The generational story – Architecture as Storytelling

Day breaks on another school day and I find myself dragging my seemingly lifeless body into the dimly lit kitchen as I prepare for another day of routines, getting my kids up, dressed, fed, and out the door.  Normally I drive my kids to school so that I can get a jump on the day in a quiet and empty office (so much is accomplished in silence).  Part of my drop off routine takes me though my neighborhood streets which are lined with suburban professionals waiting to catch the bus.  As I am driving past them I always notice that every bus stop is the same smartly dressed professionals keeping to themselves sheltered by their electronic shields and never interacting.  But there is one bus stop that always captivates me on my drive where one of those sharply dress men, which I am guessing late 60’s, holds a morning court with the other bus riders.  Daily the other smartly dressed men of various ages gather around this older man (who I have taken to calling “Bob”) to listen to what I can only imagine is a captivating tale of bravery and heroics in a time long before the electronic invasions.  I can only imagine this because the men are huddled around Bob many with the most genuine of smiles on their faces as Bob holds court.

I mention Bob because they say they best of stories are those that can stand through generations and always captivate their audience.  Those are the tales I imagine Bob telling to those smartly dressed men passing on the wisdom of his generation on to a new one to learn from and pass on again.

It is the generational aspect of storytelling that is most appealing to me.  In our profession; architects rarely ever design buildings with the notion that this is a building that will only last their lifetime.  We have the opportunity to set the stage for many life times of stories if we are lucky.  Recently, I completed the Annapolis Elementary School project, which for me was a nearly 5 year project to connect and revitalized two historic buildings that have spanned the course of three centuries. These buildings have been the setting for stories for thousands of lives for a better part of 118 years.   Over what feels like only a paragraph to the schools story many people that have shared their own stories of their time roaming the halls of the old elementary school and how these buildings have affected their own stories.  Like the school secretary whose grandfather was a student in the 1930’s when the school caught fire and was almost destroyed or when the 4th floor was removed to “modernize” the school in 1948. To the stories of the school before it was a school when the land was owned by the Carroll family whose most prominent member was one of the 4 signers of the Declaration of Independence from the Maryland colony.  Or the story of the adjacent building (which in now part of the school complex) was the site of a protest and legal suit for equal rights for black teachers in post-civil rights Maryland, which happened to be defended by a young Thurgood Marshall.

It was through these and many other stories that I began to realize how architects, even in a small way, become not only one that sets the stage of other peoples story, but also in some way become a participant in those stories.  At the ribbon cutting of the school I had the opportunity to lead a group of people through the school and by chance most were people who through the years had been students at the elementary school.  As we walked the old portions of the building they would stop and share memories of the classes had, friends met or teachers the loved and loathed. They said that they were amazed that even though the classrooms they once sat in looks new the character and feeling of the classrooms were still there.  It was upon hearing their stories that I realize that I was becoming not only a part of my own chapter of the story, but becoming a part of their chapter as well.  My hope is that the current 5th grade kids that are running through the halls of today will look back and tell the story of the time they were attending the school when those two old tired buildings were given a new lease on life and was happy to be a part of ushering a new era of the school and how they became a part of the story.  I also hope that my own children who join me in the morning routine (and visit the occasional jobsite) will one day see that what their daddy was doing was not only designing buildings but was helping write part of a story in someones life.

Sometimes architecture may only be the tiniest of parts of a story, where we may only be a marker in a set of directions, or an emphasis to a point made or even a simple trigger to a memory but it’s those parts that strengthen the story.  I wonder what the stories Bob tells at the bus stop are doing to strengthen those listeners story.

You can also follow along on Twitter by searching the hash tag #ArchiTalks.  

Follow the other #ArchiTalks participants and find out what is exciting to them:

Evan Troxel – Archispeak Podcast / TRXL @archispk and @etroxel –

Andrew Hawkins – Hawkins Architecture, Inc.
@hawkinsarch –

Nicholas Renard – Cote Renard Architecture
@coterenard –

Enoch Sears – Business of Architecture
@businessofarch –

Jeff Echols – Architect of the Internet
@jeff_echols –

Bob Borson – Life of An Architect
@bobborson –

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC
@L2DesignLLC –

Marica McKeel – Studio MM
@ArchitectMM –

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect
@LeeCalisti –

Matthew Stanfield – FiELD9: architecture
@FiELD9arch –

Mark R. LePage – Entrepreneur Architect
@EntreArchitect –

Collier Ward – Thousand Story Studio
@collier1960 –

Jeremiah Russell – r I one studio architecture @rogue_architect –

16 responses to “The generational story – Architecture as Storytelling

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  7. “We have the opportunity to set the stage for many life times of stories if we are lucky.” – This is what Architecture is about. Setting the stage for the story that plays out in and around it.


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  10. Cormac,
    I keyed on your stage-setting reference as Mathew did.
    Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage.” We get the privilege of setting the stage for humanity’s stories.
    Alvar Aalto declared that “True Architecture exists where man stands in the center – his comedy and tragedy both” – another reference to the stage.


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