On Fairy Tales

The Blank Space Fairy Tales competition now in its 3rd year, recently announced its winners and honorable mentions. Among those who made the cut are a usual collection of students who have managed to re-contextualize, post-rationalize, or perhaps—god forbid—sincerely offer up projects which tell a story. This year’s assortment of science fictions, fantasies, and other Borgesian compositions are considerably astute and rhetorically rich, despite coming from a discipline traditionally removed from storytelling techniques. After three years of calling for entries, it seems that architects really can spin some good yarns.

If you are not familiar with the competition, here’s how Blank Space describes it:

“The Fairy Tales competition invites architects, designers, writers, artists, engineers, illustrators, students and creatives to submit their own unique architectural fairy tales. The scale, location, and program of the submission is up to each entrant. A successful entry crafts a text narrative, along with 5 images, in the most spectacular way possible.”

This prompt, coupled with the tagline, “when architecture tells a story,” engenders a convincing alibi for what is quite probably a breath-of-fresh-air in the field of architectural competitions. For a genre inundated with prompts to save the world, a call for a fictional narrative suggests a nice change of pace. However, Blank Space’s aforementioned tagline poses a series of questions which remain unanswered. Looking closer at the prompt (and its title), it seems that Blank Space has (1) opened up the floodgates to larger introspection at the role of storytelling in contemporary architectural practice, yet (2) failed to acknowledge the catalog of tropological baggage that such an endeavor entails.

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Fairy Tales Vol. 2 | Blank Space Project | 2015

Let’s start with the title: Fairy Tales. From a categorical point of view, “fairy tales” connotes a series of rhetorical techniques, figurative language, and recursive imagery; we can say that it is a genre. With that in mind, a submission to the call for narratives in the tradition of a fairy tale, would involve the use of tropes and a priori structures that set the story apart from other fantasies which classify it within the subcategory of “fairy tales.” For example, those familiar with the famed Grimm Brothers would expect a specific stylistic diction, moral judgements, and character traits. Looking at the finalists in the competition, these devices are rarely employed, thereby negating the very essence of the prompt.

Toll by Sean Cottengim and Alex Gormley and Honey Street by Rubin Quarcoopome are the only categorical fairy tales on that list. Most of the other winners seem to be science fictions. Then there are some which border between Borgesian fantasy and situationist derive. The next closest to a fairy tale is Ink-Soaked Boy by Mark Morris and Neil Spiller, which starts off in a familiar tone, but then fragments and mutates into a poem—a hybridization that would certainly intrigue genre theorists. But within each story, there are a number of ambiguities which are taken for granted. Though intriguing in subject matter, language and tone take a backseat in these narratives, weakening the overall reception. Granted, architects are rarely trained in creative writing and most—including myself—are self-taught (I’m reminded of a phrase by Manfredo Tafuri, which I love to take out of context, “architects should just do architecture.”). However, I do not believe it’s an issue of short-form prose proficiency. The real concern is a lack of a clear understanding of genre and its attendant productive potential.

There’s a reason the majority of the stories are science fictions. For architects, this is the genre with which they associate the most. In a sense, architects are SF storytellers who speculate on uncertain futures in imagined worlds. Today’s close relationship with technology only facilitates this association. Therefore when asked to write a fantasy, the immediate knee-jerk response for many is to write a science fiction. Curiously, the reciprocal action is also evident in the competition. Olson-Kundig’s first place winner is an SF thriller reminiscent of the imaginary offspring of Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. Perhaps it’s safe to say that when it comes to judging architectural stories, science fiction also instinctively creeps to the surface.

I bring up genre studies because it’s a fascinating cultural phenomenon that permeates everything from art, literature, and music, but rarely infiltrates architecture. As a categorizer of categories, or as Derrida put it in his Law of Genre, an “inevitable contaminant” of culture, it has served as a relatively unexamined structural device in architecture. Where, in the 70s and 80s, architects became enthralled by semiotics and structuralism, for some reason genre never took precedence. Perhaps architects tend to take genres as givens, but it seems that due to its seamless ability to mutate, hybridize, and split, it offers the potential to restructure both architectural rhetoric and representation. It exists between typology and genetics, as a bridge between subjective aesthetic lineages, and objective, mathematical logics.

In the case of the Fairy Tales competition, a study of genre could have enriched the structure of the call for entries itself, thereby allowing for the curation (and exploration) of architectural-literary genres. Architecture’s history is already riddled with stories: origin stories, ancient myths, gothic novels, fables, science fictions. The architect as a storyteller is not a new concept either; Colin Rowe wrote about the detective novel’s architectural underpinnings, John Hejduk visualized melancholy poetry with his masques, and most recently the work of Jimenez Lai subverts the visual aesthetic with cartoon-esque representations. As such, the tagline, “when architecture tells a story” seems a little redundant. Architecture always tells a story, but it’s how it tells it that makes it a worthwhile endeavor.

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