On Invisible Architecture and Storytelling

Rahm, Digestible Gulfstream (via Diffusive Architecture (diffusive.wordpress.com))

Response to Behnisch, Rahm, and Addington Readings

Storytelling in architecture – which I have perhaps incorrectly defined as intended communication from the architect to the visitor/user of the architecture – is a question that has risen for me multiple times in previous years.  I must admit that at the beginning of my studies I was partial to it; as an undergraduate, where my studies in architecture paralleled those in English, I found that the texts we read at times had influence on my architectural projects, and that the joint study of architecture and narrative was not unfavorable.  It had in fact influenced my work in two central respects – in helping to clarify my own ideas about a project and, in a manner more directly applicable to narrative, in the way in which I hoped to communicate ideas about a site or a program to imagined users.  I had found, for instance, that the question of building in a historic area in St. Paul became slightly unmuddled through the filter of Garcia Marquez – that the purchase of a mirror in Love in the Time of Cholera because it had held a woman’s “beloved reflection” for more than two hours asked essential questions about memory, absence, and subsequent alteration of what had come before.  Or that, while designing a visitor’s center for an archeological site in Oaxaca, a narrative of moving from the low-lying region of the commoner to the raised site of the elite was more important than one fixated only on the latter.

Despite what I thought were relatively successful projects at the time, I had gradually considered such an approach – designing with a narrative in mind – to be less and less convincing.  Why raise this issue now, then, some four years following the design of those two projects?  Despite this lack of interest in recent years, I found Phillipe Rahm’s criticism of the concept of storytelling in “Meteorological Architecture” to be highly frustrating – partially due to the fact that I could not determine why I suddenly disagreed, and partially because a potential answer only came weeks later, in lines and lines of data.

Behnisch and Transsolar, From Energy.Design.Synergy

The data offered by Behnisch Architekten and Transsolar Climate Engineering in the catalogue of their exhibition Energy.Design.Synergy is, to an extent, what Rahm offers in various projects of his own – use of a quantification of the everyday, of what we can see and what we cannot.  What became explicit in the excerpt above, however – which led to a better understanding of Rahm’s work – was that Behnisch connects this data to the human condition.  By extension, it is made clear here that quantitative knowledge of what makes us comfortable, healthy, et cetera, helps us become so when used accordingly, and that at the confluence of the age of information and various environmental crises, we can sort through the overabundance of data to help create the architecture we need to address the issues of potentially greatest importance.  Moving through such an architecture is to experience a narrative of our time, and to an extent, of other times.

In returning to Rahm’s work, it became clear that despite his own efforts at removing himself from the narrative, to make a “story-less” architecture open to multiple interpretations, he nevertheless created a narrative – one that is not unlike the work of Behnisch, and which perhaps proposes instead an even more effective category of storytelling for architecture.

Digestible Gulfstream (featured at the top of the post and below) attempts to be a “landscape that is simultaneously gastronomic and thermal,” utilizing the information of the human comfort level to provide a variety of conditions, supplemented by foods that cool or heat the body.  What results is an exploration of the invisible, or the work of an architect who wishes for visitors to his project to be able to experience aspects of the world they may not be aware of on a daily basis.  With an emphasis no longer on the visual, Rahm creates architectures of various other kinds – meteorological, gastronomical – but always makes these other architectures known through the human body, through sensation, and connecting it to that which surrounds and interacts with the body.  What results is a different understanding of humans and nature than what has existed for numerous decades.  In fact, his work may be a successful answer to a question posed by Michelle Addington in “Contingent Behaviors”: instead of an architecture in which a person is separated and protected from the surrounding environment by architecture as envelope, Rahm’s work uses small technological and other systems to control temperatures and comfort and thus permits a more substantial connection to the surrounding environment.  As such, in an age in which encouraging the public to be more conscious of natural cycles is of great importance, the dissolution of the architectural envelope and the emphasis of the surrounding environment is in many ways a narrative of value comparable to that of Behnisch’s work.

Rahm, Digestible Gulfstream (Thermal) (via Phillipe Rahm Architectes)

Rahm, Digestible Gulfstream (Food) (via Phillipe Rahm Architectes)

To this end, Rahm’s work could be argued to be very much about communication, of emphasizing the invisible and providing feedback to the users about their experiences – through their consumption of different foods and their location relative to the sources of heat or cold.  In fact, I would argue that instead of rejecting the concept of storytelling and the single interpretation, Rahm does what the best authors do: provide a narrative that permits exploration, of multiple interpretations, of continual reward upon returning again and again.  With this definition of storytelling in architecture, of multiple interpretations, of reinvestigation of human-nature relationships, of indicating to this and future generations that some of us worked to address the issues of our time with the tools of our time, I must admit I have returned to an extent to how I approached architecture in previous studies – as an English major.  The question, potentially, is not whether such a narrative should be intended or included, but what that narrative should say and through what means it should be communicated.

(Note: Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Rahm’s rejection of storytelling (unless the irony of lack of understanding is placed on my shoulders) can be found in the images he uses to describe the Gulfstream: a comic strip, which in addition to describing the progressive activities of the Gulfstream’s users in its frames, also includes an image of a woman reading about the project while using it.  The strip outlines one potential interpretation, one set of actions conducted by one set of people, of which there would be many more – and in case they did not understand how to use the Gulfstream, it came equipped with a set of instructions of its possibilities for use.  Perhaps Rahm is here trying to leave the storytelling to the comic and the book – and not the architecture – but I would argue the narrative and communication nevertheless remains in the piece itself, and is in its own way a storytelling architecture of today.)

Rahm, Digestible Gulfstream (Storytelling) (via Phillipe Rahm Architectes)

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