolving door theories bewilder the public, the quest for meaningfulness confuses the profession. Architects don’t understand why the general populace dislikes or ignores the bulk of their work. From a behavioral perspective, though, the explanation is simple. Architecture’s malaise has little to do with style. The problem isn’t physical. It’s psychological.


It’s no coincidence that the twin arts of building shelter and constructing narrative intermeshed early in human development. Both were Darwinian responses to survival. There are two sure pathways to transfer evolutionary information from one generation to the next: DNA and storytelling. All living organisms rely on genetics, but (as far as we know) only humans employ both. Our ancestors discovered rote learning and memorizing facts had short shelf lives, but information delivered as myth and fable lived forever. In the words of Victor Hugo, architecture was “the great book of humanity,” a giant immersive storytelling device. Buildings were the world’s first graphic novels. Petrography vignettes of Neanderthal life  adorned the earliest rock dwellings. Architecture was carved, painted and illuminated in stories about how to thrive in the world. The social role of architecture was as teacher. Its blackboard were walls, floors and ceilings.


You can blame architecture’s decline on Adolf Loos, who declared in 1907 that ornament was a crime, a craft “no longer organically linked with our culture,” a waste of labor and material. Architects agreed, beginning the profession’s demise. Theorists have been trying to reverse architecture’s dwindling fortunes ever since, but they’ve missed the big picture. A brief survey of recent architectural movements makes this clear.


Postmodernists correctly sensed what was wrong—poor communication—but struggled with a solution. Their hypothesis: since earlier architecture seems to make better places than modern spaces, a return to classical symbology would yield more acceptable buildings. Indeed, some wonderful buildings arose in the 1980s, in particular those by Michael Graves and Robert A.M. Stern. Missing from rediscovered architectural linguistics, however, was something to say. Imagine a novel with arbitrary words randomly placed on pages.


Another near miss was phenomenology, which tried to evoke human emotional responses through form, texture, material and lighting. At it’s core was the same mechanic of action underlying stories. Unfortunately, without a working knowledge of behavioral psychology’s Transportation Theory (i.e., how stories work in our brain), phenomenological buildings turned out as unintelligible as glass boxes.


Deconstructionism sought to jolt public attention through unpredictable forms and fragments. Kenneth Frampton called the movement “elitist,” suitable only for wealthy clients. It’s interesting to note that, after years of medical research, shock therapy in low dosage for psychological disorders has proven to have little benefit to many. With enough voltage, though, it’s lethal to everyone.


Parametricism relies on computers to generate building forms and materials. Key to the process are algorithms. If based on real data and interpreted with validated routines, meaningful architecture may result. Meaningfulness, however, will remain hidden unless the numbers and formulae are published for all to see, appreciate, and be challenged. It’s too early a movement to call, but there’s a danger that whimsical buildings will be solely based on whimsy.


Modernism removed buildings’ primary reason for existence after shelter and utility. Because humans equate meaningfulness with experience, real or vicariously rendered through story, a building without a narrative holds little significance. Fortunately for today’s architects, ornament isn’t the only way to storify a building. Frank Lloyd Wright’s work is generally loved by the public, but not necessarily due to Prairie School decorative motifs. Every Wright building comes with a dramatic storyline, ostensibly about land and nature. Actually, the stronger stories are the tribulations of architect-client relationships and about the architect himself.


Wright’s Usonian dream reads like a hero’s journey, the archetypal quest of a man or woman called upon to save the land. There’s also a tragic arc to Wright’s life, as well as a rags-to-riches plot line. If Wright’s buildings had been designed by a colorless architect, devoid of personality and hiding from controversy, would Ayn Rand have based a novel on him? Would Wright’s buildings have achieved cult status? Or, would New York’s Guggenheim Museum have been relegated to the same ubiquitous catalog of forgettable Look at me! buildings the AR calls “Notopia”?


Architecture and literature have been analogues and companions well before Plato and long after Samuel Beckett. To gauge immersion, behavior scientists measure the emotional impact of a story with the Narrative Transportation Scale. Perhaps something similar could be applied to architectural immersion.


Modern architects owe the public the same persuasive architecture—buildings intended to nudge society forward—as pre-modern architects delivered. Building stories were once broadcast to the masses through decoration. Today’s overt architectural narratives, few and far between, similarly reference popular tales (think theme parks instead of cathedrals). But all buildings, past and present, mundane or magnificent, have stories to tell and, therefore, something the public can immerse themselves into. Something about the project’s site, its users, architect, contractor, or an event occurring within a building’s walls will provide a well of material to underpin a great plot. Find that story, or tell a new one, and architecture regains its role as the Story of Us, stylistically agnostic, and playing now in a building near you.


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