In the first article of this series, Architects as Storytellers we looked at the possible historical and etymological origins for why we call the levels of a building “stories.” The main idea is that the frieze of an ancient Greek temple often featured sculpted scenes honoring a god or goddess. The frieze was a narrative device to proclaim the honoree’s story.
The ancient Master Builder – the architektōn – made the story a prominent design feature of the temple to be admired by the masses, the ruling class, and even the gods for ages to come.
Concluding the article, I suggested we take a creative leap from these historic facts to this helpful fable:
“The first architects solidified oral traditions and elevated the culture’s great stories; that’s why our buildings are measured in stories today.”
I posited that this would be our explanation of how building levels came to be called stories. This newly minted tale is also our rightful claim to the status of storytellers.
Soon after the first article was posted on the EntreArchitect blog, I began to refer to this fable – the temple frieze as a story device – as architecture’s “story origins.”
Everyone knows the idea of a character’s origin story; it’s the foundational event that defines the character’s identity. In the comic book genre (which spans from page to screen) a superhero’s origin story tells us how the hero gained their unique powers or found their peculiar calling. The origin story, well told, can be predictive of later events. The origin story grounds the character but it also elevates the character.
As an architect, you probably have an origin story. Superpowers aside, some person, environment, or event moved you into this profession. We’ll explore the power of career origin stories in a future post.
For now, I want you to be aware that collectively, as building designers, our origin is in stories: the ancient architektōns built stories into their best work. I encourage you to be aware of your story origins.
Why it Matters
As architects, why should it matter that we identify as storytellers? Isn’t the storytelling bandwagon full to the point of collapse already?
Yes, it is. Storytellers are everywhere. But while social media is full of self-proclaimed storytellers (and rock stars, ninjas, gurus, and other experts), understanding good storytelling offers a significant advantage in life and business. I believe we should embrace storytelling in the way it uniquely applies to architecture.
Let’s return to ancient Greece for some insight.
“Those who tell the stories rule society.”
Plato – 4 Century BC Philosopher
You’ve probably seen this quote. I’ve used it often myself. It is used to promote the power of storytelling. But what is its context? And how does it pertain to us as architect-storytellers?
Plato’s The Republic is a first-person fictional narrative relaying a series of discussions between Socrates and several other civic leaders on the topic of forming an ideal society. The Republic spans Ten Books and 115,000 words. Although we don’t find Plato’s storytelling quote in this work, we do find Socrates expounding on the importance of storytelling. Here we can find the cultural context for Plato’s quote.
Plato has Socrates tell the others that in their ideal society, storytelling will be so important and so powerful, that the stories themselves will need to be governed. From the first nursery tales told to small children, to the stories taught to young soldiers-in-training, to the comedies and tragedies performed for public entertainment, stories in the Republic would require approval. Stories would be sanctioned. Not only what could be told, but also how it could be told; these mandates would be used to rule society.
This level of editorial control and censorship leaves us uncomfortable, but this is the thinking behind Plato’s now beloved quote. In his mind, such careful storytelling is needed to rule the ideal society. No subpar stories allowed.
Architectural Stories in our Culture
When I ran my practice and introduced myself at networking events and real estate industry functions, people were typically impressed. “Oh, really? I’ve never met an architect before,” many said. A few responded, “I wanted to be an architect when I was young,” and others said, “I love to experience architecture when I travel.”
You’ve probably experienced similar positive reactions.
Architects hold a place of esteem for many non-architects, but for no apparent reason. Let me explain. Often these people, with their next breath, would refer to Mike Brady or Ted Mosby, sit-com architects, or if they were readers or movie buffs, they would mention The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s epic work which spanned form page to screen over seventy years ago. These were the only cultural touchpoints those good people had with our profession. This is all they had to draw from to connect with me as an architect.
And yet they were impressed by my title. What if they had more realistic and compelling architectural stories to relate to? That’s where I took them next.
This is an important fact to consider: most people have never known or worked with an architect. All they know about us is what they’ve occasionally gleaned from the entertainment industry.
A Call to Action
What would Plato say to this? The Master Builders of his day were the ones who elevated the great stories in the form of sacred temples, yet the architektōns of the modern world are a people with no stories of their own. Plato might say we’re not ruling well because we’re not telling well.
This isn’t Plato’s Republic. There is no governing body exercising editorial control and censorship over us. And there’s no professional body speaking for us. It is up to us to cultivate the stories of architects and architecture that our society needs.
I believe there’s a noticeable lack of architecture stories in the entertainment industry – and we’ll address that in future posts. But knowing our own personal and professional stores is essential; living into our stories is where we become grounded as architects. Grounded then elevated. The people we meet admire us, but for no apparent reason. Let’s give them something to talk about. Let’s become the storied people we are meant to be.
How are you telling YOUR architect story? Please share your thoughts in the comments section. Let’s work together to become architect-storytellers.
I’m a Registered Architect with over thirty years of wide-ranging experience. I spent three years running my own business, but I have returned to the world of the employed. I still miss the people-centered activities of marketing and business development.
I find and promote (and sometimes write) great stories of architecture and architects. The world loves what we do, even when they don’t fully understand it. They need our stories.
We are in a Golden Age of Storytelling, but architects are missing out on this zeitgeist. We’re not benefiting from the public’s need to be engaged with compelling stories. We’re not leveraging our “story-building” heritage. We’re missing out. My calling is to change this for us all.
I am fascinated by the art and science of storytelling. My mission is to help my fellow architects understand and tell their stories. I also believe there’s an untapped market for fictional stories of architects and architecture – crafted for page and screen – to engage the culture at large.
“Those who tell the stories rule society.” – Plato