Article published in Architectural Review Asia Pacific: ‘The Case for Fiction Architecture’

Simon Sellars, the previous editor or AR, recently invited me to write an article for the magazine, which gave me an opportunity to summarise some of what I have written on this blog since 2009.

Subsequently Sara Lewis has published it on the website Australian Design Review.

Before trawling through this blog, reading this article will give a good summary.

Here is the link:

http://www.australiandesignreview.com/opinion/28523-the-case-for-fiction-architecture

I welcome comments!

Diagram of fiction architecture paradigm

In this diagram the current architectural paradigm is represented on the left, and may be described as creative non-fiction, which is documentary in nature and didactic in tone. Where overt narratives are introduced they usually express ideas which are subservient to context, function or purpose, and are justified in this way.  On the right hand side the possibilities of architecture are extended by the acceptance of the premise of fiction, which underpins the novel in literature. Briefly, this is the notion that the intellectual content of a work may be based on make-believe and pretence.

For further elaboration, read through the posts on this blog from July 2009.

Creative non-fiction architecture!

I have discovered an interesting website which has helped with the difficult task of differentiating between fiction architecture and non-fiction architecture. It is hosted by Lee Gutkind who helped establish the category in writing known as ‘creative nonfiction’. Rather than paraphrase what he says, I have included the address (see link below). Although it is hard exactly to define creative non-fiction writing, the main tenet is that it is loyal to fact. However that does not prevent the writer from adopting a creative approach to the way in which the facts are presented, and putting themself into the story as narrator or participant.

Using this literary analogy, I think that ‘creative non-fiction architecture’ is a good description of architecture which is enlivened by narrative responses to purpose, function or context and which involves a design process influenced by ideas and aesthetics drawn from eclectic sources (usually unacknowledged), but which stops short of an independent fictional narrative incorporating an appropriated formal/spatial concept which is acknowledged and represented literally. (See also ‘Fiction and non-fiction narratives in architecture’.)

Why bother differentiating between these two types of architecture? My sense is that architecture is locked into a straight-jacket by the non-fiction paradigm (even when seen as creative non-fiction) because there is an underlying assumption that narrative ideas must spring from purpose, function or context. The fiction architecture paradigm liberates narrative from these constraints.

Lee Gutkind’s article is at  http://www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/whatiscnf.htm

Milk Carton house extension, Brunswick, Melbourne

The pendulum swing between libertarianism and puritanism recurs throughout history. During my lifetime I have seen the swinging sixties, the laid-back seventies and the indulgent eighties give way to a period of relative severity with regard to the ethics of environmental responsibility and social justice, along with a move towards restraint in eating and drinking, and the stigmatization of smoking.

In sexuality the emphasis is now on responsibility rather than excess, and woe betide the adult who casts an interested eye towards someone wearing a school uniform. In art, this caution has extended to controversy over the photographic work of Bill Henson.

Architecture in particular is subject to a severe rationale. Footprints, carbon and building plan alike, should be small for the sake of the planet. Eco-puritanism is now a style of design, involving rectilinear plans, constrained spaces, recycled timber and ‘natural’ colours chosen to harmonise with new-growth green. While I agree wholeheartedly with improving the sustainability of architecture, I think it is important to stop short of creating a style for ‘green’ architecture because it closes off analysis and new solutions.

One way to avoid a repetitious approach is to search for a fictive departure point. Rather than embarking on yet another piece of documentary architecture dealing with the topic of sustainability, a fictional narrative grants a critical perspective. In the case of this project the site presented the opportunity for me to deal with a long-term preoccupation with shaping buildings in the form of used food packages. The new energy that brought this proposal to life at this time was a link with art history.

The tradition of still-life painting embraces the notion that art should reflect the actual surroundings and normal artifacts found in everyday life. For the Dutch painters of the sixteenth century this meant cutlery, fruit, vegetables, fabric and dead birds. For Andy Warhol it meant the cans of Campbell’s Soup that provided easy-to-prepare ‘nutritious’ food, readily available from a supermarket nearby.

Shifting forward fifty years, to another continent, the staple product that stands out on our suburban kitchen table is Pure Unhomogenised Organic Low-Fat milk. Furthermore, the notion of ‘still life found object’ is applied to architecture in this case rather than to art practice, in a move where the architect and viewer adopt the premise, widely expected in painting, that the narrative within the work is fictional.

The Milk Carton can be described as fiction architecture because visitors take part in the pretence that they are entering a giant Tetra-Pak. This allows them an overview of the wider philosophical landscape within which our current set of assumptions about architecture lies.

The spaces are small and mainly white, enlightened with milk drop-shaped light fittings. The stair is hardly wide enough to allow access. Light abounds and the footprint is small.

The graphics on the carton refer to ‘good’ qualities such as ‘pure’, ‘organic’, ‘low-fat’ and ‘unhomogenised’.

Milk is the primary source of nourishment for the newborn and hence has connotations of goodness, naturalness and nutrition. The theme of ‘milk’ also allows us to contemplate whiteness, and therefore consistency and untaintedness, and other associations that this colour has. Whiteness implies its opposite, blackness, which of course has its own set of connotations. The two together allow the possibility of oppositional thinking and, when taken to an extreme, puritanism.

When puritanical attitudes are challenged, history shows that fanaticism may arise, particularly when fuelled by a desire for the acquisition of property, money or political advancement. It is well-known that witches were drowned or burned, but it is not often mentioned that their estates – in many cases of considerable value – were also confiscated.

The word ‘unhomogenised’ is replete with nuances.  The implications of the phrase go beyond the dairy farm to our culture in general. We used to believe in assimilation of migrants and the elimination of aboriginality, moving in the direction of homogeneity. This is now considered a very bad attitude, and so the word ‘unhomogenised’ engenders a generalized feeling of well-being, as well as the more specific attribute of reducing the degree to which fats in the milk contribute to fatty tissue in the body.

This brings us to the phrase ‘low fat’. Perhaps the most disturbing prejudice of our food-obsessed culture is the notion that fat is bad, and therefore fat people are bad. Fat people are immoral! They have clogged arteries and heart disease. The thinner you are, the fitter you are, and the fitter you are, the better you are. Thin people are morally pure.

‘Pure’ is the name of the product itself. Rather than calling it ‘milk’, which is associated with its high-floating cousin ‘cream’, and therefore early death and extreme obesity, the product has assumed a more abstract quality. You can’t argue with ‘pure’. It is free of pollutants such as pesticides. In terms of morality, it is free from sin. In farming terms, it is ‘organic’. Out of manure emerges pure white ambrosia.

These thoughts are just a sample of the themes that may be contemplated by a person who takes part in the pretence that they are dealing with a gargantuan beverage container.

I hope that enjoyment will flow abundantly.

Footnote: In the accompanying photographs the large upper floor windows face the northern winter sun and the rear yard. The vertical screens are to protect the privacy of the neighbouring back yards. The extension is to the east side of the house and the south façade, shown in the first photograph, faces the street.

Credits: The Milk Carton house extension would not have been possible without the owners Jen Carmichael and Neil Davis, Craig Jones the builder, all the subbies and the sign writing team. Special credit to Neil for his meticulous work modifying and adapting the graphic design. Spilt milk landscaping designed and executed by Jen and Neil. Photos by Neil. Thanks also to Clara Friedhoff, my trusty assistant.

There is a YouTube video of the extension combined with commentary from 3RRR community radio ‘The Architects’ program at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNWAEJ70Jao

Two Digital Tigers is a good example of non-fiction sculpture

In trying to establish a paradigm for architecture which acknowledges the validity of fiction narratives, I have recognised that we are used to the idea that narratives in art and sculpture are usually fictional, and I think that there may even be a general assumption that they are always fictional. However portraits and realistic landscape painting, and sculptures of politicians and historic leaders, are examples of non-fiction narratives in art. But it is not only in conservative approaches that we find narratives justified by purpose.

A good contemporary example of a non-fiction, or documentary, narrative in contemporary sculpture is Two Digital Tigers, by LAVA (Laboratory for Visionary Architecture) and Jennifer Kwok. This beautiful work, utilising lantern-making techniques and lit with LED’s was created to mark the start of the lunar Year of the Tiger, and to draw attention to the fact that tigers are an endangered species. The World Wildlife fund has taken this work to Asia and the United States to raise awareness of the issue.

Architects are used to non-fiction narratives: perhaps that is why this venture into sculpture by LAVA took a documentary approach.

More info at http://www.morfae.com/0180-lava/

The Lighthouse: Fiction architecture for sale

One of the things that happens to architects as they grow older is that the buildings they design are sold to new owners. Bruce and Alison Dudon have lived in this house since it was designed for them and built in 1991, and it is now time to move on. I include it here because it is a good example of what I mean by Fiction Architecture. Even the premise of a lighthouse which is on a hill far away from any water is demonstrably fictional and immediately liberates the mind of a visitor from mundane concerns.

The Lighthouse

When I first visited the steeply-sloping site there was a cleared area of flat ground remaining from a previous house which had burned down in the 1983 bushfires. It was cold and there was frost on the ground even though it was lunchtime. The trees were filled with sunshine and I thought the house should ‘reach up’ and, perhaps using mirrors like a periscope, reflect light down into the rooms. I can’t remember exactly when this idea of a tower morphed into a lighthouse, but once the image became stuck in my mind I knew that it would not be easy to dismiss it! I had a sinking feeling that other members of my profession would not be impressed, but after a while I started to enjoy this thought. I was also unsure how Bruce and Alison would respond.

Ideas which arrive like this come from the intuitive regions of the brain, and it is only afterwards that it becomes apparent how they address all kinds of realities. Alison had said that she was torn between living at their new block, or living by the ocean. Mount Macedon rises up out of a plain in a similar way to an island rising from the sea, and the house is seen from a distance like a lighthouse is seen from the water. Visibility is an attribute of a site like this one. As we are nowhere near the sea, the presence of a lighthouse  is about other things than keeping boats safe. Lighthouses are a masculine form, with light shining out from the top, through lenses. Bruce was at that time the proprietor of a shop selling spectacles. Unlike a real lighthouse, this house has a room at the top for the purpose of looking out at the view rather than housing a light to be seen from a distance. Lenses such as spectacles and binoculars may be used to look at the view more effectively.

Light is a metaphor for knowledge, and this fact is particularly potent in a beacon warning ships of danger. In this lighthouse-in-reverse the rays of the sun enter the top of the tower, which serves as a Study, and reflect down the stairway. Each side of the stair is lined with mirrors. Plato links knowledge with light in his Analogy of the Cave, in which he compared normal existence to living in a cave with a fire illuminating shadow puppets which cast shadows on the wall. To become enlightened, a person must leave this unreal world and go up into the sunlight of truth and see the world as it actually is. For Plato, enlightenment was a male concern. In this house the Sitting room, located below the Study, and having a fireplace, may be understood as the cave. The journey up the stairs to the panoramic view above may be experienced as an architectural setting of the philosophical goal of enlightenment.

As I researched lighthouses, I noticed that the tower is usually accompanied by cottages. The design of the house includes three ‘cottages’ adjacent to the tower. In pre-industrial times the cottage was a place of manufacture. Women made objects which they owned and sold on their own terms, so a cottage can be seen as a symbol of female power. Alison is a primary school teacher and therefore constructs and disseminates knowledge. The relationship between male and female power is a major theme in our times, and the design embodies this in a symbolic form. As artist Narelle Jubelin has pointed out, nineteenth century lighthouses are emblems of patriarchy in the landscape. This house reflects something different: the challenge of feminist thought to the previously unquestioned dominance of male power.

Inside the house the space between the cottages and the tower, which serves as a passage, is configured like a walkway between buildings. The passage widens out to a space like a village green; this is the Dining room. This space represents the possibility of a female public realm such as used to exist around the village pump, where opinions were expressed and decisions made. An antique pump located in a niche in the west wall of this space acknowledges this understanding .

 The visual imagery for this house was derived from a photograph of ‘Old Smokey’, a lighthouse built at Trial Bay in the late nineteenth century to a standard design. As it was a very small lighthouse and accompanying one-room building, it was necessary to enlarge the proportions quite a bit. This surprised me, as I expected to be scaling down from lighthouse to house.

The house is designed to provide the owners with many ways to experience the spectacular views. As well as the panoramic view at the top, there are large windows divided into dozens of small panes, and small windows oriented in particular directions. These windows ‘convert’ the cottages into parts of a  notional lunatic asylum, and refer to the role of these institutions in suppressing challenges from women to the existing paradigms of authority by classifying them as insane and under the power of the dark force of the moon.

There is a frameless sheet of glass between the tower and the Main bedroom which appears to be a nothing more than a gap between buildings, so that the view itself is emphasised, rather than the frame through which it is seen. Other kinds of views are available (along with slight vertigo) from the walkway around the top of the tower, and from the wharf-like deck leading to the front door.

The design of the house very carefully follows typical details of rendered stone or brick architecture from the mid-nineteenth century, although the construction method is pine stud framing incorporating insulation and clad with cement sheet and a textured finish. The pylons supporting the south side of the house imitate cast iron pipe construction, but are actually thin steel posts within compressed cement sheet pipe sections, studded with dome head bolts to imitate rivets.

As in all fiction, deception is rife. The chimney of the fireplace is carefully disguised as the vent at the top of the lighthouse. The stair to the basement room is concealed within the coat cupboard at the entry into the sitting room.

Each visitor to The Lighthouse brings with them many lighthouse memories and associations, and the house acts as a catalyst to trigger these. In my experience ideas which are intuitive are likely to have this kind of potency. As Annie Stevens said in her wonderful article in The Age titled Guided by the Light (18/9/2010) ‘The lighthouse, as Virginia Woolf reasoned, is an almost perfect receptacle for projected symbolism. With the isolation, the wild ocean that surrounds it, the old tales of shipwrecks, its guiding role and the faint, salty whiff of madness, it’s ripe for plumbing for hidden meanings.’

Acknowledgement: While designing this house I was assisted in our studio by Dr.Mirjana Lozanovska who contributed many insights into the relationship between the evolution of feminist theory and the metaphor linking light with knowledge.

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.

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