“Driving positive change through the power of design.”
— 2010–2015 Vision Statement of the American Institute of Architects
Architecture that improves life is a compelling vision, but a difficult proposition. Affordable housing, productive workspaces, engaging schools, healing hospitals, resilient buildings, smart growth, livable cities, and sustainable environments are proving elusive. In the words of Frank Gehry, “Ninety-eight per cent of what gets built and designed today is pure [expletive]. There’s no sense of design nor respect for humanity or anything. They’re bad buildings and that’s it.”
Indeed, bad architecture abounds. Unsuccessful design, however, isn’t always the result of errors in aesthetics, function, material, or technology. Building owner demands, user indifference, local politics, and cultural resistance are as likely to be responsible. Often, the cause of bad architecture is neither visual nor physical; it’s behavioral, the domain of psychology and sociology, and therefore seemingly beyond an architect’s reach.
“Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design.”
— Alain de Botton, “The Architecture of Happiness”
Or is it? There was a time when architects had the ability to shape both space and minds. Architecture isn’t merely the art of building — it has also been a narrative art. Buildings were the world’s first broadcast communications platform. Once upon a time, architecture told stories. Adorned in tales of conquest, gods and kings, good and evil, love and death, right and wrong, war and peace, heroism and glory — buildings immersed populations in narratives about life and how to live. People came to buildings as much for the stories they told as for shelter and utility. For thousands of years, architects were the world’s storytellers, making architecture the great book of humanity, shaping society in ways today’s buildings do not. Humans are meaning-seeking animals, genetically primed to find answers to life’s mysteries through stories. Until the Late Middle Ages, architecture was a dominant storytelling medium, which gave architects the persuasive power to change what people thought and what they did.
People, not buildings, are the cause of most of the world’s troubles, from poverty and hunger (economic system and resource allocation), to preventable disease and death, xenophobia, intolerance, prejudice, persecution, terrorism, crime, urban decay, pollution, and global warming. In the 1960s and ’70s, architects teamed with psychologists and sociologists to create defensible spaces, hoping to build safer neighborhoods. But architectural determinism and other behaviorism experiments in public housing failed.
Yet the idea of engineering behavior is as old as mankind. Leaders and governments constructed environments to influence what people believed throughout history, for better or worse, sometimes forcefully and often at great expense. Behavior researchers have theories for why people modify ingrained beliefs and attitudes, how they form new intentions, and when they alter behavior. Change can occur through punishment or reward (called extrinsic motivation), but with only short-term results: Remove the walls, threats, or incentives, and previous behaviors return. In marketing terms, bargaining, rhetoric, bribery, trickery, and coercion are “push” strategies, and generally ineffective. The path to long-term change is through intrinsic motivation. Self-motivation is a “pull” strategy, the kind of persuasion that brings people of their own free will to new beliefs and actions.
Education seems the obvious answer to man’s self-inflicted wounds; simply teach people right from wrong and life should get better. Sadly, education to save the world hasn’t worked. Numerous studies have shown knowledge alone is incapable of altering human behavior. For example, 40 to 50 percent of premature deaths are behaviorally preventable. Nevertheless — and despite half a century of anti-smoking campaigns and decades of public awareness programs on safe driving habits, nutrition, exercise, sexually transmitted disease, and alcohol and substance abuse — millions die needlessly every year. Theft and murder have been universally believed to be wrong for millennia; still, robbery and homicide are ever-present. Violent extremism is often linked to ignorance and illiteracy, but a frequently cited research study found no evidence that education affects terrorism across the board.
Convincing someone to change his or her behavior is hard, but not impossible, nor is it necessarily oppressive or expensive. History is filled with examples of successful, low-cost, self-determining, society-altering behavioral interventions called narratives. Stories have been changing what people think and do since Homer and Plato, if not earlier. The best-selling novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is credited with arousing the anti-slavery sentiment that underpinned the American Civil War. Upton Sinclair’s fictional story “The Jungle” raised widespread concern in the U.S. about food safety and spurred legislation that overhauled the American meatpacking industry. Indeed, scholars link the invention of the novel to the expansion of human rights. Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” sparked improvements in Victorian London’s workhouse conditions, leading to the world’s first child labor laws. Storytelling has also been shown to change behavior in controlled research studies.
Humans evolved expecting important information to be delivered as stories, not lists of facts. Our ancestors discovered that rote learning was an exercise in short-term memory. Knowledge communicated through story, however, was passed down through generations. It’s paradoxical, but experiencing life inside imagined worlds is how humans learn about the real world.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche
From a Darwinian perspective, make-believe leads to core beliefs. Oral storytelling, ballads, murals, novels, plays, movies, and video games are survival tools; they might be considered school-of-hard-knocks lessons delivered without the physical danger. Research using fMRI brain scans of the hippocampus, the part of the brain where memories are stored, shows that reading about a fictional experience stimulates the same neurological regions as a physical experience. Psychologists call storytelling’s mechanism of action “transportation” — mental conveyance into an imagined world. Audiences engaged in a story vicariously learn in fidelity high enough to approximate life. They can reenter the real world changed. Psychology’s transportation-imagery model posits that people immersed in a story will temporarily modify their beliefs and attitudes — and possibly their long-term behaviors — to those portrayed in the story. Behavior research has shown not only that fictional stories can shape lives and define personas, but that nonfiction possesses less persuasive power than fiction.
Successful stories work, on both psychological and neurological levels. Cortisol, a stress hormone allowing us to focus, flows into our bodies during tense story moments. Oxytocin, the hormone triggered in lactating women and released during sex, is also present in people reading or watching heartwarming dramas and spurs trust and empathy. Released, too, is phenylethylamine (aka “the love drug”). Stories with happy endings cause the limbic system to pump dopamine into the bloodstream, creating feelings of hope and optimism. Stories, then, have a measurable chemical effect on people and a demonstrated capacity to change the world. This power has been used for both good and ill.
“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and repeated.”
— President John F. Kennedy, Commencement Address at Yale
University, June 11, 1962
Fearing unwanted behavior change, totalitarian regimes frequently ban films and websites, and burn books. Conversely, narrative’s ability to elicit emotion is easily weaponized. Fiction becomes propaganda when intentionally derogatory or biased, or when a misleading narrative promotes political views through lies, half-truths, false comparisons, and selective histories. Hitler made “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a 1903 Russian anti-Semitic literary hoax about a Jewish plan for global domination, a pillar of Nazi ideology. The book has since then been endorsed by at least one Middle Eastern government. Story manipulation is also rife in politics, social media, business, and advertising. Even seemingly innocuous stories can lead to serious consequences. The 16th-century legend of El Dorado, an imaginary city of gold, spurred European conquistador expeditions to South America that completed Francisco Pizarro’s destruction of the Inca Empire and enslaved millions.
A story, or narrative, is a series of connected events about a person or persons at a particular time and place. A building is also about people at a unique place in time, and is similarly experienced through sequence and connection. Like a good story, a good building creates meaning by immersing visitors in an artificial world and taking them on an emotional journey. The goal of both architects and authors is drawing audiences into created places and making them want to stay. The transportation-imagery model, therefore, applies to architecture.
“A building is an inanimate object, but it is not an inarticulate one.”
— Alison Lurie, novelist
Stories and architecture have traditionally shared common themes. “Prose is architecture,” Hemingway said. Architect Rem Koolhaas began as a filmmaker (his father was a novelist), which gave him the basis for weaving narrative with building design. The work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Richard Meier have been likened to dramatically connected sequences, but Koolhaas goes further, linking cinematic montage and plot progression to spatial flow. Koolhaas considers space a narrative element in an exposition of rising action, culminating in climax and ending in denouement. Architect Nigel Coates has been writing about narrative architecture for more than 20 years. Other story-based architects include Ricardo Bofill — whose El Castell apartment project in Barcelona was inspired by a Franz Kafka novel of the same name — and Steven Holl, who designed a house in Martha’s Vineyard in homage to Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Holl’s Knut Hamsun Center museum is a synthesis of the writer Hamsun’s literary sensibilities. Alberto Campo Baeza designed a home in 1999 for a literature professor that reflected the poems of Luis Cenuda, and more than 300 narrative-based designs were received by “Fairy Tales,” billed as “the world’s first architectural storytelling competition.”
Relationships between architecture and story are reciprocal, as gothic novels inspired by gothic buildings attest. Literary ties between buildings and narratives include numerous examples of architecture-inspired novels as well as film and story-based architecture. For most of human history, architecture was inseparable from narrative, giving pre-Renaissance buildings the same power to shape beliefs, motivations, and intentions as today’s mass media. It could be argued that early architects were the inventors of pull technology, designing buildings to attract and entice crowds to stories sculpted within friezes, plastered on domes, painted on ceilings, and illuminated in stained glass. Narrative architects’ plots unfolded in plan, section, elevation, and ornament. Long before generations were addicted to video games, binged on television, huddled around radio sets, lined up for movies, or fell into novels, people experienced life’s hard-won lessons through the stories that buildings told. Architecture played the role of today’s poets, novelists, and screenwriters, until it was famously dethroned by a 15th-century invention called the printing press. Telltale signs of narrative architecture’s past remain. The word “story” comes from the Latin root historia, an account of events. During the Renaissance, building floors acquired the nickname “stories” when tales of morals, power, and wealth were painted, level by level, on medieval facades.
Story Models of Architecture
Modern architects often struggle with design explanation and presentation, especially when relying on dialectic or program to make their case (Figure 1). Design rationalized and articulated through rhetorical argument and didactic discourse can be obtuse — while a story about a building is expressed through simple emotions (Figure 2). The transportation-imagery model predicts that a building’s intended impact on its users and surrounding community is greater when presented in story form rather than as facts, journalism, or academic scholarship. This is true even in famous buildings. The trauma of Anne Frank’s life is attenuated when delivered as a historical list of events and dates. But reading the “Diary of a Young Girl” — itself a storied chronicle — before visiting the anonymous-looking house in Amsterdam that sheltered her can be life-changing.
Whether a building is a metaphorical or literal narrative medium, or simply accessory to a story, architecture combined with story enriches both media. Novelists often draw inspiration from emotional architectural experiences. The reverse is also true; architecture can draw inspiration from stories, evoking narrative associations in the building’s users. In another scenario, narrative architecture tells a self-contained story, directly through inscription and imagery, or spatially through form and sequence.
Like modern buildings, modern architects often fail as communicators, and nowhere is their weakness more evident than when rendered in unfathomable prose. Impenetrable jargon and misused conventions are common in design presentations and scholarly writing. Beginning in school and continuing in practice, architects invoke a literary-like language that means little. Archispeak is rich in allusions like “drama” and “tension.” Architects “quote” and “reference” other artists’ work, declare their buildings to be “layered in meaning,” “read by” visitors, and “in dialogue with” the environment. Their clients and the general public, however, are unconvinced.
“Archispeak – Large, made-up words that architects and designers use to make themselves sound smarter than you (you being the client or the confused observer of design). It does nothing to inform or enlighten the consumer of architecture and mostly serves to numb them into obedience or self-doubt.”
— Urban Dictionary
Architecture is the art of building, but it is also a means of communication. Like campfire stories — and anecdotes, myths, fables, hieroglyphs, mosaics, tapestry, frescoes, inscriptions, murals, paintings, sculptures, stained-glass, triptychs, poetry, short stories, novels, manga, comic books, graphic novels, ballads, symphonies, the blues, rock and roll, ballet, mime, plays, kabuki, opera, stand-up comedy, photography, radio drama, sitcoms, soap operas, telenovelas, television drama, advertising, music videos, feature films, the internet, and now video games — buildings have narrative’s potential to immerse and, therefore, to change behavior. Like other media, architecture can not only tell a story; it can also be part of a story. An architecture of meaningless voids (“spaces”) is forgettable, but humans never forget a ”place” filled with emotions — real or manufactured through storytelling.
“Those who tell stories rule society,” Plato said. Some researchers claim that “all of what people know is in the form of stories.” If so, today’s architecture is the only modern art practiced without regard to narrative, which self-limits the profession’s social relevance.
Research suggests narrative architecture can bring newfound respect to the profession. Architectural research and experimentation are needed to fully explore the behavior change potential of “building narratology”: the relationship between architectural design, psychology, and the themes, conventions, and symbols of storytelling. In a world littered with buildings that fail to change anyone, finding common ground between design, behavior science, and creative writing could lead to new directions in architectural theory.
There may be no better time than now to reexamine and rediscover narrative architecture’s persuasive potential: Digital technology has made buildings once again, physically, the largest communications medium in the world, a trend anticipated by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown as “billdingboards.” Today, nearly all architects and architecture students are also media artists, competent in the digital tools Hollywood and Madison Avenue use to immerse audiences in psychologically transformative experiences. All that’s missing is the ability to translate spaces into places, thereby translating jargon into meaning.
Graphic Novels/Novel Architecture
A spring 2016 graduate-level course at Kent State University’s College of Architecture & Environmental Design and symposium at the Cleveland Museum of Art explored “How Architect Storytellers Change the World.” “Graphic Novels/Novel Architecture” was the first in a series of studios to treat architecture as a persuasive medium. The course was awarded a 2016 Architect Studio prize by ARCHITECT magazine for providing “a glimpse into the formation of ideas that will define architecture in the coming decades.” Future studios will incorporate prose novels, film, and video games.
Richard Buday, FAIA, is an architect and writer with 20 years experience in behavior research.
great article Richard – very timely in our world of emerging technologies. I had the opportunity to talk with Steven Holl a few years ago about some of the issues you eloquently define in your article. Holl stated: “You can’t blame the students. They’re being brainwashed in a way, it’s a silly moment. Architecture is in a silly moment….The main things I think about are not available in a parametric program….but the point of the urgency of teaching a studio is to get back to the fundamentals of scale, of materiality, of place, of time and space because these things are not being thought of anymore….So maybe we are entering a period called “parametric ignorance”.
Thank you, Kevin. Holl’s “silly moment” observation is spot on. I’ve been pushing and pursuing computers in architecture for 30+ years—and even anticipated there one day would be a computer-based theory outcome (via an old CADalyst article in the ’90s?)—but at this point in my life, I’m worried. If Parametricism is that outcome, we may have squandered a rare opportunity for reclaiming some of architecture’s lost ground.
But all is not lost. There’s another way, a time-proven way, for the profession to be more relevant. Computers may play a role, but it’s not a requirement.
Congratulations, Richard. A wonderful article and a theory put into practice that is long overdue.