Storytelling in architecture: The communication of wellbeing



So you’re the architect and some clients come to you because they want you to design a house for them. But it’s not a house they are after: it’s happiness. They might not even know it themselves, but that’s what they will be looking a for: a place where they can be themselves, when alone and when with others, when doing something and when resting. As Christopher Alexander said, they are in pursuit of moments and situations when they are most alive.

So now you have a brief to do, but it’s not just about matching investment with square meters and fashionable styles. It’s about creating a certain atmosphere that’s conducive to wellbeing. But what is atmosphere?

If you ask a person how they feel, you may get a response about their overall state of being, influenced by body, mind and emotions all together. If you could ask architectural space how it feels, you’d get a response about its atmosphere. It would be a unique response though, because everyone else would get a slightly different one for the same space. The self, Louis Kahn said, seeks to extend itself through architecture. Well, the interface between human experience and the material environment is atmosphere. So if we want to create a space where someone feels well - and we do want to - we have to use architectural means to create an atmosphere that helps them feel well.

Now, how do we get the client to talk about atmosphere, about their needs, about their wellbeing? This is all very personal, subjective and individual. And we need to encourage them, ask them, listen to them, as part of making the brief, and definitely before making the first sketches. Because once the sketches are in, their visual allure is so strong that they will create expectations and steer the design process in the minds of both architects and clients even if that particular design direction makes it harder to achieve the client’s wellbeing.

However, the input we get from the clients can be fragmented, inconsistent, prejudiced, contradictory, confused, and even partly dishonest if the client is afraid to admit - to us or themselves - what makes them happy. But we need to try to make the input as coherent and useful in the design process as possible. So, I’m here to propose to you a method that can be of help. And the method is: storytelling.

Let’s have a look at an example. This is an excerpt from a fairytale for a very poetic client who wanted a sweet house amidst Croatian mountains. The illustrated story created a fantasy about how the house was created by a series of magical occurrences if front of a little passer-by girl. All the stages of the house’s creation had something to do both with its setting and the client’s wishes. It also reflected the fact that the client is a person in deep contact with her emotions and that her worldview is that everything in life happens for a reason.

This is the result, a house with a little house, which is actually a window extruded to become a sitting area floating in the spectacular view - one of the things mentioned in the fairytale.

The story helped us create mutual understanding and defined the atmosphere so well that we could refer to it and base decisions on it during the subsequent phases of the design process.

The second example, concerning a renovation of a family house, is different in that the client herself wrote about her vision for the house and its atmosphere after she went through our studio blindfolded, feeling and commenting the atmosphere there. Here is an excerpt from the client’s writings: “The kitchen would be like a creek. Things come and go. There’s this constant movement. After the bathroom, it’s the most vital part, but that’s because the creek always flows, not because there’s an element with an intensive atmosphere. Calmness, relative peace, so people can come and stir it a bit, but it will again arrange itself and become private.” 

Expressing this, and much more, was profoundly beneficial because it helped her address her fears and uncertainties stemming from her childhood experiences in the house and from the dilapidated nature of the neighbourhood.

So we’ve seen that storytelling can add coherency to the client’s input, that it can help the client’s self-awareness and that it can avoid premature visual focus.  But there are two other benefits of storytelling as a method for making design briefs:

Freedom of expression: storytelling is fun and it doesn’t require ordinary logics. People can express themselves metaphorically and symbolically, and the process can help them relax and communicate freely.

Trust: by making the story and talking about it, the client and the architect can confirm that there is mutual understanding of the goals that the design has to follow. This can then help decision making in the future. And if changes to the design need to be made because of technical or financial constraints, we can easily assess how much we can change without jeopardising the desired atmosphere.

What should we be careful about when using storytelling?

Pushing it: Like every design tool, we should carefully decide when, how and to what extent to use storytelling, especially because many people are not used to intensive and personal communication. Above all, as Christian Norberg-Schulz said, we should avoid educating the client without respect for their tastes and wishes.

Profit-oriented projects: The biggest disclaimer I have to make is that I’ve used this method only for houses that were at least partially intended to be used by the client. When talking about goals in a for-profit-only projects, a story about quality and recognisability could go a long way, but I wouldn’t like to use it as a marketing ploy.

To conclude, the art of storytelling is a way to bring balance to the process of architectural design just like the art of architecture helps bring balance to human life. It does so in the spirit of integrated design: of frankness, synergy and seeking the truth. It can also be very enjoyable, and happiness in the design process can only contribute to the happiness of clients in their future architectural space.

Metaphysical or not, wellbeing is real and important and we unavoidably influence it with our designs. So it’s better to talk about it and to educate architects about it, lest we forget that there is a human being in the centre of our design and of the design process, and not just somewhere in the 3d rendering.