Architecture and Storytelling

Stories are all around us and an integral part of most art forms- music, dance, drama, cinema, novels, epics, folktales. Whether it is the lyrics of the song, the hand movements of the dancer, the colours used by the painter- there are emotions, symbols and sometimes incidents conveyed by artist. When a story-teller unfolds the scrolls of his narrative or opens his magic box like the Rajasthani ‘Kaavad’, the listeners are swept into the storyteller’s world, the voice and unfolding pictures giving them a sequential experience. Can architecture too be a form of story-telling, of unfolding narratives, allowing a person to sequentially experience spaces?

Kaavad, the Rajasthani storytelling box. (Image-

Today, architecture is less easily imagined as a form of storytelling although this was not the case historically. Traditionally, architecture besides giving shelter was also an important physical medium of documentation and before the arrival of paper and print, architecture then became the most powerful and tangible medium to document history, from prehistoric cave paintings, Egyptian and Buddhist architecture, to Renaissance architecture. These visual stories were often highly refined and systematic methods of telling a story and preserving important information of the time. In temple architecture of the Indian subcontinent, sculptures often depict not only mythological stories but have carved information on land ownership, the currency system, the functioning of its society.

Temple inscriptions often convey important information of the period (Image: The Hindu)

Besides the preserving of information, the architectural structure itself was designed to unfold as a story, as a series of experiences and spaces that unfold as you pass through the space. Unlike today where we have a plethora of preconceived information and images of an architectural structure, historically the only way to see and experience an architectural structure was to visit it, walk along its corridors, enjoy the paintings on the wall or read the inscriptions. Visiting the Sistine Chapel or walking through the Angkor Wat, for the man or woman of the era when it was built, would have been a completely different experience- with absolutely no idea what the paintings or the building’s roof would look like, the depth of engagement and enlightenment would be far greater than it could be today, where we have the baggage of prior information and photographs of the structure.

Charles Correa often spoke of a concept he called ‘episodic architecture’, where a series of spaces and sequences are unfolded gradually. In projects like Cidade de Goa, he attempts a contemporary take on this ‘episodic architecture’, where there is a story within a story, illusions of spaces and images superimposed with the architecture, all providing a different engagement with the building. The scale at which this ‘episodic architecture’ was created in Indian temple architecture is also a phenomenal feat that is difficult to imagine today- these structures build on a massive scale, would involve hundreds of artists working with a master builder, all with their own artistic creativity, egos, skill levels and ideas who still managed to create a cohesive, harmonious structure. The key, perhaps, was ‘restricted freedom’, where each artist worked in a defined boundary, and the figures they sculpted had to tell a story. Each artists would want to create their best, and could reach their peak artistry and creativity within their designated square without a big fuss about it.

One of the strongest elements of a story are images- both preconceived, and new. When you see a picture like the one above with glasses and slippers, your mind jumps to Mahatma Gandhi, as these are part of a much larger story of the nation. Mother Theresa was depicted by M F Hussain through minimalist drawings of her attire and activities associated with her. We are able to associate these minimalist images with much broader stories, although process of creating them is much more complex that the final image, and the viewers thoughts too go far deeper. The Mother Theresa series which appears simple is supposed to have involved long careful studies by M F Hussain, who spent time in Europe understanding the intricacies of the fall of fabric that were given particular importance in the works of Renaissance masters like Rubens.

But these preconceived ideas and ways of seeing will often be a part of storytelling as well as architecture- when you see a glass door, there is a certain expectation of what lies within and if you open it to see mud flooring, it is often a bit of a shock. Mental images can also come through other senses- through sounds, as in the case of cinema, where a certain sound gives the viewer a expectation of the mood, of the scene. It can come through the sense of touch, like the flowing of breeze in a space, or through smells like the use of camphor in temples. Architects have sometimes used these small interventions to create a story. For example, in Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, the small water channel is said to symbolise the journey from the known to the unknown, and this can become a way of building a story that could inspire a person working and researching in the space. Symbolic stories and rituals have also always been a part of popular beliefs, like tying of threads on a tree or placing locks on a bridge, holding a column to fulfill a wish. The mysticism built around these stories gives an extra dimension to experiencing the space.

The experience of space is also dependent on the emotions or mood of the person. In these two sculptures by Rodin, the Prodigal Son and The Thinker, there are contrasting moods. In the first, the mood is extrovert, there is a exuberance and joy, and a reaching out to the sky. In the second, he is wearing the thinking cap, he is withdrawn into himself and his mind. In this case, the space around you can shrink. Then there are intermediate stages between this completely introverted mood and an open mood. When the space bubble around and surrounding architectural envelope fits with your mood, a comfort zone is established.

do bono
Self space and life space in different settings. (Source- The Happiness Purpose, Edward de Bono)

Edward de Bono, in his works on lateral thinking, calls these a sync of ‘self space’ and ‘life space’. When the circle for ‘life space’ comes closer to that of the ‘self space, a comfort zone is established.

Usually, this will happen when you are doing something you love,  and you are in sync with your self and your surroundings. As architects, we spend most of our time understanding and trying to create a space that balances these two relationships.

These moods and activities can tentatively be grouped into some of these bubbles, and then the space can be crafted around the comfort for those activities. For this to happen, it needn’t always be a great architectural space.

But one key difference between architecture and other media like a film or a novel is the linearity- in a building, we cannot completely control the sequence in which the person experiences the space. Someone can visit it backwards, or read it completely differently. For example, when we visited the Angkor Wat, the ‘story’ of the building is to be experienced on entering from the West, passing through a sequence, watching the reflection of the temple in water and then along a vista framing the temple roof. But since we ended up entering from the east, we got a completely different experience of the space and can now never experience it fully in the other way.

Architecture thus needs to be created as multiple stories, multiple sequences, as having just one can easily go wrong. In architecture, like everywhere else, there are bigger stories, smaller stories, personal stories that we create around ourselves. As the pursuit for creating these goes on, you try relentlessly to achieve that perfect story, but when it is done you often feel that you have missed out something, left behind something .There is always a gap between what you visualise and what you finally achieve, as architecture is a team game that involves more players in its production than a painting or a novel would involve. You hope to close that gap in the next project and the process goes on, relentlessly learning from your other projects- that is what is great about being an architect.


One comment

  1. Excellent article, very interesting, and thought provoking.
    I am at present in the process of creating something on these lines but never new how to express it . Congratulations, well written.


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