Ritual & Narrative

I was told when I was young that a good story has a beginning, middle and end.  Those are the basics.  Before you know what you're writing about, before you even know if you're writing at all there is a fundamental human truth to understand.  That is that the ability of people to enjoy the story you're telling depends on your ability to tell your story cohesively.  You must create a narrative framework.  Make your story coherent, interesting, exciting.

Human Narrative

Most people think of books or spoken word when they think of storytelling.  You might also listen to a story being told in a folk song, or perhaps most prominently these days in a film or on TV.  Less accessible are the stories told in fine art.  In all these cases the medium being used has been specifically created for story telling.

Natural Narrative

Storytelling is not always a human expression.  The shape and spread of a mountain range describes the origins of its formation.  The finer detail of its vegetation and clearing tells the story of the way it has been engaged with by humans, in recent history or sometimes centuries earlier.  In architecture storytelling is somewhere between these two distinct forms.

A building is not a sculpture specifically crafted to tell a story of heroism or humanity.  Buildings are fundamentally utilitarian, accommodating shelter, care, education, entertainment and countless other functions.  When an architect is engaged to design a building they are almost always given a brief describing a buildings functional requirements and nothing else.  For most buildings being constructed today, energy is given only to this.  So why is narrative important in architecture?

First of all we don't have a choice.  Once the first brick has been laid it has become a part of its contextual fabric and has therefor assumed a 'natural narrative'.  Whether the building makes a positive contribution or a negative one is up to those who created it.

Furthermore, a dumb box tells a story even if it's not a very interesting one.  In architecture the 'human narrative' component does not mean carving hieroglyphs in a stone facade.  The story is inherent in the way the building is used, the rituals of life that are sometimes utterly mundane and other times deeply spiritual.  Our success as architects depends on our ability to tell these stories.

John Lautner - Elrod House - Palm Springs USA 1968

You have to admire someone bold enough to design a LA mansion with an entry that looks like a disused section of freeway infrastructure.  Engulfed in palms and creeper vines, this cold vast windowless wall says nothing about the richness of the interior beyond.  There's the sense that it's a modern ruin, the fortifying walls of a great modernist utopian colony long since disappeared.  There's no guards at the gate, no aggression.  You want to sneak in and explore, thankfully the interior doesn't disappoint.

There are a few reasons I feel the way about this building entry.  Lautner was a master and pioneer of 'free-form' modernism, and this is a very pure example (despite its geometric impurity).  Scale is a big part of it.  There are 2 objects made of concrete.  As you ascend the steep road from below the first object dominates, but as you pass the building the scale shifts dramatically and the second object takes the dominant position.  Both objects are perfect arcs in plan.  The first is a convex wall bulging out and up to the sky.  The second is a concave canopy, receding behind the first.  The entry to the house is the space between the two objects, and this space expands and contracts as you move past or through it.  It is extraordinarily complex and powerful yet at the same time exquisitely simple and understated.

images from www.homedsgn.com/

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