Architects, Tell a Story! ( And Don’t Forget the Conflict)

Bjarke Ingels is well known for using storytelling to craft convincing arguments for his designs. This image is from his storytelling video, Worldcraft.

Storytelling pertains to all scales of architectural communication from simply meeting with a client, to writing an op-ed for your local paper, to talking with Stephen Colbert on the Late Show (Come on architects let’s dream!)  Your storytelling skills have been put to the test during every desk critique, every pin-up, and every final review.  You’ve probably already had hours of practice by the time you finished school, but you could probably use many hours more.   Bob Borson — author of Life of an Architect and probably one of the best architectural communicators out there — had this to say in his own post about storytelling:

Since a lot of what architects do is esoteric, being able to articulate my reasons for solving a problem in a particular way – without being condescending – is an important skill. I need to walk people through my design process in a way that they can understand the end result in a more appreciative manner – it works way better than telling someone:

I’m the professional here, just do what I’m telling you to do.
[Career tip: Don’t do that.]

If you don’t already know, this blog is actually a study of how architects can learn from science communicators and Hollywood scientist Randy Olson can definitely teach us a thing or two about storytelling.  In his book Don’t Be Such a Scientist, he lays out a simple three-act story structure that almost every famous story follows:

You set up your subject (first act), give it a twist at the end of the first act (first plot point), explore several possible ways to untwist it and relieve the tension (second act), reveal a possible solution (second plot point), and then weave all the content together to release the source of tension (third act.)


A simple architectural story might go something like this:

Our client wanted to build a house in a beautiful forest but the site had a 40 ft cliff running right through the middle of it.  We tried a skinny tower scheme, but it created too many stairs for the client’s mother to climb.  We then tried a single floor cantilever over the edge of the cliff but the required structure would have been too expensive.  In the end, we went with a subterranean design that pokes out the face of the cliff.  The structural engineers, the mother, and our client are all happy.

“House in a forest” is the setup.  “40 ft cliff” is the conflict. The “skinny tower” and “cantilever” approaches are the second act attempts at resolution.  In the third act, the “subterranean” solution resolves the conflict, and “they’re all happy” is the final wrap-up.

Some may say that a story structure like this spends too much time on failing and not enough time on the solution.  In my experience, however, clients love seeing the design process, and some of the failed ideas might inspire alternative solutions.  Jody Brown, of Coffee With an Architect, also argues that architects might gain some respect if they show their work more.

Additionally, making the design process seem easy may kill the entertainment value of the story.  Randy Olson writes:

One of the simplest rules they drilled into our heads in film school is that “the heart of a good story is the source of tension or conflict.”

So when you’re about to get on The View to discuss the development of brutalism in America, keep the three act story structure in mind and don’t forget to talk about the conflict!

For another architectural example check out Place Exploration where I use a three act story structure to describe the 200 Year Birth of the International Style in 5 Minutes.

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