Building Stories – the architectural design process as narrative

Conference paper in collaboration with Ania MolendaDigital Storytelling in Times of Crisis, Athens, 2014

While storytelling is about the construction of a story by setting up a timeline of events, design is based on the construction of a physical narration by organising spatial relationships. This paper builds up an analogy between storytelling and spatial design processes. It ponders on the effects of the available means and technologies on these undertakings. We look back to the emergence of media that have significantly influenced the design thinking of their time and we trace three categories of design tools that narrate different types of stories. Representational tools express visually an image first conceived in the architect’s mind, conveying stories of desirable lifestyles. Especially throughout the last decades the process of creating that vision has been influenced by the emergence of digital design tools that are able to algorithmically generate architectural forms. Through their use, the narration element becomes strongly incorporated into the design process perhaps at the expense of the final result, becoming inaccessible to those who do not have the access to the code or the ability to understand it. Finally, the most recent development is found in what we define as “animating” tools. The use of new media to create immersive and multilayered spatial experiences and interactive stories, that stems neither from an architect’s vision, nor from a computer’s algorithmic process, but from the layering of information and experiences by a multitude of inputs.

The first design computer program CATIA used in 1981. source:


When a place is lifeless or unreal, there is almost always a mastermind behind it. It is so filled with the will of its maker that there is no room for its own nature.” – Christopher Alexander

In October 2012, in an exhibition at Yale School of Architecture, revisiting Palladio’s work, Peter Eisenman proposed a novel reading of the renowned classical architect’s work, not based on previous formal analysis but on the traces of the design process. He built in models and redrew his villas based on sketches and drawings that never made it to the final stage of the design, which was eventually realized. The architectural design process, a layering of drawings, models and texts is itself a story of how these villas reached their final form and a record of the designer’s doubts, trials and errors – an inner discussion on the building’s architectural expression, which later becomes so much of a meaningful storyteller on its own.

As Anthony Vidler comments in a review of the day “Eisenman’s point, one which has been a consistent leitmotif of his theoretical practice from the beginning, is to open up what he calls ‘the possibility of an architecture’, one that emerges from a ‘redrawing of the very boundaries of the discipline’, a constant comprehension of undecidability, and an awareness of indeterminacy that underlies the architectural project from the outset. Eisenman’s contemporary quest, that is consciously bound to unending irresolution, is aimed toward an architecture of formal ideas that live through the process of design, and continue to live through construction, and posthumous idealisation, in all the potential states represented by three-dimensional models, object, texts and drawings.” (Vidler, 2012)

Architecture has always been considered a carrier of messages. Stories and buildings have been tied up together since the beginning of the conscious formation of space and the first attempts to understand the world around us. Nowadays this relationship becomes not only tighter but also more complex as the use of information technologies adds up to this already intricate correlation. But what Eisenmann brings into focus, perhaps for the first time in such a scale, is the stories hidden in the process of giving shape to the space around us.

Architectural Design as Storytelling

Storytelling is a process that establishes and develops connections between one’s past experiences and those of others. (Frascari, 2012: 224) Since the prehistoric times it has served as one of the most powerful cognitive tools that help us make judgements about things and events, based on the emotions stirred by a story. Consequently storytelling, as buildings, has always been a carrier of ideas and thoughts that were a result of this comprehension, evoking emotions not by composition of plots but by composition of sets, where plots could and would play out. But while a narrative is constructed as a timeline of events, the architecture is constructed as a set of spatial relationships defining human action, which is its basic concern, in the same way it is the basic concern of stories. (Chi, 1991: 84) Naturally architecture can be understood as storytelling, not only because it serves as a set for plots and a container of them, but also because it becomes a subject to a historical analysis. What we can see in Eisenman’s re-reading of Palladio’s work, is an interesting twist on a classical historical reading of architecture as a spatial construct. What is intriguing in it, is that Eisenman looked at the design process as a construction of that story. The design process revealed by him unfolds a tale of what the coordinator of that process, the architect, imagined as the future ideal inhabitation conditions. How he was struggling to identify the beauty and the most meaningful emotions that should be expressed in the ideal surrounding. Identifying a building as a beautiful artefact, corresponds however to more than a purely aesthetic judgement; it suggests an attraction towards the lifestyle promoted by the architecture. It is implied by the spatial organisation of the rooms, the movement, the size and position of the openings and even the furnishing. Imagining oneself conducting everyday life inside a space signifies a material expression of one’s ideals of a good life. (De Botton, 2007: 88)

It could be said that while architecture is capable of telling stories about past and present, the architectural design is by definition telling a story about the future and its construction. This paper will specifically focus on this part of architectural practice and the manifestation of storytelling through architectural design, with a special focus on its new dimensions that were made possible by the introduction of the digital media.

While the process of imagining and visualizing architecture has not changed structurally for centuries, it has been strongly influenced by the different media that were available at any given time in history. The tools architects have been using to communicate their work are primarily visual. They sketch out ideas, draw plans and sections and produce 3d renderings of their buildings. They also build physical models and create film animations of the experience of walking through their buildings many of which are discarded along the way. The various tools that architects have been using to tell their stories about the future spaces they had in mind, digital or not, have had influence on the eventual narrative. The paper will therefore first introduce a brief genealogy of prominent architectural tools, which will serve as a background for examining what they have allowed and emphasized, what kind of buildings did they lead to, what chances did they give and what did they dismiss. Further, an extrapolation of these observations will be made to study the digital tools currently available and speculate on the different ways of incorporating them in the storytelling of the design process.

Representational tools

Powerful narrative techniques help architects to introduce new designs, strategies for conceiving buildings and changes in plans.” (Frascari, 2012: 225)

Examined below are four cornerstone events that marked breakthroughs in by the discovery of new representational tools that influenced the development of architectural design as a storytelling process, that is: the invention of perspective drawing, implementation of section, axonometric drawing and eventually digital 3d modelling and visualization.

Even if there are several objections (Hoffmann, 2010: 5) as to whether the perspective was actually re-invented by Brunelleschi’s painting experiment[1] in 1420 in Florence, it remains undoubtful that linear perspective, as popularised by Alberti, who replaced Brunelleschi’s mirror with a gridded window, radically influenced Renaissance art and architecture. Furthermore it possibly played a key role to the development of the scientific revolution of the 16th century. Perspective allowed renaissance architecture to become pictorial, seeking to produce perfect images focused on one particular gaze and painting became synonymous with the act of seeing. (Belting, 2010: 522) By exploiting the laws of vision, people could finally depict the world perfectly and attain a God’s eye perspective, gradually bringing this divine privilege into a secular context. (Hayton, 2011: 383)

The section, one of the most commonly used representational views in modern design drawings, only started to be widely used in the late renaissance. Its proliferation coincided with the break of the taboo of dissecting the human body. Dissecting a building created a dialogue between the cutting surface and the depth shown behind and thus allowed for the interior to be disconnected from the exterior. In english the word section means both the “cut” and the “fragment”. Till then the buildings were designed mainly in plan and perspective views; the parallel projection of the section allowed the interiors to be worked out as independent surfaces. (Manolidis, 2006: 188) The architectural section can also be seen as an example of the development of a tool that also stood in line with the rules of composition used during the Renaissance. The beauty of the the whole was defined by the perfect proportions of its parts as if they were autonomous objects. Consequently, the buildings were not only designed as perfect in plan and elevation, but in section as well. Even though the buildings would hardly ever be seen in such an abstract situation, it allowed for a better understanding of volume and depth that together with the perspective drawing has had a large influence on the theatrical experiments of light and shadow developed later in Baroque.

In the early 20th century, the axonometric drawing became the symbol of the modern movement. Contrary to the single point perspective view that has been the main representational tool of the 19th century, the parallel perspective used in the axonometric allowed for the measurable elements to remain in scale while maintaining the same level of detail through out the drawing. It was a method of representation that, according to Gropius, (Amerikanou, 2006: 217) was able to join the atmosphere of a space and the line drawing. It allowed to avoid the disadvantages of the latter (concerning perception) without compromising the possibility to directly measure dimensions. The axonometric declared the independence of the wall and established the surface as a new architectural element. Its technical nature favorited a strict and minimal expression, which came to be the defining language in modernist narrative.

Even the first digital tools were initially representational. The digital drawing board was based on Cartesian systems of coordination and resembled a conventional design on paper It provided traditional tools, such as lines, sections, compasses, dimensions etc. Despite their increasing ability to create and edit more complex forms, even nowadays the most commonly used computer aided design softwares work very much as traditional drawing boards. One of the first digital modelling tool CATIA (Computer Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application) first developed in 1977 to design streamlined and aerodynamic structures such as ships and aircrafts soon made its way to aid architectural designs of Frank Ghery and gave shape to his well known complex forms. This type of application of CATIA and other similar software tools has ever since exploded and spread all over architectural offices. But for all its ability to represent complex geometries, Ghery’s designs were still largely based on traditional paper and foam models, before being rendered into impressive three-dimensional ones.

The evolution of digital media has added a significant amount of complexity both in the story-building as in the architectural design process. The possibilities of design and storytelling are expanding. In architecture, the introduction of advanced computational tools has permitted designers to generate and construct highly complex forms, quickly shift between scales, work faster and compare models with unprecedented ease. The development of these tools still to this day however leaves a lot to wish for in terms of its contribution to a deeper understanding of the user experience that comes beyond formal, functional and structural aspects.

Design tools

Digital media, like many new media in the time of their invention, have lead to the emergence of new ways of thinking about spaces which find no place in reality but remain in the sphere of the virtual. New motion, prototyping and artificial intelligence techniques create possibilities and architectural tools, which are no more only a static, simplistic image of designed object. (Molenda, 2008: 5) The possibilities of computational design tools to go beyond mere representation was explored early on and in the turn of the 20th century, the focus of the architectural discourse shifted from considering the architectural form as the final product towards a procedure-based architecture, generating forms by the parametric modelling of information. (Frascari, 2012: 228-231)

The parametrization brought in by contemporary digital media is based on indicators that can be quantified and measured. Their abilities derive from collecting and rapidly processing vast amounts of data which can be translated into patterns. It is the interpretation of these patterns that will become the driving force of future spatial stories. While the tools described in the previous sections were about presenting the product of the design process, parametric design tools are focused on designing the process that will lead to objective yet not predefined architectural forms. (Vergopoulos, 2006: 369) But when form is deriving from genetic algorithms, evolutionary computer programs that automatically optimize design solutions, the designer’s deliberation can only be traced in his initial task of defining the rules. Thus, the story he intends to express is internalised in the design process. With the increasing complexity made possible by advanced design and fabrication tools, there needs to be another mechanism of assigning externalising the stories told by these forms. (Stott, 2014) This is what Greg Lynn, an otherwise  avid supporter of parametric design, expresses by stating that “the failure of Artificial Intelligence should lead us to the development of digital tools that support human intuition, human creation as it is manifested in the effort to connect meaning and form and not to the incorporation of critical attitude in computers”. (Vergopoulos, 2006: 370) Designing by coding means generating new forms based on algebraic and arithmetic operations. Contrary to the conventional design based on Euclidean geometry, algorithmic forms derive from vectors, the movements of points in a given period of time. According to Gramelsberger,“this new method of narration holds the potential for even further narrations, for when buildings and objects become masses of accumulated points and bundles of trajectories, the relation between these points and the trajectories’ path of development can be redefined again and again. This is exactly where the computer code comes in, by allowing the new design principles that are not based on geometry to affect the point and trajectories.” (Gramelsberger, 2010: 36)  Form is not any more an image pre-existing in the mind of the designer but the product of a set of rules and quantified relationships. Consequently, the story told is not anymore that of an ideal inhabitation included in the designer’s visions but a story embedded in the algorithm defining the result. It is a story of intentions rather than inhabitations, that remains illegible by all but the very few who have access to and understanding of the generative code.

In this respect, the launch of Grasshopper in 2007, can be considered a groundbreaking development. Grasshopper is a visual programming tool, that has widely popularised the world of programming into architectural design. It allows designers to visually connect inputs and outputs that affect design components, by dragging and joining them with connecting wires on the canvas, permitting a straightforward creation and easy tweak of generative algorithms, that produce complex geometries and behaviours of various structural elements, without the need for any knowledge of coding. Obviously, this development is offering designers a better understanding of the parameters that influence their designs and allows them directly control them. We could claim that the possibility of an unmediated relation between designers and parametric design, returns to the architects a better command of the stories embedded in their designs.

So while according to Marco Frascari (2012: 225) we are in an epoch where storytelling might be seen as suspect when applied outside of the field of entertainment (that is a result of the antagonism indebted probably most deeply to the Cartesian thinking and its determined effort to reduce all knowledge to analytic thinking) today perhaps more than ever before we should come back to storytelling as one of our basic cognitive tools. In the era of information which discards storytelling and which is dominated by numbers and quantifiable qualities a serious consideration on how to reintroduce storytelling to the way we not only conceptualize but also construct our world would be highly valuable. In the following section we identify some first steps taken towards this direction, facilitated by virtual environments and mobile media.

Animating tools

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” – Muriel Rukeyser

Both serious and entertainment games are entering the world of design, incorporating storytelling, peer-to-peer interactions and content generation. These virtual environments can be used to test ideas and proposals and their potential public appeal and function as incubators of novel design approaches. Second Life, a virtual world founded by the San Francisco-based company Linden Lab, is arguably, the most prominent example of virtual social environments. The game became particularly popular in 2005-2006 and started declining around 2010. Players of Second Life operate under an avatar, which can have characteristics very different than humans and are able to perform all sorts of activities possible in real life. They can talk to each other, walk around, attend events, join groups and they can also create, buy and sell products using the local virtual currency, called “Linden Dollars”, which is traded against the U.S. Dollar on Second Life’s Exchange. This aspect of Second Life in particular, lead to the rise of a big parallel, virtual market which supported financially many professionals and even large companies with virtual branches.[2] It even lead to the specialisation of virtual design studios, producing designs exclusively for Second Life.  Kaplan and Haenlein recognise five different ways in which companies can make use of virtual worlds, notably, for advertising and communication, virtual product sales (v-Commerce), marketing research, human resource management, and internal process management. (Kaplan, Haenlein, 2009: 566)

In virtual game worlds, as Second Life, space is released from real world constraints and architecture is produced in an environment where a lot of users can interact during the production of space. In this way, a tool, not originally intended to be used for spatial design is becoming the testing ground for collective attitudes around architecture and design. It is thus, hardly surprising that more than two hundred universities have been using Second Life as part of their educational planning curriculum. (Kelton, 2007) Hollander and Thomas (2009: 109-112) give an account of an experiment they conducted in two university design courses, using Second Life as their main educational instrument. They observe that the use of a virtual environment increased collaboration among the students and improved their problem finding and problem-solving skills. Even the that they were challenged by the “reality” of this virtual world, dealing with harassment and vandalism, reinforces the argument that, because virtual environments still share many connections to the real world, they are very suitable environments to explore alternatives before applying them in the real world. The authors also note that traditional digital design tools, isolate the building from it’s context and do not associate it with its direct environment, while Second Life allows for a virtual “life” occurring in the designs, thus allows for immediate evaluation of the design proposals.

Peer-to-peer interaction as well as the exchange between real and virtual worlds has been gradually leaving the computer screen and moving into the city. The complexity of urban environments allow for stories that are more varied and sophisticated and created in response to existing stimuli, instead of vast empty territories. The rise of mobile media and the widespread accessibility of wireless internet have provided a tremendous push in the development of interactive storytelling, pervasive gaming and location-based applications.

“Can you see me now?” developed in 2001 by Blast Theory and the Mixed Reality Lab of the University of Nottingham, was one of the first pervasive games ever played. Blast Theory members were running around the city, with GPS tracking hand-held devices chasing down players running around in the same city online. Since then, many transmedia projects have allowed stories to be user interactive. Especially in the fields of gaming and cinema, interactive storytelling has found a fruitful ground for exploration. A story might start inside a cinema room, continue in your smartphone screen based on the story strand you have chosen and go on in your home, on your computer screen or by sms’s on your phone.

Seemingly, architects have been relatively slow in letting go of their solitary way of design. In the field of urbanism, however, where design is mostly based on strategic decisions and it has a clear impact on the lives of considerably larger amounts of people, there is already a widespread exploration of utilising new media to engage a wider public in issues of common interest. In an effort to make the urban design process more open and inclusive, there are many platforms that allow users to share their stories, experiences and ideas by locating them on maps,[3] which may later serve as input for the planning authorities. Several authors refer to these as “argumentation maps”.[4] There is still a strive to make these stories part of the design process at least on an urban level. But several of these tools still lack the engagement of people not only in providing input and sharing information but aggregating them and creating collective narratives, through their peer-to-peer interaction.

The overlapping of stories related to their specific location serves as a mechanism that animates spaces, it assigns values, symbols and meanings to the urban space, that consequently affects spatial practices, perceptions and imaginations. It stimulates new stories, ideas and meanings in a self-propelling cycle. All together, they create a collective story, that is constantly updated, enriched and reiterated. Even if storytelling when considered as entertainment is put into question, as Frascari (2012: 225) claims, the ludic engagement through which millions of people share their stories in the spaces of our cities, is still an unrivaled way to animate those spaces and bringing them to life.


For Bachelard, storytelling is embedded in the spaces we are inhabiting, it makes sense to “read” or “write” a room or a house, as if it is a story. But he also recognises that this can be rather a tricky task for the writer since already from the first words, the reader “reading” a room starts thinking of a space he has inhabited. The author would like to say everything about the room he is describing. He would like to keep his reader’s attention, while in reality he has opened a door for him to escape into his own thoughts and memories. The strength of intimacy is so absorbing that the reader doesn’t read the writer’s room anymore; he visualizes his own. (Bachelard, 1982: 41) “The success of the story for that reason lies in its ability to be interpreted and understood, so that it might take on a personal meaning for the reader. Benjamin writes that this interpretative task is what separates the story from mere information “… the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.” (Benjamin, 1969: p.4)

Similarly, argumentation maps and the possibilities of new media, encourage users to enrich a place with their own interpretations of its spatial conditions and share their stories publicly. This is the greatest advantage provided to architects and urban planners by contemporary new media and their possibilities for digital storytelling. The unprecedented openness and layering of thousands of stories that both create and reveal the “soul” of a place and constitute a gift to design professionals that should not be disregarded. Architecture, in its wider understanding as the shaping of the human habitat, can become a cosmopoesis, (Frascari, 2012) and embrace the complexity and contingency imbued in urban environments. Design professionals can finally transform the architectural design process from a solitary narration of spatial living scenarios into collective, interactive and constantly reiterated spatial stories.


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Benjamin Walter, 1969, “The Storyteller,” p.4, in: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, New York, Schocken Books

Blast Theory, Can you see me now?, [online on the website: , consulted: 12/04/2014]

Chi L., 1991, “Narration and the Architectural Program: The ‘Mythical’ Status of Architectural Fictions,” p. 84, in Linzey M. (ed.) Writing/History/Architecture/Myth, Auckland, The University of Auckland.

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[1] Brunelleschi used a peep-hole and mirror device in a painting he made of the Baptistry of St. John. The viewer looked through a hole in a wooden panel at a mirror that reflected the image of the painting from the other side of the panel, intensifying the illusion of depth. Alberti used a gridded window, which allowed him to copy what he saw under scale into his equally divided canvas. This marked the change of paradigm, as the real world is now considered regulated by geometrical rules that can be decodified.

[2] In the last quarter of 2010, 750.000 Second Life players created a turnover of $165million USD. source: Yanto Chandra, Mark A. A. M. Leenders, User innovation and entrepreneurship in the virtual world: A study of Second Life residents, Technovation 32 (2012), 464–476

[3] Just to mention a few: Dear City,, Change by Us,, Neighborland,

[4] a useful overview of relevant authors at  Poplin, 2012