Spoiler alert: The following review divulges fundamental elements of the story.
A sentence like the one above typically warns against revealing plot points of books or movies, but how often does it appear in evaluations of architecture? Perhaps never. Yet architects commonly refer to the building as a storytelling medium. In fact, the notion of the architectural narrative may be as old as storytelling itself. “Narratives that personify ethical or existential questions have profoundly shaped our understanding of space; these mythical tales and parables have the power to mediate between the spatial configuration of the universe, of heaven and hell, and the everyday world and its reality of survival, sustenance, and territory,” writes architect Nigel Coates in Narrative Architecture (Wiley, 2012). “Within the framework of these spatial geometries, narratives can engage with the medium of space, and form the basis on which architecture can be given meaning.”
In contemporary practice, however, architectural storytelling has fallen flat. Many architects emphasize direct communication while eschewing the discovery, transformation, and surprise that are essential features of a tale. In this sense, the design of buildings today shares more in common with advertising than writing fiction, aiming to express explicit messages to audiences with short attention spans. “In the media, reference to 'narrative' is now so commonplace as to evade meaning,” Coates bemoans. “In its tightest form it indicates a literary sensibility, but often dissolves simply into an 'idea.' ”
One firm that pursues the embodiment of narrative in building is Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects (OPA). The San Francisco–based office, founded by principals Luke Ogrydziak, AIA, and Zoë Prillinger, is an idea-based enterprise that aims to convey meaning in architecture “by creating powerful emotional and perceptual resonances,” according to its website. The concept of narrative conjures many associations; in OPA’s case, storytelling is an essentialized narrative that addresses the fundamental qualities of human experience—as opposed to the didactic storytelling strategies one might see in a church or museum exhibit. Ogrydziak and Prillinger are focused on “shaping and choreographing spatial experiences through the consideration of movement and formal logic”—a more challenging approach than the incorporation of a literal narrative.
Consider Shapeshifter, a 5,900-square-foot residence outside of Reno, Nev. Designed for two collectors of contemporary and Western art, the house embraces its immediate desert context—or emerges out of it—in a unified topology of building and landscape. Shapeshifter “explores slippery form by seeing the ground as a mutable, protean material, an untapped unconscious,” the architects write. “We reshaped the site into anticlines and synclines, dunes and blowouts, and gradually the form of the house emerged with the terrain.”
The creation of a holistic setting is a critical narrative strategy to situate the audience within a totalizing experience. In this project, it also appears to be an attempt to overcome what architect Bernard Tschumi, FAIA, has identified as a challenge to the architectural narrative: the fact that a visitor can never perceive a building in its entirety. “Architecture constitutes the reality of experience while this reality gets in the way of the overall vision,” he writes in Architecture and Disjunction (MIT Press, 1996). Yet Shapeshifter’s slippery spatial flows create a continuous territory out of conventionally discontinuous elements. In the design process, “absolutely everything on the site was conceived as originating from the same formal drive: the ground, the walls, the roof, everything,” Ogrydziak tells ARCHITECT. “So in this case, we emphasized this unity by using different materials in exactly the same way… . As a result, even quite different materials, like a meadow in the landscape versus zinc panels, share a consistent design language and conceptual simplicity.” In this way, the visitor can become familiar with the systematic logic of the work—a fundamental criterion for navigating a storyline—yet the architecture never lapses into predictability.
Another essential characteristic of a story is imbalance. The narrative must include core plot elements to be resolved—a struggle to overcome, a journey to be taken, or a necessary transformation of character. As its name suggests, the Vortex project illustrates architectural approaches for creating disequilibrium. The San Francisco residential loft is situated within a repurposed 1920s concrete garage, and the forward-thinking client challenged OPA to design a future-oriented space within this historic shell. "With the Vortex project, it actually took us a while to internalize our client’s dislike of symmetry,” Ogrydziak says. The architects eventually devised a conceptual strategy akin to inserting a sheet of paper into the space that they subsequently folded, twisted, and “spun” radially from the point of entry—a kind of inhabitable origami made of painted gypsum wall board that frames the vestibule, kitchen, and TV room. The construction of this multifaceted gyre presented construction difficulties, and some of the contractors OPA interviewed asserted the project was unbuildable. The selected foreman embraced the challenge, however, and claimed that by the end of the job he was “dreaming in triangles.” The result is a swirling collision of intentionally unresolved forms—a cyclonic white shroud encapsulated within a rugged concrete container.
Enigma is another fundamental feature of stories. The notion of uncertainty—a curious circumstance or a mystery to be investigated—captures the audience’s attention. Without some aspect of obscurity to spark one’s interest, there is no tale. OPA’s Hidden House does not disappoint in this regard. A row house for an artist and entrepreneur in the dense Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, Hidden House wears a cleverly designed veil. A rain screen of cedar slats unifies the composition of the entrance, garage door, and bay window. For the most part, the wood planks are oriented vertically as would be expected. However, in several places—the sides and base of the bay window as well as a triangular slit above the entrance—the slats “lift” away from the façade, rotating to a horizontal orientation to permit access to light and views from within.
Windows located just behind the planks are partially obscured, and the casual observer might miss their presence—yet once discovered, they offer additional clues of life within the residence. “The owners wanted a façade that was subtle and not ostentatious, something that allowed a lot of light into the house without sacrificing privacy,” Prillinger says. “And we felt that a strategic blankness would best relate to the eclectic context and render familiar traditional elements like the bay window strange.” Ogrydziak adds, “We thought of the cedar as a type of mask. If you squint, the project appears sensitive and contextual. But if you don’t squint, you realize there is more going on.” The transition between orientations required the addition of a transition element—something OPA calls a parametric “twist” piece—which the architects had digitally fabricated for purposes of precision. “These digitally milled elements add a sense of motion to the façade and also bring it into the contemporary moment, relieving it of some of the nostalgic craft references associated with wood construction,” Ogrydziak says. The detail also ensures the kind of unusual, high-level craft that invites up-close investigation once noticed—further enhancing the sense of intrigue imparted by the mask.
Architectural narrative has its limits. We experience a book differently from a building: one is linear and one is discontinuous, for starters. Temporality is also dissimilar. “In architecture the linearity of the narrative function dissolves as the spatial dimension interferes with time,” Coates writes. Nonetheless, by borrowing critical strategies of storytelling such as immersion, disparity, and mystery, OPA demonstrates that architecture can deliver a transformative, consciousness-elevating experience. “We try to make forms and environments that are ambiguous, or make us question our perception and expectations,” Prillinger says. “We like to orchestrate spaces that emphasize curving movement and shifting direction through swirling or mixing, moving users through orientations that are unfamiliar in architecture that is regimented by orthogonal geometries. There’s a richness and plurality of experience that we find in nature that we would like to approximate in architecture.”