Opinion

The Case for Fiction Architecture

February 26, 2013

Simon Thornton of Thornton Architecture designed the Milk Carton Extension featured in AR 124. The extension was designed according to the principles of Thornton’s patented brand of ‘fiction architecture’ – a design philosophy espousing the value of make-believe. Here Thornton explains its mechanics.

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I usually begin the design of a building with a fictional premise, as a novelist does. By ‘fictional’ I don’t mean inventive, new, fresh or unique. I mean that the starting point is a lie. The building pretends to be something that it isn’t. For onlookers to be able to engage with the building they must engage in make-believe.

Narrative conceptions in architecture are inherently three-dimensional. They are not bound by time as in storytelling or music. They unfold from the viewpoint of the observer and are perceived afresh over the course of a day, a season, a year. Most narratives are not acknowledged by the architect and may be described as covert, while others are explicit. We are concerned here with ones that are explicit enough to be understood as fiction.

Before going further, it is important to clarify that ‘fiction architecture’ is not the same thing as architectural fiction, meaning that it is not speculation on paper or in cyberspace about how architecture might be, now or in the future. It is not architectural fiction in the literary sense either, by which I mean writing that describes architecture as part of a fictional story. All these things are expressed through non-architectural media, be it paper, virtual reality, screen image, animation or descriptive writing.

Fiction architecture is built architecture. The fabric of the building itself is the medium of expression. What is expressed may be earnest and direct (a sunshade is a sunshade) or may be part of a fiction narrative.

Simon Thornton’s Milk Carton Extension. Photo by Mark Munro

 

Using the analogy of the history of literature, it is the ‘Robinson Crusoe moment’ that interests me. That is, the point at which the English novel began, when an author decided to tease the reading public by writing a fake story, presented to the world as if it was a true tale of shipwreck and adventure. I believe we are at such a moment now in architecture, where members of the public might start to ask a fundamental question when confronted with a new building: ‘Is this the latest example of serious architectural evolution, or is it a pretence contrived for the enjoyment of exploring ideas?

There are many examples of pretence in architecture but they are mostly disappointing, such as the ‘Federation Style’ of the 1890s or the ever-present Neo-Georgian style. Such shams are simplistic, timid and only succeed to the extent that they imitate the original style. Much dearer to the hearts of architects are kitsch pretences such as the giant pineapple, the giant elephant, the giant sheep and their many giant relatives. But these fail to be serious fiction for a different reason: they are actually built to advertise a product or shop, or attract attention to a business venture such as real-estate sales. They are not fictional narratives that have free reign. They are shackled to a commercial purpose, which is a non-fiction imperative.

Turning to fiction narratives employed by architects, we find that they too are beholden not to commerce but to context, purpose or function. An architect whose design imitates or ‘references’ a feature of the neighbourhood, such as a brickwork pattern or a roof form, engages in a fictive re-enactment subordinated to the building’s documentary role in reflecting, or interpreting, its physical surroundings.

If an architect derives a fiction narrative from the purpose of the building, it is fettered in a similar way. In Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, the pretence is that the form of the building results from the shattering of an oversized pentagram. This effect carries through to the shape of the openings in the building’s surfaces. The result is a powerful piece of documentary architecture employing a fiction narrative, but held within the non-fiction framework of the building’s role.

Broadening the definition of context to include history, or culture, or the environment as a whole, does not necessarily result in greater narrative freedom. In responding to ecological issues, for example, an architect engages with a grand narrative seemingly at odds with make-believe and pretence, and seems to demand an approach subordinated to an ethical and moral visual language of acceptable materials and features. The result is usually a documentary narrative about sustainability.

Gryphon House Extension. Photo by Andrew Griffiths (Lensaloft)

 

What differentiates a successful novel from a thinly disguised true story, or a vehicle for religious or political propaganda, is the sense that the underlying fictional premise has a life of its own and an internal logic taken to its own conclusion. Along the way the author may weave in an ethical standpoint and moral judgements, but the main organising principle is a dramatic unfolding which keeps the reader in thrall until the last page.

When a work of fiction architecture is conceived, it may begin with an idea prompted by the broad social, physical, historical or cultural context, but the fictive premise must grow wings of its own and be the dominant narrative expressed. And for the pretence to be understood by someone contemplating the building, it is likely that the idea will be expressed in an architectural language that is literal rather than abstract. In my own work I find that the language changes from project to project, depending on the pretence.

The work of certain Melbourne practitioners has strong fictive aspects. Within a short length of Swanston Street it is possible to see the towering castle of Edmond and Corrigan’s RMIT Building 8, the ‘surface fictions’ covering Lyons’ Swanston Academic Building, the grotto of ARM’s Storey Hall and the giant gift box at Melbourne Central, also by ARM.

Sometimes fiction narratives are subjugated to the purpose of the building, as in ARM’s black replica of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye at the National Museum in Canberra, or their bomb craters at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, and at other times have a greater sense of independence, as in the styrofoam and bubble-wrap package that shapes their Melbourne Recital Centre.

Depending on the degree to which the narratives have free reign, the label ‘fiction architecture’ may or may not apply to these buildings, but I am confident in applying it to three domestic projects emanating from our own office. The Gryphon Extension is a literal representation of an eagle’s head and wings, combined with a lion’s hind quarters, looming over an existing Edwardian house in Elwood. Passers-by are invited by the visual language to make believe that the building is a creature. The genre of the work is fantasy, or maybe romance, perhaps even horror.

The Aqueduct and Tent House. Photo by Simon Thornton

 

The Aqueduct and Tent House is historical fiction architecture, set in the 14th century AD and comprises a ruined Roman aqueduct against which medieval tournament tents have been pitched. The concept plays with ideas about the lightness, and heaviness, of being. The location of the aqueduct in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote removes any doubt that this is pretence. The third example is the Milk Carton Extension. This contemporary fiction tackles our current paranoia about contamination, and our obsession with purity, in the form of a giant Tetra-pak in urban Brunswick.

I propose that for a building to ‘be fiction architecture’ three criteria must be met. First, the primary concept must be based on make-believe. Second, this concept should have free reign to dictate the narrative direction. And third, the architectural language should be sufficiently representational to enable communication of the intention. This last criterion is important. Many buildings are inspired by sources such as ships, planes, ruins, sculptures, rocks, oil refineries, insect mounds and so forth. A finished building may look a bit like a yacht in full sail, or a group of soccer balls, or a hill. But if the effect is ambiguous and elusive, and not necessarily intended, or if it is due to influence but not imitation, then the building is not fiction architecture but what may be called, by contrast, ‘creative non-fiction architecture’. If the question, ‘Is there pretence?’, is asked, the answer is no.

For those afflicted with a love of fiction in architecture, pretence is the true blood. Like novelists we look across at the vast body of non-fiction with great respect and admiration. We just don’t want to access truth through honesty. We prefer to do it through make-believe.

There are has several possible benefits in clarifying the distinction between covert and explicit narratives in architecture and the further distinction between fiction and non-fiction narratives, and the classification of works of architecture as either fiction or non-fiction. The breadth of choice in how to design may be widened, the variety of built architecture may increase over time, and the public’s understanding of how architecture can be appreciated may be deepened.

In terms of how we, as professionals, define architecture, a further benefit is that types of buildings which are not usually included, such as Federation Style project houses or giant pineapples, may be included as commercial examples of creative non-fiction architecture employing fiction narratives, while owner-builder forays into neo-Gothic pretence, built for the sake of enjoyment, may be included in the genre of popular fiction architecture.

Personally I prefer an all-inclusive definition of architecture as ‘the expression of ideas through the medium of building’, which even includes metal garden sheds! I hope that what is discussed here may strengthen the case for this position.

www.thorntonarchitecture.com

  • Simon Thornton April 2nd, 2014 10:45 pm

    When I wrote this I used the expression ‘free reign’ but I intended
    the older phrase ‘free rein’. Both are correct in modern usage, but the original imagery of a horse going where it pleases is the metaphor for narrative freedom which I wanted.


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