When I first started mulling over the shared territory between architectural design and fiction writing, my simple hope was to pilfer architectural theories of structure and form and cunningly twist them into craft logic for the fiction writer. That is, I thought perhaps I could glean something from architects about how to shape a story, tuck that something in my pocket, and call it mine. Overlaying structure on content seemed both sensible and inspired, a simple technique to invest and direct meaning, and I imagined correlations between the two fields unfolding in the most obvious ways: a framed story, say, or a story manufactured in levels. I was also interested in exploring more esoteric versions of basic engineering: how circulation, for instance, might translate in story terms; or how narrative walls, so to speak, might be positioned for the best effect.
Unlike poets, fiction writers lack the possibilities of clear formal strictures –the useful fail-safe of schematics – and at times, especially during those hours when I’ve scoured my bookshelves for a real rulebook, I have felt that loss keenly. How grand it would be to know that every family story should contain, say, six scenes interspersed with one long passage of exposition or that a particular kind of love story must only be told in interior monologue.
Architects, god love ‘em, enjoy such riches: a history of evolving forms to contextualize problems and, even better, a habit of developing credos that might bear much in common with the goals of fiction-writing. Take this twentieth-century dictum attributed to Louis Sullivan:
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.
Sullivan’s proclamation – how strong! how enticingly definitive! – was later nuanced by the unlikeable Adolfe Loos, who called the premise and raised it with “form follows function; ornament is a crime,” a concept Le Corbusier placed close to heart as he designated buildings as “machines for living.” Then along came Mies van der Rohe. His improvement of the Law – the Hemingway-esque motto, “Less is More” – was more or less kicked across the room by Robert Venturi, who famously came back with “Less is a Bore.” In Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour took the rebuke further, presenting ornamentation as more or less intrinsic (“The Duck”) or applied (“The Decorated Shed”) and, in either manifestation, necessary. Meaning, they maintained, could evolve from an iconic shape or could be lathered on with well-chosen embellishments.
While parallels between these design modes and trends in storytelling are apparent, my translations into fiction-writing technique garnered results that felt contrived and facile. Useful connections between fiction and specific structural archetypes weren’t proving as easy to nail to down – pardon the pun – as I’d thought. Yet as I read about the unwinding of this century-long discussion, I remained intrigued by the focus on an ongoing dynamic between form and function in architectural practice. Architects, I learned, begin the design process by developing a building’s narrative. A narrative is shaped from a program, which is the given need. Put in the simplest way, the purpose of the narrative is to shape the program – the engineering, aesthetic, cultural, even historical demands – of a building as determined by its potential use, the desires of its occupants, and the constraints of the site into something productive. That narrative sum is crucial and an entity all its own, one that might be speculative in all the best ways. The narrative determines both form and function and leaps past both, becoming a third configuration altogether, a kind of intangible response to tangible needs. In other words, the eventual design, which must hue closely to the narrative, refers not to the structure itself but to all the ways in which the structure will be inhabited. Not the frame itself but the animation of the frame. And the two, animation and frame, are inextricably intertwined.
As the narrative develops, the architect sets up a series of questions to be addressed and often finds, ironically, that every design move contains both solution and problem. I can’t help thinking here of the necessity for movement in a story as well as the speculative nature of storytelling – the “what if?” – and in this interior struggle between solution and problem, I hear Charles Baxter, who urges writers to continually push their characters into “interesting trouble.” Could this “interesting trouble,” this problem/solution dynamic, provide a kind of interior “structure” for a story? Perhaps story structure needs to be less about formal constraints than about that oft-missing crucial dialogue between animation and frame, between problem and solution, and a similar spooling-out of a wider-ranging fictional “program.” I’d been asking the wrong questions all along, it seemed. Or rather, my search had been single-mindedly positioned on the kind of one-way conversation that tends to sap a story’s potential vitality.
As with an architectural design, a story depends not just upon the line of an overlying narrative, but also the reasons for that narrative and the responses the writer hopes to elicit from the reader. And, like a building, a story is not simply a temporary separation from the world. We know a reader inhabits at least two worlds simultaneously: the real physical world and the world of the story, resulting in enclosure within enclosure, each state of consciousness informing the other. A dialogue is already underway between those two simultaneous realities. In an oft-quoted description, Alice Munro aptly equates the two – structure and story – and calls attention to the ongoing relationships within the house of story and between the story and “the world outside”:
A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside
and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where
you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other,
how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.
And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.
With each turn within the story house, Munro suggests, another room is revealed, another conversation begins and grows, and the reader sees both the fictional and actual worlds anew.
Consider here, for a moment, another architectural example: the Bunny Lane House, designed and built by Adam Kalkin. The outer frame of the Bunny Lane House is built from what looks like a Butler building, a manufactured steel building that resembles a large shipping container. From the outside, it appears as a beautiful, light-filled airy box – more object than dwelling. Inside, however, Kalkin has done something different. He has placed another full house – a real farmhouse that once stood on a corner of his property – into the center of the new house. So, if you stand in the center of Bunny Lane House, you can turn in one direction and see a modern rendition of a house, room upon room in the redefined container, or you can switch directions and enter an older, iconic form of home.
Now why would he do this? Here’s what Kalkin has to say:
The container is a purpose-built object. When you recontextualize it, put it in a residential context, use it for architecture proper, you both destroy the original context and create a new context. This is a form of upcycling, taking modest storage… and using it for a higher purpose. You get a beautiful dialogue between the old and the new. And between one set of ideas and another you get a certain kind of vitality that resonates…
Note those phrases: a dialogue between the old and the new; a certain kind of vitality that resonates. Kalkin is, as he says, revisioning space with space, recontextualizing, using familiar connotations to create a conversation, an exchange then between the elements of the house and, by extension, between the house and the occupants, the house and visitors, the house and the viewer.
You might be hearing an echo about now. In previous Soundings’ essays, Mary Blew eloquently described the role of defamiliarization in writing about Place, a way to re-vision the known. And Marjorie Sandor unlocked the door to the Uncanny, a recognition of the Unseen Other that lurks within the familiar, creating a sensation of deep unease and attraction that also provides “a chance to break old habits of not-seeing, not-hearing, not-smelling” – i.e., defamiliarization again. In both essays, the writers encourage a revitalization that enlivens, enriches, and altogether reconfigures Story. In both essays and in this slight consideration, too, the upshot is that, with each story, the fiction writer faces a challenge akin to that of the architect: creating forms of inhabitation.
Anyone can tell an anecdote, lining up events and characters like walls and furniture and load-bearing walls, but for an anecdote or situation to become a story, the tale must be willfully inhabited, not simply constructed. “Go to where the story’s ‘hot,’” we tell each other when revision seems stalled. “Go find the moments that are alive and build from them.” As James Woods writes, commending Hillary Mantel in a recent glowing New Yorker review of that writer’s sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies: “She knows that what gives fiction its vitality is not the accurate detail but the animate one…” Woods goes on to elevate Mantel over other writers of historical fiction, who, he writes: “…are intelligent, but they are not novelistically intelligent. They copy the motions but rarely inhabit the movement of vitality” [my italics].
I was excited when I first saw Kalkin’s Bunny Lane House because it upended my notion of House yet also satisfied my notion of a house. It vivified and enlarged a possible conception of Home with that dialogue between the old and the new, which reads to me also as a dialogue between the thematic (house), the energetic (alternating feelings of home), and the structural (varying values of enclosure). It was also deeply, wonderfully strange. The house was alive in a way that was altogether new and also completely recognizable.
Think of this in terms of story by linking to the first three photographs of the Bunny Lane House. There is the frame (the container, as seen in the first photo), and the plot (the entity it contains, as seen in the second photo), and there is the interaction and interdependence of the container and the entity (as seen in the third photo). By engaging in ongoing speculation and opening dialogue between structure and content, the writer, like the architect, can and must set into motion an essential aspect of any narrative: inhabitation.
Works Cited Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1998. Brown, Denise Scott, Izenour, Steven, and Venturi, Robert. Learning From Las Vegas. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977. Le Corbusier. Toward an Architecture. Translated by John Goodman. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007. Loos, Adolfe. (1908). Ornament and Crime. Innsbruck, reprint Vienna, 1930. Kalkin, Adam. Architecture & Hygiene. London: Batsford (Anova Books Group), 2003. Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig. Less is More. Zurich: Waser Verlag, 1986. Munro, Alice. “Alice Munro, The Art of Fiction No. 137.” Interview by Jeanne McCulloch, Mona Simpson. The Paris Review. Summer, 1994, No. 131. Sullivan, Louis. “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” New York: Lippincott's Magazine. March 1896. Wood, James. “Invitation to a Beheading: The Thomas Cromwell Novels of Hilary Mantel.” Review. The New Yorker. May 7, 2012.
Adrianne Harun is the author of a story collection, The King of Limbo, which was a Sewanee Writers Series selection (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) and a Washington State Book Award finalist. Her first novel, A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, will be published by Viking Penguin in 2014. Adrianne’s stories have been published widely and have won awards from Story and the Chicago Tribune (Nelson Algren Award) and also been noted in both Best American Short Stories and Best American Mystery Stories. In addition to teaching at the Rainier Writing Workshop, Adrianne is on the faculty of the Sewanee School of Letters, an MFA program at the University of the South. Happily, we also enjoy her acumen and spirited presence as a faculty member at the Rainier Writing Workshop!